Whether you are a light infantry platoon leader in the U.S. Army, a senior enlisted squad leader in the U.S. Marines, or the fire officer in charge of a four-person fire engine in some medium-sized midwestern American city, you have a substantial weight of responsibility proverbially pressing down on your shoulders. Someone, somewhere — for reasons hopefully not unbeknownst to you — has deemed that you are competent enough to lead a small operational unit or element within one of the military branches, a municipal or wildland fire department, or any number of other similar organizations.
If you are at all a conscientious leader, and most that have reached such a position likely ARE to at least some degree, then when the tones drop, or the ballon goes up, or the FRAGO arrives, you immediately start thinking to yourself, “okay, what do we need to do here?” Operating guidelines, rules of engagement, standard operating procedures, or tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) start to crowd into your brain while you simultaneously prepare your individual gear and equipment.
No longer do you have the luxury of being only concerned with performing your individual tasks, although those too remain, but you must also effectively lead this small unit to accomplish whatever mission, task, or operation you have been assigned. Well, fear not. When the time comes to execute, there are really only five fundamental tasks that you as the leader need to accomplish. Do these five things well, and your chances of success go way up (barring other unforeseen circumstances out of your control, of course).
Now, this guidance presumes a level of training and preparation on the back end. I am assuming that you have effectively trained and prepared a competent unit. It will be hard to overcome deficiencies in training, gear, equipment, or knowledge of TTPs and operating guidelines. Those things must be drilled into the unit long before the time comes to operate. However, assuming you have fulfilled that fundamental leadership requirement, once you are given the “GO,” you need only do these below five things to increase your odds of mission success.
1. Maintain Accountability.
Your most important responsibility is to those under your command. You need to make sure they get the job done, sure, but you also need to make sure they go home. Accounting for all your people during any operation, incident, or mission should always be in the front of your mind. Know where everyone is at all times, what task they have been assigned, and what their needs are. They might not always tell you they need help, or a certain piece of gear, or guidance, but it is your job to recognize it when they do. At the end of the day, everyone goes home. That’s your goal.
2. Formulate the Operational Plan.
When given a mission, or when responding to some sort of incident, you have to immediately formulate a plan. It may be that the operation or incident is “routine,” in that you have responded to similar incidents or executed similar missions, numerous times in the recent past. That only matters in that you will likely more quickly formulate the plan in question. You still need one, though, and you still need to make sure you are seeking and receiving input from those in your unit with something of value to add.
The brand new guy or girl might not have much to add (or they might!), but the seasoned veteran on the crew, or in the squad or platoon, almost certainly does. If you are a good leader, you are seeking input and thoughts from those who can provide it. Once you have, formulate a plan, communicate it to the unit, and give assignments. Failure to do so will almost certainly always result in ineffectiveness, confusion, and/or possibly partial or complete operational failure.
As a small unit leader, one of your most critical tasks is communicating up and down the chain of command. Not only do you need to communicate to your people what it is they need to accomplish, but you also need to send updates up the chain to keep command apprised of your needs, progress, and situation.
You need to provide confirmation that you have hit benchmarks, received orders, acknowledged changes in the plan, and completed your assignment or task. If the larger overall operation is to succeed, command needs an accurate picture of what is happening. Without you effectively communicating, that will be impossible.
So, you have formulated the plan, communicated it to your people, and you are doing a good job of maintaining accountability of the unit. At times, you might actually have to “lead,” in the sense of motivating this unit to act toward achieving the goal or accomplishing the mission/task. This is one of the most nebulous concepts to master, notwithstanding the millions of pages of literature no doubt dedicated to the subject over centuries.
This is what they are really paying you the big bucks for. This is where you have to earn your keep. This is why you get to wear the bars, or the red helmet, or the chevrons. In an ideal world, your unit will get the job done with minimal leadership on your part. They will know their respective jobs and do them well. If not, though, it is your job to recognize when it is happening, and how to correct it. It is one of the most important jobs you will have in an operation, on the fire ground, or on the battlefield.
5. Complete the Task/Assignment.
Finally, when it all comes down to it, and all is said and done, you and your unit have one job: accomplish whatever task or mission has been assigned to you. Maybe your unit has been given THE mission (think the UBL raid). Or, maybe you have been assigned one small part of a larger operation (think securing a particular beach on D-Day, or completing primary search of a burning house). Whatever the case may be, command is counting on you to receive the assignment, understand it, and accomplish it with the resources you have on hand (or to ask for more if you need more). Don’t let them down. Do what you have to do. Finish the job.
That’s it. Simple, right? Those are the five tasks that your higher ups are going to expect you to perform every single time they call on you and your unit to do its job. You make sure you do those things, and your odds of success are far better than even.
Good luck out there.