In a military context, Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat provides an in-depth, detailed look at one young officer's rise through the ranks, learning the basic tools of leadership along the way. Learning leadership principles taken from a military context are some of the most important and hard-earned lessons available; the stakes of military service are far higher than any civilian setting, including the corporate sector, and so that lends the lessons learned from this book an added weight. When author James R. McDonough fails, lives are lost; while that is a very small possibility in the business world, this book still stresses just how important these aspects of leadership are. This book provides me with an incredible perspective on the leadership process; the platoon as a microcosm for leadership as a whole is very interesting to me. While any organization I lead will not have the hard, broken-down discipline of a military force, McDonough's struggles as a leader parallel my own at times - the uncertainty, the self-doubt, all are present in a new leader. With the help of his own experiences, I find myself being able to conquer these hesitations and lead with a stronger resolve.
The first leadership lesson I gleaned from the book is the concept of absolute responsibility for all who follow me. For good or ill, McDonough recognized that the burden of authority was on him for everything his soldiers did. When his men slaughtered villagers, he managed to quietly accept the fact that it occurred; however, it would not remove his own complicity and responsibility for those deaths. As a leader, the overall message to glean from this is to recognize that 'passing the buck' is unacceptable - you have to speak for your men no matter what. Even when they act without orders from you, you are held accountable for those actions. Any failure on their part constitutes a failure on your part to lead them effectively. While that may seem overly harsh, it is no less accurate; I plan on carrying that philosophy into my own leadership experiences.
The second leadership lesson obtained from Platoon Leader is grace under pressure. There are many instances where it seems as though McDonough is truly in dire straits; during his first patrols as platoon leader, he felt as though he was "along for the ride" (p. 47). He felt the same fears and reservations as his men; the difference was that they looked to him, and he could look to no one else but himself. The isolation of leadership was truly felt at that moment, and at times he felt ill-equipped to lead his men - he did not know the things he felt were expected of him to know. However, he moved in stride, and accepted the challenges before him. More so than anything else, his goal was to make sure that his men's trust in him was never sabotaged or damaged. In this situation, McDonough simply recognized he would have to learn as he went, while his men were none the wiser. I hope to never be in this situation; there is a great risk for mismanagement or fault when the leader is not properly educated or prepared for the situation ahead. Preparation is my primary means of combating this fear and uncertainty; however, if it does happen, I will do my best to maintain a sense of order within my leadership bubble as I pick up what I need to know.
The third and final large lesson I picked up from Platoon Leader was the notion of loyalty and camaraderie with those who follow me. Over the course of the book, McDonough forms very strong relationships with his men; while they are uncertain of him at first, he earns his place as their platoon leader, as well as their respect. This is cruelly evident in his final goodbyes to them; they all express genuine, heartfelt gratitude at the time they served with him, and he finds that he will miss them all. He even realizes that Killigan, another soldier who died under his command, leaves an indelible mark on him and the platoon as a whole. According to McDonough, "he was the platoon, epitomizing its resilience, its dedication, its complete commitment" (p. 242). This is evidence of his ability to bring them all together as an ensemble, a team, as opposed to a strict hierarchy. The things they were able to accomplish in Vietnam were due to not only his leadership, but his ability to create a sense of family and loyalty between his men. This is something I sincerely wish to instill in my own followers; if good spirits and positive attitudes are established, as well as a strong rapport, it can be that much easier to accomplish our goals and objectives.
In conclusion, the various leadership lessons learned from Platoon Leader by James R. McDonough include basic principles of accountability, responsibility and camaraderie. As a leader, I know I will have to be accountable for the actions, both good and bad, of the people I command. I also realize I will have to be responsible for their well-being, their sense of safety, and their trust in me; it is up to me to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to lead them effectively, and they must never think that I am incapable of leadership. Finally, a sense of loyalty and camaraderie must be established within the group if cooperation is going to be made as smooth as it can be. When everyone treats each other like family, and sentimentality is encouraged, people are willing to work harder and invest more of themselves in the work and the group. These principles have left me with a very strong impression of the things I need to do as a leader, and as a human being. I recognized that, like me, all leaders struggle to find their feet; in this way, I could recognize just how important it was to maintain order, decorum and calm. With these things in mind, I feel as though learning the military leadership experience has helped me enhance my own principles as a leader.