It’s really a coincidence that the same two years of life, my Army years, produced my own personal examples of the best and worst leaders I ever knew. One of the best was 1st Sgt. Whatshisname. He was a great leader. And then there was Sgt. P.
Sgt P was a first-class jerk.
Since that time, I’ve know some pretty darn good leaders (met a few in the last few years) and I ran head first into a few REALLY bad ones back when I worked for the government of a "large northern industrial city." A city known for the automobile….
Anyway, I actually had pretty much forgotten about Sgt. P until a few months ago when I was walking through the Detroit Institute of Arts and someone yelled out my name.
"Hey, Closson!" said a loud voice that startled me out of my art-induced stupor.
I turned and there was my old Army buddy Joe Whitfield. I haven’t seen Whitfield for over 20 years and somehow he recognized me. He was one of my better friends in the Army, partially because we both came from Detroit. Like most people I knew two decades ago, we lost touch and I haven’t heard a word from him until that day.
So we shot the shizzy and I introduced him to my wife and we brought up names from the past until we got to Sgt. P.
"Sgt. P. What an ass."
We hated him. He was a jerk. A bully. The WORST leader I ever knew. I’m going to just use P, because it burns my fingers to type out his full name.
It’s funny how I can remember his name clearly. When it comes to the best leader I ever knew, 1st Sgt. Whatshisname, I draw a complete blank. Strange how our brain works.
Well, anyway, Whitfield and I got talking about Sgt P and how much we hated him. Then we recalled the day we beat Sgt. P at his own game. Here’s how it went down.
Sgt. P was harassing Whitfield late one night when Whitfield was set to go on guard duty. We used to pull 24-hour shifts on guard duty with 4 hours on, 4 hours off. So, on this particular night around midnight, Whitfield was getting his gear together for his next 4 hours on duty. For some reason, Sgt P decided to give Whitfield a hard time. He started yelling at Whitfield about his bed not being made (at midnight – who cares if a bed isn’t made at midnight?), about his helmet being dusty, about his boots not being shined….
Sgt. P kept at it until Whitfield had had enough. Whitfield basically snapped and told Sgt. P he was done getting treated like a house boy. He turned to his door, locked both of them in the room and then turned RUN DMC up on his stereo loud. Loud enough so that no one would hear what he was about to do.
He then got right in Sgt. P’s face, told him he’d had enough and said "Bring it on if you got it."
Guess what happened?
The big old bad Sgt. P, the bully who abused his power and enjoyed making others feel small, backed down. Yup, when the sawdust hit the floor, Sgt. P. folded like a crepe.
Well, the next day Whitfield was in deep do-do. By challenging Sgt. P. he had basically committed a crime in the Army’s eyes. Sgt. P. was a non-commissioned officer and Whitfield wasn’t. Whitfield was facing an Article 15. He was going to be demoted two ranks, lose half his pay for 45 days, and be under a strict curfew for another 45 days. Any breaking of the curfew meant jail time.
Whitfield was obviously very worried. He had no idea what to do. I thought about it for awhile and came up with a plan. We’d expose Sgt. P for the terrible leader he was. We’d get together other soldiers who Sgt P had unnecessarily harassed. We’d prove to our base leadership that Whitfield was driven to his actions. That he wasn’t a trouble maker. He was a good soldier driven to misconduct by an abusive leader.
It worked. We got together a group of soldiers and documented dates and times that Sgt. P had violated Army rules and abused his authority. We presented our case to our company commander and made it simple for him to understand. Drop the charges against Whitfield or we were going to press charges against Sgt. P for gross violations of his responsibilities and duties under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. All charges were dropped.
I’ll never forget how happy Whitfield was when he got the news. The next day we had a company picnic and I’ll never forget how Sgt. P kept to himself the entire time, sitting several hundred yards away from all of us. We laughed. You could see the steam rising from his head, even at that distance.
So that’s how it went down. Whitfield kept his rank, his pay and his freedom. Sgt. P kept on being a jerk until I left. My guess is he’s a first class jerk wherever he is today.
And what’s THE DIFF angle here? It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about standing up to bad people, even when they have rank and authority.
Malcolm X once said "wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it." I’ve always loved that quote. And I totally agree.
Sgt P was wrong. He mistook authority for power. He assumed his rank gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted. Whitfield proved him wrong.
True leadership and power isn’t granted or assigned. It’s earned.