My 15 year West Point reunion is coming up in two weeks! And as I was reconnecting with some old classmates, a story came up of our “early years.”
Here’s some context: in the year of 2000, there were no such things as ‘chemlight batteries’, or they were extremely rare. Chemlights are your glowsticks, red, green, yellow, blue, etc., that soldiers use in the military to signal or mark things/people at night. They are usually “activated” by breaking the smaller capsule within the glowstick, which mixes two chemicals to make them “glow.”
Back then, all chemlights operated this way... once you popped them, they were done. There were no electronic chemlights that ran on batteries. Nowadays, there are actually battery-operated chemlights that can be reused. (Yes. Mind-blown.)
Anyway, back to the story. I was a New Cadet during Beast training at West Point, and we were in the middle of our field exercises at Lake Frederick. My Squad Leader thought it would be hilarious to send a young, naive New Cadet in the hunt for a nonexistent piece of equipment: chemlight batteries.
And of course, he chose me. As we were getting in line for our field dinners, he yelled out, “New Cadet Kim! It’s getting dark soon, and our squad needs chemlight batteries. Go get them!”
“Yes, Sergeant!” I responded and immediately started running — I didn’t know where I was going. I just didn’t want to get yelled at any longer.
And I had no clue what I was looking for. I didn’t even know what chemlights were at the time. It was my first time sleeping outdoors (New Jersey kid), and I just wanted to get some dinner after an exhausting day and kick my feet up! But now, I was on the hunt for this imaginary thing with the highest sense of urgency…
After an hour or so, I was sweating profusely and stressed the hell out. I was going to just quit, skip dinner altogether, and just lie down in my half shelter (tent). As I was inching towards the entrance flaps of my tent, my Squad Leader saw me and called me over. He then pointed me to our Regimental Commander’s tent (the highest ranking senior Cadet who was overall responsible for the entire field exercise, with over 1,200+ cadets) and said, “Go ask the Regimental Commander there. He will surely know where they are.”
And off I went. I went straight up to his tent tried to “knock” three times on his tent flap. In my mind, I just wanted to find these damn batteries so I could join the rest of my squad and have some dinner and get some shut-eye.
[Knock, knock, knock] No response.
“Sir, do you have some chemlight batteries?” I asked meekly, to no one in particular.
I didn’t even realize that I was speaking into an empty tent. Just as I turned around, I was face-to-face with my Regimental Commander. Here I was, a frazzled, young, sweaty kid (with fogged up BCG goggles) randomly approaching the highest ranking cadet officer, for an imaginary piece of equipment. I blurted out, “Sir, can you show me where the chemlight batteries are?”
Unamused, he calmly responded, “Why are you looking for chemlight batteries?
“Sir, I don’t even know. My squad leader told me to get them.”
Then he told me something that I remember to this day.
“New Cadet Kim, you will be given a lot of orders throughout your Army career. Sometimes they will be confusing and perhaps not even make any sense. It is your duty to seek clarification and understand why you are given the task and understand the purpose of your mission.
Then, you must own your mission. There is no ‘I don’t know’ in combat. You will be responsible for everything your unit achieves or fails to do.”
He explained that there were no such things as chemlight batteries and that I should go back to my dinner. He then handed me a regular chemlight and said, “Here. This should do the trick.”
From someone only a few years older, I was taught this incredible lesson in leadership.
In any Army Mission Statement, there are two distinct parts: 1) a task and 2) a clear purpose. Your tasks may be very specific actions: block, attack, interdict, defend, secure, etc. etc., but these actions support a reason why you’re conducting that mission in the first place. What’s important is the clear purpose; tasks can change, as long as it achieves the purpose. Obviously, if you aren’t sure of either #1 or #2, you must have the courage to clarification!
Then — Own it. Whether you created that “mission” or received it from others. You take ownership and get it done. That is what leaders do at everything level.
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