May 2016

My First Lesson in Leadership

by Rolly Dessert

I was standing in ranks on a hot, humid day at Fort Benning, Georgia with 200 plus Soldiers in training to be Infantry officers. It was June 1967 and we had been focused on physical fitness, tactics, and field craft. Maneuver drills in wooded terrain had resulted in sharper minds and stronger bodies. But some of us were demoralized about a critical issue — small food portions. The milk we received at meals had been reduced from two cartons to one, and the meat portions were also lacking. Something was wrong. We were at the best training center in the army of the richest nation in the world, and our food portions were insufficient. Some thought that cooks were pilfering food. Others made allegations of abusive treatment. Some had complained to the chain of command.

The squad and platoon leaders finished rendering reports when our commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram J. "Jack" Bishop, walked to the front and turned to face our formation. A fellow whispered, "He's the real deal — combat in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and six Purple Hearts." Bishop had a confident, commanding presence. He stared intently with piercing eyes, and began by commending our performance, in particular our physical fitness. Coming from the commander, this was high praise.

Then Bishop's tone changed, suggesting a sense of urgency, "Don't get complacent." He continued, "In less than a year you'll be in Vietnam facing a wily, cunning, and courageous enemy, the Viet Cong." He assessed the VC as mentally and physically tough, and quite formidable. He made a convincing case that, despite huge advantages in artillery and air support, we would only succeed in combat if we prevailed with infantry platoons of four ten-man squads. He was portraying a stark reality.

Then he surprised us. Holding up his right hand, cupped for all to see, Jack said, "Do you know that the VC lives on one cup of rice a day, an amount that fits in the palm of your hand?" He leveled with us, revealing that he had ordered the reduced food portions because he wanted us to be just as lean as the VC. He had seen in 1950, during the early days of the Korean War, how poor physical fitness resulted in a needless loss of life. Then it dawned on us. He was showing us how to lead – doing his best to get us ready for combat — by taking care of our welfare while completing the mission.

The lesson was powerful. Jack Bishop was holding himself directly accountable to the men he was entrusted to lead. The order may have originated at a higher command but rather than shift the blame to someone else, Jack owned the policy. His approach was to make us aware of our challenge, learn to embrace it, and reject a mindset of "things are happening to us." He was calling us to be single-minded about finding solutions in our training. He was asking us to transform our thinking to an attitude of "things will happen because of us." It was a lesson in accountability and the best I could hope to learn. The story does not stop there. Nor does the impact of Jack's lesson.

Jack Bishop was born in 1921, a child of the Great Depression, and had just three years of school when he rode the trains with hobos to Los Angeles. In 1937, Jack was homeless and on a street corner when a sergeant asked if he would like to enlist. When he heard that he would get clothes, three meals a day, a place to sleep and some training, Jack said, "Where do I place my X?" He could neither read nor write at the time, but rather than dwell on a desperate situation, Jack seized an opportunity. He moved up the ranks to sergeant despite being unable to read the training manuals. Jack volunteered for airborne training, served with the Army's finest paratroopers in World War II, and discovered his purpose — to lead Soldiers.

After the war, Bishop married Mary Rathbone who taught him to read and write. She must have seen that Jack had a passion for leadership, and an ability to persevere through the challenges. Mary's teaching paid off as Jack remained in the Army, completed his professional education, and retired as a colonel in 1978. Clearly, Jack Bishop was fueled by a strong desire to serve, and to "make things happen." He grew as a leader by working hard to overcome his limitations, and strengthening his capabilities and character. He never gave up investing in his own development as a leader. That is the most important lesson, and one that we can all take to heart.

Rolly Dessert, a 1972 graduate of West Point, retired after a career in the US Army. He is affiliated with Academy Leadership where he facilitates leadership training and executive coaching. He also facilitates the Gettysburg Leadership Experience in which the Civil War battlefield is a metaphor for leadership lessons that apply to the modern business leaders.