DJs, Rock and Roll and the Club: A Test of Leadership

  • Published
  • By Professor Gene Kamena
  • Air War College
The officers' club, or O'Club, in Aschaffenburg, Germany, was the focal point for social and professional gatherings. It was ideally located among unit barracks and family housing areas. The building containing the O'Club was large and impressive. It had once been the O'Club for the German army, and if one looked closely, one could still discern impressions of swastikas on the walls. In 1986, the year the club burned to the ground, this grand building served as the O'Club for the American army.

In 1986, the "Cottonbalers" of the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment were stationed in Aschaffenburg, Germany. I was in command of its Headquarters and Headquarters Company, or HHC.

An HHC is a large company consisting of roughly 350 Soldiers, including cooks, medics, the battalion staff, (even the battalion commander was assigned to the company), all the maintenance functions, the support platoon and battalion scouts.

The men serving in HHC were a mixed bag of Soldiers, supporters and administrators, not known for iron discipline while in garrison. As a line company commander, when discipline was found wanting, I ordered the entire company to the field for a week or so until standards were re-established. This technique was not possible with an HHC because the Soldiers performed support duties in garrison. The medics conducted sick call, the cooks cooked, the mechanics repaired vehicles, the staff worked for people who outranked me and so on.

Several weeks after the club fire, agents from the local Criminal Investigations Division, or CID, came into my office and informed me that they suspected two Soldiers from the support platoon in my company of setting fire to the club.

The CID agents revealed that the two Soldiers in question had worked part time at the club, without informing their chain of command, as disc jockeys. They must have really liked the club's DJ equipment, because they decided to steal the equipment and set fire to the club to destroy any evidence of the theft. The CID agents conducted a search, with my permission, and found the stolen items in the Soldiers' room with serial numbers still intact. Confessions were forthcoming a short time later.

When the details of case came to light, I received a lot of help from everyone in my chain of command. My very survival as a commander was in question for a time, but survive I did, with the help of a couple of senior officers who went to bat for me and for the company. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, time and distance, I would like to highlight some leadership lessons:

· Know your people. It is a leader's job to know his people, to know how they live and what they do on and off duty. HHC was a large company, but that is an excuse and not a valid reason for not knowing what was going on in the lives of two people who worked for me. A leader, however, cannot be intrusive into the personal lives of their people, but leaders know how their people live, and what their people do, on and off duty.

· Be prepared to be fired. I was responsible for the actions of my Soldiers. Nowhere in the assumption of command orders is there a clause that states command is fair. Do your best, make things happen, but always be prepared to be fired. Remember, it is not your command. It belongs to the nation.

· A commander is responsible for everyone in the command, even people who make mistakes like burning down the O'Club. During the trial and afterward, I was still the commander of the two Soldiers who burned down the club. It was my job to ensure that they received a fair trial and due process. My leadership responsibility ended only after they were transferred to the prison at Fort Leavenworth.

· Provide top cover for subordinate leaders. Two senior officers in my chain of command took the risk of providing top cover to me and for the Soldiers in my command. They had nothing to gain by doing so, but they were leaders of integrity. Remembering what those leaders did, I have made it a point to provide top cover to subordinates. Good leaders assume risk and ensure subordinates have a chance to learn and grow.