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How a green lieutenant earned his bars

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

As a new Marine Corps lieutenant, Peter Pace arrived in Vietnam just in time for the Tet Offensive, during which about 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters attacked 36 cities and towns in the early months of 1968.

Now a general, Pace tells two stories of how he developed as a leader. In the first case, he learned from his commander; in the second case, he learned from one of his men.

Story 1: Describing himself as a “scared puppy,” Pace was charged with leading an advance party in Hue, a dangerous area, when he came to a fork in the road. Pace radioed his commander for advice: Should he go left or right? “Left,” the captain barked.

Coming to a second fork, Pace asked again. On the third call, his commander reamed him out. Pace was a lieutenant. He needed to make his own decisions.

Pace never forgot that lesson. He resolved to err on the side of confidence and call the shots whenever he could.

“If you don’t want me to lead,” he thought, “you’ll have to come up here and stop me.”

Story 2: Reassigned to Da Nang, Pace’s platoon came under fire from snipers near a village and sustained its first casualty under Pace’s command: a 19-year-old from Bethpage, N.Y.

Pace was so infuriated that he called for an artillery barrage. But, as Pace gave the village’s coordinates, he caught a look from his platoon sergeant. The sergeant was on his second tour, and Pace trusted his judgment.

The sergeant’s look told Pace that he was about to do the wrong thing. Instead of blowing away the village, Pace led his platoon in and found only women and children.

Pace learned that day to know in advance how you’ll act in certain situations, instead of being swept by emotions. Luckily, Pace had a man he could trust.

—Adapted from Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, Michael Useem, Crown Business.

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