More Leaders Need to Get Punched in the Face

Courtesy of United States Army

Originally Written by Michael S. Burke

Okay, I know I this isn’t my content, but it’s too good not to share. I hope that it brings you as much meaning as it did to me. With COVID-19 affecting everyone’s world, this is the first time in a while that a new entrepreneur has had to deal with something of this magnitude.

“Kick his ass!” was one of the multiple jeers I heard through the litany of
booing as I stepped on the mat at Dragoon Fight Night, the 2d Cavalry
Regiment’s combative showcase. A few weeks prior, I had posted a video on
social media to over 4,000 Dragoons challenging any Soldier to fight their
Command Sergeant Major. My opponent, Sergeant Zach Morrow, stood across the ring, he was 50 pounds heavier, nearly 20 years younger, and had a cage
fighting record. I was about to be punched in the face.

Getting punched in the face is exactly what I needed and what the 700 people
in attendance and those watching online needed to see. Often young leaders
hear, “Never ask Soldiers to do something you are not willing to do,” but
how do leaders, echelons above the most junior Soldiers on the front line,
demonstrate this?

As NCOs and officers move up in positions the number of opportunities to
exhibit leadership by example diminishes. Getting past the fear of failure,
identifying opportunities to highlight priorities with action, and
understanding Soldiers are always watching their leaders provides us the
chance to inspire and positively impact the formation.

As leaders, we cannot be afraid of failure. When Sergeant Morrow approached me about my challenge, I knew the odds were against me. I was overmatched and fully understood I could be twisted into a pretzel or even worse, knocked out in front of my entire formation. But why shouldn’t I step into the ring? I didn’t make it to this position without losing a few battles or
failing occasionally. Fear of defeat or failure cannot dissuade leaders from
setting the example, it should inspire them to be better!

Recently, two majors in the 2d Cavalry Regiment attempted to get their
Expert Soldier Badge (ESB). As they passed event after event the staff
buzzed with excitement. Here were two staff primary officers who had taken
time out of their schedule, risking failure to earn something they didn’t
even need. They accepted risk and delegated responsibilities to ensure they
could accept a challenge. Even after they failed on the third day of
testing, their peers and subordinates saw them with a level of respect and

It would have been easier for those officers to avoid a challenge or risk of
failure using busy work schedules as an excuse. Their evaluations were
already written by their senior rater at that point. But they stepped in the
ring and took a punch in the face earning respect and loyalty of their
Soldiers even in failure. Any leader taking a risk and puts their
reputation on the line is more inspirational than one who just shakes
Soldiers’ hands after a fight.

There are many ways officers and NCOs can set the example at all echelons of
leadership. As leaders accept challenges, it provides them with an
opportunity to highlight command emphasis. Command Sgt. Maj. Robert
Fortenberry (United States Army Infantry School) earned his Ranger Tab
between battalion and brigade command. It echoed the importance his command team placed on the fundamentals and leadership lessons all Soldiers, regardless of rank, can learn at Ranger School.

Recently, Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Lopez (Brigade Support Battalion, 82nd
Airborne Division) earned his ESB. He didn’t need it for a promotion or
another badge on his chest. By earning it, he demonstrated to the NCOs and
Soldiers the ESB is important and if he is willing to take a figurative
punch in the face, so should every subordinate below him.

Soldiers always watch their leaders. They see the ones who “workout on their
own” instead of joining them for challenging physical fitness training.
Soldiers notice leaders who are always in their office while they face blistering wind during weekly command maintenance in January or scorching
heat during tactical drills in July. In addition, senior leaders have fewer
chances to lead from the front. They must actively look for opportunities to
get punched in the face.

After three brutal rounds, Sergeant Morrow connected with a perfect strike
to my upper eye. While the physician assistance superglued my eyebrow back
together an unsettling quietness took over the gym. When I stepped back onto
the mat the crowd erupted, it wasn’t about the Sergeant Major getting his
“ass kicked” it was about a leader who accepted a challenge and wouldn’t
quit or accept defeat. A few minutes later, I stood beside Sergeant Morrow,
the referee raised his hand. The standing ovation was the loudest of the
evening. The audience didn’t care their Command Sergeant Major was
defeated, they were excited to see a good fight and a leader enter the ring
and take a punch to the face.

Michael S. Burke is the 2d Cavalry Regimental Command Sergeant Major at Rose Barracks Germany. He has 14 combat deployments as a part of 2d Ranger Battalion and served as a ROTC instructor at the University of Washington. He hosts a weekly podcast about leadership titled “Kill Tank Radio.” The views expressed in the article do not reflect official policy or position of the Department of Defense or US Government.

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