A Military Success Story: From Bad Soldier to Superstar

During my time in Company Command, I had a new Soldier assigned to my unit.

She had recently left the Active Duty Army and transitioned to the IRR.

After spending a few months in the IRR, she joined the National Guard.

Once she appeared on our Unit Manning Report, we gave her a call and sent her a drill schedule.

For the next three months, she never came to drill.

We sent the AWOL letters, called her at home, sent “recovery teams” and a variety of other things to get her to show up for training.

On about the fourth month, she finally showed up for training.

As her commander, I sat down with her and told her that I was very disappointed with her performance and that I knew she could do better.

I asked her “why” she hadn’t come to drill, and she shared some of the hardships she was going through.

And, I sympathized with her, but also told her it was my job to enforce the standards.

I reduced her in rank from SPC to PFC.

But, I tried to do that without “crushing her ego” or making her feel like a complete failure.

I told her that she was capable of much more and that if she improved her performance, I would be glad to promote her back to the rank of SPC as soon as possible.

She looked me in the eye and told me she would do her best.

I ended up finishing my time in command about six months later.

She did get her SPC rank back before I left.

A couple days ago (almost 2 years later from when she was demoted) I got a call from one of my former subordinate leaders that this Soldier was recently promoted to SGT, that she earned an AGR position, and that she was quite perhaps the most squared away Soldier in the unit.

UPDATE: She is now a SSG and she has a very bright future ahead of her.

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I think there are a few lessons we can learn from this story.

Lesson # 1: As a leader we must hold people accountable to the standards.

I honestly believe that everyone wants to be held accountable to the Army standard, even if it negatively affects them.

Personally, I would much rather follow a leader that sets a good example and enforces the standards, than someone that doesn’t have standards at all.

You must “enforce the standards” equally with all of your followers.

However, it’s how you do that which will ultimately determine whether or not it is an effective measure.

Ultimately, you want to try and let the person save face, and let them know they are capable of much more.

You want them to know that you are punishing their behavior, not them personally.

Lesson # 2: Look for the good in everyone.

Everyone has “greatness” within them.

Sometimes people are just going through tough times.

Financial issues, marital hardships, unemployment and other things can affect the performance of your Soldiers.

Remember, even your good Soldiers will have bad days from time to time.

It’s much more effective to get good performance from folks by recognizing good behavior than it is to solely punish poor behavior.  

If you only focus on the negative you will attract more negative.

Lesson # 3: Everyone deserves a second chance.

Now, I’m not saying I believe in the “No Soldier left behind program,” but I am saying that people deserve a second chance.

Everyone is bound to make a mistake now and then.

I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself during my life.

Sure, some mistakes are more forgivable than others.

But, if the mistake isn’t something major, unethical, or scandalous, you might want to consider giving the person a second chance.

Lesson # 4: People often rise to the level of expectation you place on them.

This is so true.

I was a dirt-bag 2LT until I was fortunate to have a great Battalion Commander who saw the potential in me.

He told me I was capable of great things, and he expected me to perform like a superstar.

As a result of his belief in me, I rose to the level of expectations he placed on me.

To this day, some 10 years later, I still try to maintain those high expectations and standards.

If you expect your Soldiers to give you problems or do the bare bones minimum, that’s what you will get.

You get what you focus on!

Lesson # 5: Everyone is capable of doing good and bad things.

That’s right; everyone has a good side and a bad side.

Sometimes your best people will disappoint you from time-to-time.

After all, we are all imperfect human beings.

Final Thoughts

I hope the lessons from this story help you become a better leader and person.  And remember, if you have some “bad Soldiers” under your authority, there is hope.

If you are a good leader, and you can follow the advice in this post, there is a good chance some of your bad Soldiers will one day be good Soldiers.

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever seen a bad Soldier do a complete 180 and become a superstar?

Maybe you were once a “bad soldier.”  If so, leave a comment below to share your story.  I look forward to hearing from you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)
Publisher, Part-Time-Commander.com
Email: mrchuckholmes@gmail.com

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6 thoughts on “A Military Success Story: From Bad Soldier to Superstar”

  1. I would say 80% of all personnel only need a little guidance from their superiors. Maybe 5% need no guidance at all. 5% need heavy guidance (as in the above story) and then there is the final 5%. There are some people that will never be reached. They might not be discharged but they will always ride right at the bottom of your unit.
    Always do your due diligence in trying to guide their careers, but realized at the end of the day it is their decision to make it or not make it.

  2. This was a great story of true leadership Chuck. From what I have read, you sure grew a lot, and you passed that growth along to this soldier.

    It just came down to a tough stance. Tough, but fair! You explained your position and you explained the approach for her to solve it. By making it clear and precise, she had no reason not to follow the steps. In the whole time, you didn’t “come off” as a jerk, but a leader who cared.

    I commend you, and if you ever talk with her, I commend her for admitting the mistake and rising above and beyond.

    Great job of leadership!

  3. Just about any soldier can be “turned around” with the right leadership. Many bad soldiers really have the potential to do something great, but they’ve never had good leadership. It’s really sad. Of course, there are still some bad apples that can never be rehabilitated, but most bad Soldiers can be turned around.

  4. I love this story. We should not be afraid to tell people they can do better. The essence of leadership is getting those you lead to perform at their best. I think sometimes it can be hard for some people to perform at their best because they are actually afraid of being a superstar and getting the recognition. Sounds strange, but I have known several women who are like this.

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