How to Get Kicked Out of Leadership School: The Spotlight Leader

Do you have what it takes to get through the Army’s toughest leadership school?

Those who attend the U.S. Army’s Ranger School prepare months in advance in the attempt to pass this grueling leadership course.  Even so, the failure rate is high – anywhere from 40-60% of this select group still don’t make the grade for a wide variety of reasons.

One way to get kicked out is to be a “Spotlight Leader.”  Today we’ll talk about what spotlight leadership is, and what you need to understand about it so that you don’t get “kicked out” of whatever leadership experience you are on.

The Spotlight Leader

Ranger School

The U.S. Army’s Ranger School has been called “the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school the Army has to offer.”  It’s purpose is to increase technical competency, tactical skill, and leadership ability for Soldiers who are expected to be able to endure and lead successfully under extremely stressful conditions.

To produce a stressful environment to train in, students are given only one or two meals a day, two to four hours of sleep, and are in a state of nearly continuous physical exertion for over 60 days.  They train in the mountains, jungle, urban environment, and sometimes in the desert, too.  They must be able to function effectively in all climates and all weather conditions.

Under these circumstances they are given increasingly difficult and complex tasks they must accomplish as a team on a tight time line.  It’s a pressure cooker that demands unquestioning trust, clear delegation, and solid teamwork to survive; it demands leadership.

In the Ranger Course, everyone takes turns leading everyone else.  And while you are in charge, you are being evaluated and graded by Ranger Instructors (RIs).  Pass enough leadership positions and you get to move to the next phase – from City to Mountain to Desert to Jungle.  Pass all phases and you get to graduate.

If you fail to measure up, you can either choose to quit, or re-do the phase you are in until you get it right.

Spotlight Leader

I can’t remember his name any more, but we had a spotlight leader on our team for sure.  That’s not a good thing. He was a selfish pretender.

Like the rest of us, this guy wanted to pass the course, but he was doing it wrong.

When the RIs were around and it was his turn in a leadership position, he knew he was under the spotlight, so he did his best to look the part of a leader.  He was sure to be everywhere, checking on people, inspecting gear, issuing orders, making demands.  He did everything necessary to make sure he looked good.  It was a great show if you were watching.

But the moment it wasn’t his turn to lead, or whenever the RIs were out of sight, the spotlight was off, and he became a different person.  He was the slowest to get ready, the last one to get moving.  He’d be eating instead of maintaining his equipment, sleeping when he should be on guard.  And don’t bother asking him to do anything for the team; he already has his excuse ready.  He did the absolute minimum possible to get by.

Clearly this guy was not a team player.  He wasn’t there to help others succeed; his actions actually made it more difficult for others when it was their turn to lead.  He was only in it for himself.  He was like a boat anchor for our team: a Spotlight Leader.

The RIs didn’t always see through these charades, though they knew it happened from time to time.  Fortunately, Ranger School had a handy little system to help identify and weed out these “Spotlight Rangers.”

Peer Evaluations

After each phase, everyone has to sit down and fill out an evaluation card on all his teammates.  This includes ranking everyone in order as a team player.  The cards get turned in and tallied up by the RIs.  Anyone getting a consistently low score by the majority of his peers has failed the peer evaluation.  He’s not pulling his weight; he’s not trusted.  He needs to go.

Just to make sure there isn’t unfair bias, that person gets another chance – they move him to another group.  If it happens again, the RIs can be certain they have a “Spotlight Ranger” on their hands.  In most cases, he is removed from the course.

I’m sure our guy didn’t fare well on the peer evaluations; he passed his leadership positions, but disappeared at the end of mountain phase when the rest of us went to the desert.

Spotlight Leadership – the Takeaway

If you want to lead, there must be mutual trust between you and your team.  If you want trust, your words and actions have to be consistent, and they have to be focused on the success of the team and its mission.

To lead, there must be trust. Click To Tweet

If it appears that you are putting your personal interests ahead of the team, or that you do what is right only when you think people are watching, than your teammates are going to suspect that maybe they have a spotlight leader on their hands.

Integrity is doing what is right even when you think no one is watching. Click To Tweet

Most places don’t have a formal peer evaluation system in place like the one at Ranger School.  But you can be sure that your teammates are still filling out that assessment sheet in their minds.  They are asking questions like these:

Are you someone who will step up to help when the going gets a little tough?
Will you make the extra effort to help someone on the team succeed?
Can you be trusted to do your job well, even when no one is looking?
Do you promise only what you know you can deliver, and deliver it every time?
Do you pass credit to those who earned it?
Are you there when your teammates need you?

If you can honestly say yes to these kinds of questions, then there is a good chance that you are passing the test.

If you can say yes, you are building trust.

If you can say yes, regardless of the position you fill, you are a leader.

A good leader is the same person whether or not the spotlight is shining. Click To Tweet

I’m glad to report that the vast majority of students consistently made the right choices – the ones that benefited their team, even if it came at a personal sacrifice. Whether or not the spotlight was on them.

That’s what good teammates and good leaders do.  That’s the whole point.

Whatever you and your team are charged with doing, the idea is the same.

Whether the spotlight is on or not, if your words and actions consistently support the team and its goals, you are not likely to get kicked out any time soon!

Lead on!

Note:   Less than 1% of students annually are kicked out of Ranger School due to Peer Evaluations.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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