Timeless Leadership Lessons from Bo Cox

Having been blessed with a veritable cascade of outstanding managers and leaders, mentors, in my career, one standout was Captain Bo Cox, Armor, U. S. Army. Bo was my first company commander when I was a young platoon leader in the 24th Infantry Division. Along with my fellow 2nd Lieutenants in C Company, 4/64 Armor, winning was expected, routine, and even fun under Bo’s (we called him Captain Cox, of course) leadership.

Bo was actually Carlisle B. Cox III, a third generation armor officer. Not a perfect man (who is?), Bo was 30, a little overweight, liked his beer, and was the biggest nicotine addict I have ever seen. Bo would dip Copenhagen smokeless tobacco in one cheek, stuff Days Work chewing tobacco in the other, and smoke a cigar…at the same time!! So, it would not be unusual to find his team of junior officers, all emulating our fearless leader, with chew stuffed in our cheeks and not a dry spot on the ground within six feet of where we were gathered.

Much of my foundation as a leader was formed by serving under Bo Cox, and much of what I do as a business leader everyday goes back to these examples he set:

Understand you have a serious responsibility, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

A company commander in the army has a great deal of responsibility in both peacetime and wartime. Care and accountability for equipment valued in the multi-millions, and responsibility for the discipline, development, well-being of 50 or 60 soldiers and junior officers fall on the Army’s company commanders. Even so, Bo was a man of good humor. Bo was confident in his abilities and talent, which meant he was secure enough to be himself. He was no poser.

Don’t jump to judgment.

A commander in the army has a great deal of power over subordinates. Understanding the gravity of his decisions, Bo made sure he got all the facts before passing judgment. He realized that one (or two, or three) people saying something doesn’t make it so. There are always multiple points-of-view to any situation. He had the maturity to know as fact that one can never really know another person’s motives and perspective. Bo based decisions on demonstrable facts alone.

Have compassion

I observed Bo make a decision that sent a soldier to jail. This soldier had a severe alcohol problem, and after several offenses was sent to “the brig”. Through this, Bo did not judge the person, only the offense. He sought multiple opportunities to get the soldier help.

My first platoon sergeant was a performance problem. Bo mentored me in the art of managing through performance problems, lessons that I have applied throughout my career. Most people, he taught, want to perform. He modeled that a leader must take the good with the bad in any person, making the most of the “good” and seeking to improve the “bad”.

Have courage

We didn’t go to war from 1983-1987 when I served, and that’s ok with me. I have no doubt that, had we gone to battle together, Bo would have been a model of physical courage.

However, I did see Bo model moral courage, stand up to politics, do the right thing when there was no immediate benefit to himself. He had a bias for principles of fairness and common sense, and would speak his mind, even to senior officers, when he saw those principles violated.

Show me, don’t tell me

In my experience, the U. S. Army is the ultimate meritocracy. Many of my colleagues got their commissions through the USMA at West Point. Many others, like me, were commissioned through a university ROTC program. A few came through Officer Candidate School. Bo didn’t care how we got there, he cared about demonstrated, measurable performance. “Talk is cheap”, he modeled. “Show me, don’t tell me”.

Deflect credit, accept blame

C Company was well trained, combat ready, and qualified to the highest standards. Whenever possible, Bo would deflect credit to his junior officers, NCO’s and soldiers. Likewise, he willingly took responsibility for mistakes. I never saw Bo throw anyone under the bus. Or the tank.

Timing is key

Bo always seemed to know when to praise, when to provide a kick to the rear, when to press, and when to give relief. A knack for timing is invaluable in leadership, whether one is leading a tank company, a business unit, a single subordinate, or a child.

On one occasion, I was complaining to Bo about something or another. He called me out for being a “whiner”. Because I knew how much mutual respect we had, and how invested he was in my development, that hit home hard. And I was being a “whiner”!

Have fun

Bo managed to inject fun into almost any situation. On one training exercise, we were moving our company of M60A3 tanks across a muddy field. By mid-afternoon, every tank was mired in mud up to the top of the tracks. Many commanders would have flipped out. Not Bo. He stood the company down for the night, and when the lowered temperatures firmed up the ground the next morning, we had “vehicle recovery” training.

It was a privilege to serve with an amazing group of combat-ready young officers. And we did have fun, working and playing hard, under Bo Cox’s direct leadership or influence.

There could not have been a better leader for such a formative period in my career than Carlisle B. Cox III. “Bo”.

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