Iron sharpens Iron!

The 28th Infantry Division (28ID) is an Army National Guard Division of approximately 15,000 Soldiers distributed across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and neighboring states. Eighty-five percent of the Soldiers in the division are traditional guardsmen which means that along with their military responsibilities they also have full-time civilian jobs. 

When I took command of the 28ID, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, in September 2012 I had a specific vision in mind of how I wanted to lead the division and where I thought we could all move forward together as a unit.

With wars still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew that even if the 28ID did not deploy in its entirety, units from the division would certainly continue to deploy to extremely dangerous places. As the commanding general, I was ultimately responsible to ensure our Soldiers were fit, resilient, and well-trained in order to deploy to combat and successfully complete their mission and increase the probability of those Soldiers returning home alive.

I communicated a shared purpose and command guidance from both me and my command sergeant major, the division’s senior enlisted Soldier. I established nine “Iron Imperatives” that were essential for the division to achieve its goals.

I also wanted to inspire the division’s Soldiers with the honorable history of the division and with stories of the courage displayed by the division’s Soldiers during WWI, WWII, and the current fight in southwest Asia.

Past Influences Present and Future

Looking back on that history I wanted our Soldiers to remember that during WWI, in July 1918, after the 28ID defeated German forces in a bloody fight along the Marne River in France, General Pershing visited the battlefield and proclaimed that the 28ID was his “Iron Division.”

This name spoke exactly of the way I wanted our Soldiers to think of themselves – fit, resilient, well-trained, and undefeatable.  We established a procedure that when Soldiers saluted an officer they would sound off with, “Iron Soldiers!”, and the officers responded with a hearty, “Iron Division!”

The past does influence the present and the future. The emphasis on history and the mottos created “handles” that our Soldiers used to feel pride and gain the inspiration to work hard to achieve high states of readiness.  Our Soldiers felt they were serving for something greater than themselves and the legacy of past sacrifices guided our Soldiers to display the self-discipline necessary to train hard, even when on their own time.

Demonstrate Initiative

Another attribute I felt very strongly about was initiative at every level of leadership throughout the division. This was a result of my combat experience in Ramadi, Iraq. I saw during my time in Ramadi that it was essential that junior leaders demonstrate initiative in order to get ahead of the decision-making loop of our enemies.

I believed that if we did not encourage initiative in steady-state operations and training exercise, then subordinate leaders would not display the necessary level of initiative when in combat. I put out written guidance that I continually reinforced that stated that I believed demonstrating high levels of initiative was worth the risk of making honest mistakes.

After taking command I met with the 28ID staff and explained that we as a division headquarters had to be proficient at planning operations that our subordinate units, and ultimately the individual Soldiers would have to carry out.  The better our planning ability was, the more likely that we would achieve our mission with fewer casualties.

Therefore, I worked with my leadership team to develop tough and realistic training we would carry out as a division command and staff element. I announced to my full-time personnel serving at the division headquarters that I needed them to find exercises that we could sign up for in order to put stress on us and improve our ability to plan and then command and control operations.

One of the mid-level leaders on my staff displayed tremendous initiative and got our division into a large exercise occurring in France. This exercise provided an opportunity for the division headquarters to deploy over 500 Soldiers to Europe to participate in this large scale, high-visibility exercise. I was incredibly happy with the initiative this mid-level leader displayed. I was also very pleased that the training we received as a result of the exercise improved our combat readiness.

It was in France during the exercise that even my acting division chaplain demonstrated outstanding initiative. I knew we had hit a tipping point as I felt that everyone was getting on board with what I liked to call a “sheepdog” philosophy.

As I was traveling in a military vehicle from one training area to another along the rural roads in the Champagne region of France, the chaplain told me he wanted to propose a 28ID bible verse. This piqued my interest and I asked what he had in mind. The Chaplain answered with, “Proverbs 27:17. As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another.”

This was perfect. This bible verse described in a very concise way, many of the actions and principles I believed were necessary to enhance the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness of our Soldiers. It spoke of resiliency and how Soldiers helping one another would make the entire team get stronger.

As it turned out, this bible verse was another mantra that resonated with the division. It also became a verse I took with me after I left command of the division. “Iron sharpens Iron is something I have continually used to motivate myself and to inspire others.

I think the narrative of a lone wolf or a maverick is fiction. It takes a team to achieve success. A leader must be able to assemble a strong team around him or her in order to meet organizational objectives. Forming a diverse team with similar values and common purpose is essential. The right teammates will enhance each other’s strengths and make up for weaknesses.

Iron sharpens Iron!


Look for diversity when assembling a team. However, make sure the individual values of the team members align with organizational values.

Leaders should understand that past influences present and future.  Leverage the history of the organization in order to motivate and inspire followers to achieve future success.

Leaders should set left and right limits for the organization by articulating a shared purpose and imperatives the organization must focus on.

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