‘Train As You Fight’: Army’s Bravest Gives Advice on Leading

Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient in decades of the military’s highest honor, came to UT not to share war stories, but to talk about how tough it is to be a good leader.

Former Staff Sgt. Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor a little over a year ago for exemplary bravery in Afghanistan. He is the first living service member to receive the decoration since the Vietnam War.

Before Giunta came onstage, a video recreating the firefight in eastern Afghanistan which earned him the Medal of Honor was aired. Former members of his platoon were also interviewed about Giunta’s role. One by one, they echoed the same sentiment articulated by Spc. Christopher Izell: “For the rest of my life, I’ll think that I was with one of the great ones.”

In the Korengal Valley near the Afgahnistan-Pakistan border, known as the Valley of Death among the troops, former Sgt. Giunta’s platoon was returning to their combat outpost when insurgents ambushed them on Oct. 25, 2007. In the ensuing firefight, up to 15 attackers fired on them with AK-47s, PKM machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Giunta repeatedly charged through enemy fire to save two squad members and kept one of them from being carried off by insurgents.

Giunta spent little time discussing his combat experience and focused his speech instead on how the Army gave him direction and taught him about leadership. Before he joined the Army, he worked at a Subway sandwich shop and admitted he didn’t have much direction or knew what he wanted to do with himself after high school.

“I wasn’t a big fan of authority and standards when I was 18,” said Giunta. “I joined the Army because I wanted to spit, swear, and shoot guns. I was able to do that, and it was cool.”

Self-effacing and humble, Giunta made clear that he was a “simple man” who wore the Medal of Honor not for himself, but for his platoon and the rest of the service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This has nothing to do with Sal Giunta,” he said, pointing to the five-point gold Medal of Honor hanging around his neck. “It’s because of the lessons that were ingrained in me. That day what I did was not extraordinary, but what we expect our soldiers to do day in and day out.”

Although war and college seem incredibly distant from each other, the principles of success are the same for anyone, Giunta told the packed auditorium at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. If someone is trained well, they will absorb the lessons and be able to perform well.

“I’m a product of my environment,” said Giunta, who considers his former squad leader, Staff Sgt. Gallardo, one of his best leaders. “I followed in my leaders’ steps, and I took their guidance to heart.”

Over the hour, Giunta teased out lessons from his Army career that anyone could use in college or the corporate world:

Be transparent and take criticism. It’s the only way you’ll build team cohesion and become a better leader.

Be open to new ideas. Your team members can give you good ideas that may help make you and the group better. You’re not the top dog, and you may not be the leader tomorrow.

Set high standards. Make them high so team members have to work to reach them. His squad leader didn’t teach him skills for a junior rank, but taught him exactly what he did as a staff sergeant. Giunta said he couldn’t have done what he did without Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo’s lessons.

Understand who you’re leading. Some of your subordinates may understand something right away, others may need pictures or a noisemaker. You’re only as good as your team members.

Train as you fight. You can’t prepare for the day you’re going to need to be 100 percent if you haven’t practiced under the same conditions. There will be no other chance, no other redo.

Give 100 percent every day. It doesn’t matter how quick or smart you are, bullets don’t discriminate. It’s not only the old or drunk drivers who die every day, any second it could be you. Give 100 percent and make it productive every day. Otherwise, it’s your fault.

“I’m just an average person who gave 100 percent every day,” Giunta said, “and it changed my life.”

Giunta was the opening speaker for the 2012 Hatton W. Sumners Undergraduate Leadership Conference. The Center for Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Affairs brings students and educators to the university to help them develop their leadership potential.

Photo by Brian Birzer. Courtesy the College of Liberal Arts.


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