In many military, fire, and law enforcement tragedy events, we can find deviation from basic principles as a common denominator in the after-action reports. Similarly, as a young US Marine platoon commander and executive officer in 2018, my biggest leadership failures were a result of deviation from Leadership 101. The disasters occur when we decide that we are way beyond the basics and those foundational tenets are for the rookies.
The Marine Corps rams leadership down the throats of officer candidates and new lieutenants. We have fourteen leadership principles. We have eleven leadership traits. We have five horizontal themes. We have Latin phrases such as Ductus Exemplo (Leadership by Example). But I was a First Lieutenant just back from Japanistan, that shit was for the rookies.
Our new battalion commander was a tyrant, and a running joke in the battalion. He would cry during battalion formations one day and show up to personally knife-hand Lance Corporals and Staff NCOs alike on other days. He was strict on uniforms and fanatical about measuring the headings on PowerPoints. He seemed lost in the field. He fired his officers left and right and we all walked on eggshells. I made a bingo card of his most common odd utterances that I used with my Marines during battalion formations. Bitching about the battalion commander became a default means to establish a bond with others and I made many bonds. He threatened to fire officers with mustaches, so while attached to another battalion, I grew one. He was fired by the division commander before he had a chance to fire me for mine. So I had won, right?
His relief was celebrated, at first. But the black cloud and back stabbing that he had brought to the battalion remained. The buses bumped violently from the number of Marines tossed under it. Different subordinate units refused to communicate openly. Subordinate unit leaders undermined their leaders behind their backs. I had helped lead the charge and to set the example for this. Ductus Exemplo.
Our Lieutenant Colonel, despite being a caricature of himself, was passionate and held high standards. I had failed to see that his failure or success, and the failure and success of the battalion were inextricably linked. I imagine that as a Lieutenant Colonel, it can be rare to receive honest feedback, or genuine questions. I can only imagine because I never tried giving that feedback or asking those questions. Is it realistic for a Lieutenant to walk into a battalion commander’s office and relate to him the frustrations within his unit that he may not be aware of? Surely there’s a reason that tact is one of the fourteen leadership traits. Could I have tried this before undermining him in front of my Marines? Absolutely. Could it have cost me my job? Possibly, but the military is one of the few places where those that are fired still collect paychecks. It was my responsibility as a leader to assume that risk.
My Marines were miserable, and my jokes and commiserating about the BC made them laugh. In my mind, I was being loyal to my Marines and sticking up for them. Loyalty is another one of those fourteen leadership traits. And it encompasses loyalty to my leadership and to the team, not just to my Marines, whom I genuinely care about.
What would real loyalty have looked like? I can’t help but wonder if my LtCol was a well-meaning man who was simply unaware of what was happening in his battalion. I assume that he was. With this being the case, an example of loyalty would have been to let him know that his orders were not understood and frustrated us. From this conversation, I could have either given him valuable feedback and clarified confusing orders. Using this clarification, I could have used my position to communicate his intent to my Marines. By maintaining a calm and inquisitive demeanor and by eliminating confusion, I could have set an example for my Marines, were they to encounter a similar scenario. The Marine Corps teaches understanding and relaying of intent. But again, that shit was for the rookies.
Several months after the relief, I was assigned as an executive officer, alongside my peer, who would command the company until a new Captain arrived. I was to be his right-hand man, and I chafed right away at his condescension, arrogance, and sense of superiority. He gave an order that, while legal, was ridiculous and potentially detrimental to the promotion of some Marines. I made fighting this order my hill to die on.
Outwardly, I was sticking up for the men, but I think my bigger motivation was sticking it to my peer. I refused to obey his order and was quietly transferred to another company a few weeks later. In my mind, I had made myself a martyr by standing up and getting fired. I received outward approval from the Marines in the company. Again, I had won, right?
Now the company that I loved was watching their leadership fight amongst themselves, and I was no longer in my XO position to be able to sanity-check the commander’s decisions. Oddly enough, in the two weeks after the debacle, and after all my frustrations were laid out on the table in the showdown, we came together as a highly functioning team. My peer began to involve me in the decision-making process. We worked together to make plans and to delegate tasks. We had mutual understanding and respect. It almost seemed like expressing my frustrations tactfully before the showdown could have prevented the debacle and given our Marines the cogent leadership they deserved. Unfortunately, “I’ll turn your ribcage inside out” is not a tactful segway into conflict resolution, and I had put my ego and emotions ahead of my responsibilities to the unit, to my Marines, and to my leadership once again.
From this, I took away a few key points.
Assume that people are doing their best and that the choices they make are well-intentioned.
It may not always be true, but without this assumption, we do a poor job of seeking understanding and open communication. Giving this grace to others also gives them the ability to give it to you. If there is confusion or frustration about a situation, it is our responsibility as leaders to bring it up and make it known to our leadership. More aware leadership benefits everyone. This is simple, but even self-proclaimed warfighters cower at the prospect of a difficult conversation.
Separate emotion and intellect.
I give great dating advice to others, but I don’t heed my own advice well. This is because when I am emotionally involved, it is hard to assess clearly. It helps me to imagine my frustrations and problems as someone else’s instead of mine. This way, I can logically and intellectually assess.
Loyalty to my Marines is not the same as being their friend.
Loyalty includes loyalty down, up, and laterally across the chain of command. If my leadership fails, my Marines will also suffer. I can best serve them by doing my best to help the entire team succeed. Personal petty grievances be damned.
Apply what you’re taught.
Marine Corps leadership teachings, principles, and traits are based on case studies and years of failures. Like the weapon safety rules, they are also redundant. I didn’t need to cross-check my actions with a printout of the leadership traits. I could simply have asked myself what I could do to be loyal, to exercise good judgment, to be tactful, to have moral courage, and the outcome could have been very different.
In recent years, I have applied what I learned from these failures. I voiced frustrations and resentment instead of letting things fester. I sought to better understand the decisions of my leaders. By giving them grace, I received it back. Every difficult conversation resulted in a handshake, a stronger team, and greater mutual respect. From these events, we became the highest-performing teams I have had the privilege to be on. My biggest leadership failures as a Marine were fumbles of some of my biggest leadership opportunities.