Monday, February 27, 2012

When are you ready to lead?
Recently a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant's question on a Linkedin discussion board, drew a considerable amount of discussion.  This guy was one from the latest OCS class to graduate from  Quantico and was awaiting the beginning of TBS (The Basic School) a 6 month training program that teaches new Marine officers the fundamentals of the Marine Corps infantry, structure, weapons, skills, etc. before they are further trained in their military occupational specialty school.  This essential training pairs people together to receive foundational hands on practical learning of what life in the infantry is like.  For graduates of law schools who have joined the USMC on a contract to join the JAG corps, or aeronautical engineers who joined the Marines on a contract to attend flight school, or others whose ambitions are to learn a valuable specialized skill in air traffic control, cryptologic communications, classified material or intelligence administration, logistics, aircraft maintenance or mechanical maintenance of ground vehicles including tanks, amphibious vehicles or other light armored assault vehicles, the mission of the infantry is an arduous, difficult and physically demanding lifestyle which is focused and centered around developing the tactics, techniques and strategies of warfighting with boots on the ground, fingers on triggers shooting things or plotting to destroy the enemy and his things as the leader of Marines in combat. 

The Marines philosophy steeped in tradition and practical necessity have proven that officers must be able to take command of a unit and direct that unit effectively to either defend or attack an enemy that will wipe them out if given the chance in rear areas or places of sanctuary under normal rules of war like hospitals, chapels or around civilian non-combatants.  They know an enemy would if they could attack them in rear administrative areas and remain vigilant to create safe zones to allow Marines a respite from the front lines so the support staff of a "safe" environment can be created.  It is within this safe rear environment where there are Marines with the military occupational specialty such as baking cookies, cooking hot food, fueling vehicles, or typing reports exist.  In a rifle battalion this area is called H&S Co, and it is the dread of any warrior to be assigned to this rear area for guard duty or anything else, and this would be the equivalent of traveling to a corporation's home office.  Every Marine, including those in the H&S Co must know how to wield the weapons issued and available to them in a time of crisis and must understand how to react in a time when leaders are needed at critical moments in a battle or engagment or other encounter with the enemy.  History has shown the Marines that immersing all Marine officers in an infantry environment regardless of military occupational specialty, forges bonds between Marine officers which are stronger than any other service.  The pilots flying missions to support the infantry Marines on the ground calling for fire to drop a bomb on an enemy position or an enemy surrounding them are personal friends or friends of friends because of the experience shared together at Quantico.

The Marines know what they are doing when it comes to building leaders.  The 2ndLieutenant's question asked how does a new 2nd Lieutenant joining the Marines gain respect from his Marines who are clearly battle hardened and extremely "combat mature" as many have already had 10+years of constant deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and most of the Marines senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs or NCOs) have completed multiple tours of duty and have "seen it all", and any new 2ndLt coming into their midst is going to be an outsider with no "combat experience" who will not have a chance to be taken seriously or offer any meaningful contribution to the unit.   It might seem impossible or daunting trying to put his stamp of leadership on a unit as a new young and inexperienced commander taking over, right?  How many of you have experienced something like this in your jobs taking over a company or business unit with solid performers who applied for the job of leadership but didn't get it, and they brought you in?  

This scenario plays out in varying degree in almost every command or management structure in today's environment whether it is the Marines or any business.  A new boss taking over an existing team has an opportunity to dramatically succeed or fail spectacularly depending on how he behaves or is perceived upon initial arrival, and then how he actually performs his job as the leader.  Ultimately his actions to get his unit to pull together will determine the success of the leader.  You see it in sports teams and business organizations.  New coaches, players or managers are brought in to make changes, add inputs and improve the overall situation.

Some of the best responses from the group of around 20 Marine officers (including a well respected retired Colonel) came down to these core responses:
  • Trust the more experienced NCO/SNCO (staff non-commissioned officers) to advise you
  • Tust the system that put you in charge
  • Trust your gut and be your own guy
  • Trust other more experienced officers to help guide some decisions and ask them for advice
In a nutshell all the leadership advice came down to those 4 basic responses that people with more experience than you are there as partners to help you and the unit succeed.  So basically keep your mouth shut, ears open and offer advice/input when asked by the more experienced SNCOs.    I agree with this, but to an extent.  I shared my story with the new 2dLt when joining my infantry unit as a new officer which was this:

When I graduated from Quantico's Infantry Officer Course (IOC which is another couple of intense months after TBS), our graduating class was the first since the Vietnam war to be graduating new 2ndLieutenants as platoon commanders to join their units already in theater of conflict.  I was assigned to the billet or role of Executive Officer (XO) of H&S co which is usually reserved for a more senior 1st Lieutenant or Captain who already has command experience as a rifle platoon commander or has been an XO in a rifle company who understands the rifle battalion structure.  I had a couple years of prior enlisted experience as a reservist and they figured that was good enough to be the new H&S Company XO.  Yes the Marines know what they are doing with their leadership training.

When I arrived, I had no idea what an H&S Co., was and all of the training at Quantico for the last year had been structured to teach how to lead a rifle platoon in combat and fire every weapon imaginable in the entire Marine Corps inventory of infantry weapons.  The senior staff enlisted Marines, a  First Sergeant (1stSgt who had served close to 30 years including in Vietnam and had already retired and been recalled), and a Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt who had close to 25 years of service and been recalled and was an infantry veteran of Vietnam) greeted me with mock courtesy for the rank and ridiculed me along with the company commander with every joke imaginable about how useless 2ndLts were to the Marine Corps.  My personal favorite was "2ndLieutenants are like bananas, they're born green, they live yellow and they die rotten", something the Captain used to get a laugh out of telling.   The company commander was not that impressed that he'd been given a 2ndLt with no experience at all.   Not the best of environments for a new leader.

After a couple months of living out of holes in the sand that we would dig, then move somewhere else and dig more holes and live out of, and with a growing force making it certain that ground combat was about to begin against the dug in Iraqis just miles away from our position, it became clear to everyone that there was a lot of unknown and uncertainty.    The 1stSgt and Gysgt were the grumpiest old Marines I had ever met, particularly the 1stSgt who had been recalled and had to abandon his dream of retirement and had survived Vietnam would openly complain.  The Captain was the same way but in a much more depressed and insane manner where he was convinced he was going to die and we were all going to get wiped out.  The Captain had not been through any warfighting school or been near a tactical environment or actual combat unit that deploys or trains for combat regularly in over 7 years.  He had spent the last 7 years in a headquarters assignment in Norfolk, VA, and was obviously scared witless when it became closer and closer to our actual line of departure into live ground combat to locate, close with and destroy the enemy.  He suffered from terrible insomnia and was a basket case (the official Marine Corps SNCO term for a rudderless or clueless leader).

On the night of departure into the breach of obstacles and subseqennt engagement with the Iraqi infantry, the Captain basically lost his mind due partly to lack of sleep, but also due to paralytic fear that had gripped him because of the uncertainty as to the outcome of what would happen.  The same 1stSgt and Gysgt who had just months ago been chiding me about my youth and inexperience and jokes about how useless 2ndLts were, did something remarkable by going to the battalion sergeant major (SMAJ) the most senior enlisted Marine who advises the battalion commander and the battalion executive officer XO and made their case clear for the Captain to be sent back to the rear with the logistics train, battalion aid station and other follow-on gear that we would link up with in a few days and to put me in charge of the company for the tactical deployment of the company coordinating with the adjacent units and providing the security necessary for a successful outcome.   I couldn't believe it.  In the end, they had observed me doing my job without a second thought and putting forth the best effort I could with the little knowledge I had about their company, but the vast knowledge I had about the various crew served weapon systems and leadership I had been taught at Quantico.  In the end they knew the Marines knew what they were doing and had put me in that company for a reason, and they trusted me and those decision makers who put me there.

My advice to the new 2ndLt was to trust his judgment and the counsel of senior peer lieutenants, as much as he did the senior more experienced combat veteran SNCOs and not to be intimidated by the "seasoned combat veterans" or in a business organization the "skeptical professionals" who know it all and test your abilities, knowledge and worthiness to be the new leader.  It doesn't hurt to keep your mouth shut, ears and eyes open when you first take over any new organization or are charged with leading a new group, but jump in with everything you've got when you're  gut tells you're ready.  Any leadership flaws you have won't matter all that much.  The emphasis on "emotional intelligence" or any other leadership buzzword out of Harvard Business School are secondary to genuinely following your instincts and trusting the organization that put you in charge to back your decisions.  Leaders emerge when the opportunity or situation requires them to emerge, and they will find themselves leading teams without title or authority.  It turns out people instinctively follow competent and genuine leaders who exhibit the traits and characteristics of leadership using their hearts as much as their heads. 

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