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First Honorable Mention
1990 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
The Officer as Teacher
By Captain Rodney L. Dearth, U.S. Marine Corps
Major General John A. Lejeune once said that one of the roles of an officer, besides that of being a leader, is to be a teacher. According to General Lemuel C. Shepherd, who was once Major General Lejeune’s aide, the morale of the entire Marine Corps was improved by General Lejeune’s promotion of this teacher-pupil approach in relationships between officer and enlisted personnel. The Marine Corps has embraced General Lejeune’s idea of the scholar-teacher relationship since the time he first espoused it.1
I believe that this approach to leadership has a unique significance in these days of increased emphasis on maneuver warfare and mission orders. Practiced consistently, it provides a number of advantages that facilitate successful operations in an environment where all a subordinate may have left to go on is the commander’s intent.
Our acceptance of General Lejeune’s concept is due primarily to the continuous bombardment of admonitions we receive about the importance of training our Marines. These admonitions are certainly justified because of the overwhelming importance of training to successful mission accomplishment. Unfortunately, the result of this constant barrage is that we tend to take our role in training for granted, with General Lejeune’s concept becoming almost passe. Officers tend to believe that they act as teachers in the course of their normal duties: they work their fingers to the bone to make sure their men receive the training they need, they are constantly assigning classes to their noncommissioned officers to give to the troops, and they adhere strictly to the
A personal teacher-student relationship is a two-way street. The officer gets to understand his subordinates better, and the troops learn what the Old Man really expects of them.
But when was the last time you, as the officer and leader of a unit, actually gave a class yourself? When did you last provide personal instruction to one of your subordinates?
It is my contention that General Lejeune meant for officers to be teachers in the literal sense. He recognized the advantages of a direct, personal relationship and this is why he promoted it between officers and enlisted.
When an officer, specifically a commander, personally teaches his subordinates, they get to know and understand him a little better. This supports another of our war-fighting axioms, which states that subordinates must have a clear un-
tierstanding of what their commander is thinking.2 They must see first-hand how jlc thinks; they must get a feel for how he nkes to operate. The teaching evolution Works both ways, as the commander also gets to know his subordinates better.
This “getting to know you” business ls particularly important for the commander who has just assumed command °i a unit and is trying to overcome the •nitial fears, uncertainties, and, at times, outright distrust his new subordinates may feel toward him. 1 found myself in just this situation as a brand new second ueutenant taking over my first platoon in the Fleet Marine Force. The situation was ameliorated somewhat through the simple exPedient of providing some off-the-cuff mstruction to one of my men. While out ln the field one day I chanced to see a l^arine hard at work trying to chop a log m two with an apparently very dull axe. ”e was sweating copiously and getting more frustrated by the second with his lack of progress. Fortunately, I had in my Pack the tools necessary to sharpen his axe. I stopped him and gave a very quick class on how to keep his axe sharp, show- lng him by example and explaining how much easier his job would now be. The l°g was cut much quicker, and word got around to the rest of the platoon. This resulted in a class that evening on how to keep edged tools sharp. I gained a measure of credibility with my command by showing them that I could assist in get- hug the job done. More important, it served to indicate my desire for a common-sense approach to everyday Problems. The interaction with each Marine as they approached me to ask ques- hons permitted me to learn more about them as individuals.
A second advantage for the commander is that his men will quickly grow to trust his knowledge and will learn what level of performance he expects of them.
1 Was once assigned as a detachment commander in charge of a tactical unit comprised of a majority of young, inexperienced Marines, officer and enlisted. They knew very little about the equipment they had to operate or the concepts l°r its employment. To exacerbate the situation, 1 was an outsider, brought in at the very last minute to deploy this untrained unit on an amphibious operation overseas. 1 was an unknown quantity to everyone, particularly the officers and staff NCOs. To let the men get to know me and to solve the knowledge problem the detachment had, I taught a few classes in equipment and concept of employment. The officers and staff NCOs began to trust my knowledge and judgment and I was able to imbue my methods and means of operating in the detachment without issuing a lot of time-consuming orders and directives.
This teacher-student approach creates a feeling of security in subordinates: they know that their commander is concerned enough about their welfare to take a personal and active role in the training process. It also gives them the confidence to carry out the mission in the commander’s absence or in the absence of specific guidance, with the certain knowledge that they know what results the commander expects.
This aspect paid great dividends for me with the previously discussed detachment when 1 discovered that I was not going to be permitted to go ashore with my men during the operation. I had divided the detachment into two subordinate teams, each commanded by a very inexperienced lieutenant; I was counting on my own presence ashore to supervise their efforts and keep them out of trouble. To make matters worse, ship-to-shore communications for my command and control were intermittent and tenuous at best. Fortunately, 1 had personally conducted numerous briefings with the whole detachment concerning the overall concept of the operation and how I perceived we would support it. 1 had emphasized repeatedly my concepts for providing support to the units ashore and the need to remain flexible. Consequently, 1 needn't have worried. Those two lieutenants performed admirably and the men in their teams quickly became experts. They accomplished the mission without my personal guidance.
Men who know and trust their commander know his desires and requirements for many different situations without being told. The commander also knows his men and can tailor his orders to their capabilities. All of this mutual knowledge results in less supervision by the commander, and the unit becomes much more cohesive because of the common knowledge its members hold of the commander’s general intent. In addition, as General Shepherd indicated, the teacher-student relationship increases morale. Any unit that operates effectively and efficiently and understands its commander is bound to have superior morale.
Through the commander’s personal instruction and example, he can instill in his subordinates a way of thinking and operating that closely parallels his own. When he issues the mission order, with all the leeway that it implies for his men, he can be assured that it will be carried out to his satisfaction. To be sure, it is not our desire to replicate ourselves in each of our subordinates; that would stifle initiative and creativity. Instead, we should only try to mold them so that they will be able to anticipate, if necessary, the commander’s desires.
Although 1 may have painted a rosy picture of General Lcjeunc’s concept here, there are a few negative aspects about the teacher-student relationship that should also be mentioned. The first, and probably foremost from a leader’s point of view, is time. Conducting classes takes precious time from the commander. It doesn’t, however, require time on the training schedule. Five minutes during a staff meeting or in front of a formation can often achieve the desired result. There is really no need to get bogged down in lesson plans and outlines unless you wish to.
Another problem can be knowledge. Obviously, you must know what you are talking about or you will lose credibility. A third problem is that not all units or situations lend themselves to such a relationship between seniors and subordinates. It will be up to you to determine when it’s appropriate.
This aspect of leadership is not, or should not be, restricted to the small unit level. The advantages it has with very young and inexperienced troops are obvious, but lieutenant colonels and colonels can benefit from it in their commands, too. The benefits realized by, say, a regimental commander who actively embraces this concept may be far more important than those gained by a platoon commander. The concept knows no bounds of service or nationality.
In my years of commissioned and enlisted service I can only remember one officer, outside of a formal classroom, who seemed to pursue General Lejeune’s concept of the officer as teacher. I only served with that officer for a short time, but the things he taught me and my subordinates had a profound effect on my development during the years that followed. His influence helped me come to the conclusion that one of our greatest responsibilities as officers is to teach our subordinates to be able to carry on successfully in our absence, ln this way the mission will always be accomplished, no matter what kind of warfare we practice.
'United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps Manual, 1986, paragraph 1,100.
2United States Marine Corps, FMFM I Warfighting, 1989, p. 72.
Captain Dearth is the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas. He was commissioned in 1980 and has served as a Signals Intelligence Officer.