Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest Winner
a railhead in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. A Marine second lieutenant, fresh from Armor Officer Basic School, waits with his first platoon to accept four factory-new M1A1 tanks. He remembers standing in this same spot six months ago watching a battalion of desert-yellow tanks roll off flatbed railcars, commanded by Desert Storm veterans returning from war, many of them lieutenants only a year or two senior.
His ears prick up at the sound of a whistle. He can’t imagine being more excited—his first command! As the engine breaks through the fog his gut clenches; is he really ready? Just a year ago he graduated with his college class; this will be command of 20 men, several of them decorated, and nearly $20 million in equipment.
I was that lieutenant, and that morning is the time I first realized how much of yourself you must be willing to give, if you want to accept full responsibility for others. I have the custody receipt I signed for those four tanks tucked in the back of my old commander’s notebook. That notebook became my bible and nearly as important to me as my issue weapon. It was a miniature, camouflaged, three-ring binder with plain lined pages (some laminated), a calendar, and a pocket for pens and maps. It went with me on every deployment, through every training day. Looking back, I can boil down what I’ve learned about leadership to four principles: Front, Accept, Care, and Earn—FACE.
. . . means lead from the front; set the example. From physical training, to equipment maintenance, to professional knowledge, you must strive for personal excellence and be visible to the people you lead. Make your objectives and expectations clear by showing what is possible. Train until each individual reaches his full potential and impress on your people how their personal commitment to meeting or exceeding standards is critical to overall success. The two best examples of this from my notebook are concepts I call “two up and all down” and “right front fender.”
Two up and all down. An M1A1 tank crew has four members—a loader, driver, gunner, and tank commander (TC). A tank platoon has four tanks belonging to the platoon commander, a platoon sergeant, and two wingmen TCs. “Two up and all down” means training every member of the unit so he is proficient in all jobs junior to his own, and also ready to fill the two next senior jobs at a moment’s notice.
A loader is at the bottom of the seniority ladder, but he should be able to drive and do gunnery so he can step up in case of casualties. Similarly, the platoon sergeant is the TC for his tank and should be a proficient loader, driver, and gunner, but also ready to take over as platoon commander and even company executive officer if necessary.
Training to this standard ensures the unit, top to bottom, is ready to handle anything. The same concept applies in any situation in which people give and take orders—it is hard to give a good order unless you know what it will take to carry it out and how you fit in the bigger picture.
Right front fender. My first battalion commander was a stickler for “maintenance by the manual.” The first echelon maintenance guide for an M1A1 tank is hundreds of pages and comes in multiple volumes. He warned that anytime he came to the tank park and saw crews working, he better also see a lieutenant on the “right front fender” with the manual open. It seemed like micromanagement at the time, but the longer I spent at that fender, the more I came to understand how my tank worked, what kept it running, and how to minimize vulnerabilities. More important, I developed a rapport with my Marines that would never have been possible if I had spent that time attending to “officer matters” at headquarters.
Many lieutenants left the fender to get dirty alongside their troops. We greased track, punched the main gun bore, and crawled in every crevice of the turret and hull. I really knew and understood the weapon. Those hundreds of hours made me visible and human to my Marines in a relatively relaxed environment. It also made it clear to them that even the most basic jobs were important, not “beneath” anyone, and part of being combat ready.
That said, an officer also has to give his or her troops room to be on their own. Whether it is a tank, a gear locker, or a desk, troops need to know the officer understands his job, but also that they have significant personal responsibilities with no officer to hide behind.
. . . means accept responsibility. The one mantra hammered into me from the very beginning of my Marine Corps career (right after “This is my rifle . . .”) was “You are responsible for everything your Marines do, or fail to do.” Rarely is there a quicker way to lose the trust, respect, and confidence of subordinates than to shift blame to them when you are in trouble. Alternatively, there probably is no truer test of loyalty than the visible willingness of a leader to stand up and take responsibility for the unit when things go wrong. I first learned these lessons from a “shiny tank” and a “bent bustle rack.”
Shiny tank. At nearly $4 million each, it is little wonder the battalion commander was so concerned about our pristine new tanks. Heightening his scrutiny was a never-ending parade of VIPs who visited our tank park virtually every week to see these massive weapons of war in mint condition. The platoons were on a constant rotation to support one dog-and-pony show after another with Marines in pressed Nomex tanker suits and polished boots standing next to virtually unused but well-washed tanks. Units were not allowed to go to the field for a week before supporting such an event for fear the tanks might get dirty or damaged during training. With each VIP more senior than the last, the tanks rarely left the concrete.
Handbook for Marine NCOs
Monday came and I was not looking forward to facing my captain. I formed my platoon at 0530 and we ran a few miles while I got my head together. I dismissed the troops to the barracks and went to the tank park. Just as I got there the captain sent for me from headquarters. When I saw his face I could tell he’d either seen my tanks or heard from someone who had. I thought he was going to relieve me of my platoon right there; instead he said to get in his Hummer and wait for him. I sat about five minutes before he and the colonel came out and we all rode over to the tank park. It was a silent ride until we pulled through the gate. As my tanks came into view, my captain just said, “Oh, Christ!”
What happened next was brief. The colonel motioned for us to come with him. He asked the captain why the bustle rack was bent on one of his tanks. My company commander did not know. Then he asked me if I knew. I told him about the recovery and that the maintenance damage was my responsibility. He looked genuinely stymied and asked why I decided to train in the woods in the first place. I started explaining very rapidly that the Marines were frustrated with “spit-and-polish” training, and I wanted to show them what tanks could do in varied terrain. I told him in detail about what we had learned, and about my concerns regarding the cables that I planned to address to the manufacturer service reps later that day. Finally, I told him I believed the Marines and I had benefited greatly from the training, and though I regretted the cosmetic damage, we had made huge strides in working together to overcome obstacles and perform as a team.
The colonel looked at me for a solid minute. He turned, still silent, and walked around all four of my tanks. My captain and I followed him a pace behind until he stopped, turned to me, and asked what books on armored warfare I had read. I answered, Rommel, Patton, and a few others. He shook his head and said, “For every book on armor you read, you’ll save millions of dollars in loss and damage to equipment. What is more, you will save lives because you will understand battle. Our last war was in a desert, not in a forest. Tanks belong generally on high-speed avenues of approach and become slow and vulnerable in swamps and wooded areas. This type of training is not my priority and you will not do this again without permission.” He paused. “However, you clearly got something out of it. I am also concerned about these cables . . . so I guess I have gotten something out of this as well. Get with the reps and then brief your company commander—this time before I come asking questions.”
I learned as much about individual responsibility and the importance of keeping your boss informed in those five minutes as I’d learned about my entire platoon in five days. My Marines and I studied a new book each month after that.
. . . is self-explanatory. My battalion commander made it clear to all officers that he expected us to know every important fact about each of our Marines. As he put it, “If I ask you when his birthday is, you better know. If I ask you how many kids a guy has, or the date of his last gas mask training, you better know.”
When I ask, you better know. In my notebook, every Marine under my command had his own page where I kept notes including hometown, birthday, wife and children’s names, and other personal data. I also kept notes from counseling sessions on what each one aspired to—college, marriage, home ownership, a new car. Below that I kept notes about professional goals including reenlistment, promotion, and service schools. On the back of each page I kept regular notes about significant successes and failures. I drew a line about three quarters of the way down the page and put the good points up top with “room for improvement” down below. I made it part of my mission to find a positive lesson in every screw up I recorded. All this information made me focus on the things that really mattered, and Marines got a kick out my orders at morning formation, like, “Let Smith and Jones go early today because Smith has an anniversary I bet he forgot until just now, and Jones needs to study for his exams tonight because I want another ‘A’ like last week.” I was ready when the colonel had questions and, more important, when one of my Marines came to me with a question, I had a personal context in which to offer advice.
. . . means to earn trust, confidence, and respect. My notebook came with me when I left tanks to become a riverine assault craft (RAC) platoon commander. Small Craft Company was just taking shape at the time, and I was the acting company commanding officer my first day because the captain slated to come was still awaiting final orders and the only other lieutenant was deployed to South America. I had to earn my reputation all over again, this time with a company full of hand-picked Marines my new battalion commander called his “loose cannon” company. It was a challenge, but by the end of my tour those loose cannons were the weapon of choice when our nation called.
The loose cannons. The tank battalion had a thick manual telling you everything from how to wear a helmet to how to wash a hull. In Small Craft Company, there were no written standard operating procedures to tell us how to do anything, much less how good we needed to be to reach combat readiness. The Marines were smart and talented, with many recruited specifically for their special skills as snipers, corpsmen, marine engine techs, and Spanish speakers, but some acted like prima donnas who thought no rulebook meant no rules.
I made it clear to my Marines from day one that while every voice mattered, and we would learn from one another, there would be discipline and instant obedience to orders. I used my notebook to record every training idea we had that worked or didn’t work while we struggled together to master this new assignment. We read books on brown-water navies throughout history, made liaison with Navy and Coast Guard small-boat units for expert guidance, and practiced every aspect of navigation, surveillance, and fighting in riverine areas. As boat crews jelled, discipline increased and our individual contributions became more focused on a common goal. Recognizing and valuing individual contributions builds esprit de corps and mutual respect. It is the leader’s job to focus everyone’s energy on a clear goal and make even the “loose cannons” put rounds on target.
Answering the call. After about a year and a half with my platoon, my company commanding officer called me into his office and had me close the door. He said, “I have a warning order to deploy one of my reinforced RAC platoons ‘down south.’ The details are classified, but this counternarcotics operation, if executed, will involve inserting host-nation personnel into an extremely bad part of the river. We could lose some people. You’re my most senior and qualified platoon commander with Marines you’ve trained with since before I got here, but you are also a brand new father and you’re due to get out in a matter of months. If you do not want this I will understand, but I need your answer.”
For a moment, I had no words. It was what we had trained for but never yet been called to do. I thought about my wife and infant daughter, but then I pictured the families of every Marine in my platoon. I realized I had made an unspoken promise to my men; by leading them in peace, I would lead them in war—without hesitation or regret. They were my responsibility and to abandon them in the moment of greatest need would be to forsake my oath to my nation, my Marines, and myself. I answered that I would go, we shook hands, and I left his office to prep my boats. We never had to execute that mission, but when the call comes again, I know the answer will be the same.
After nearly seven years as an active and reserve Marine combat arms officer, and another five as a Navy judge advocate, my notebook is chock-full of leadership lessons learned as both a line and staff officer. It is all about supporting and defending the Constitution. I have come to realize you don’t have to be in command to provide leadership.
Above all else, live the core values. Your honor, courage, and commitment are all you have to make you worthy of the positions of leadership you may be blessed to hold. When you run into problems, and you will, FACE them head on—and keep a notebook handy so you never forget what you have learned.
Lieutenant Perdue was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1990 and served on active duty until 1995 as a tank and riverine assault officer. From 1995 to 1997, he served in the Marine Reserves while attending law school. He is currently a Navy judge advocate in Washington, DC.