2013 Leadership Essay Contest 2nd Prize Winner
Made possible by the generous support of Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International
War is an interactive social process, inescapably personality-driven because of its inherent intangible human elements. Breaking it down into a social process of action and reaction, we can compare it to nearly any social endeavor, from a chess match to a football game to a high-school debate. Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Warfighting (MCDP 1), establishes war as a violent struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other.1 From the beginning of recorded history and likely longer, men have fought each other with everything from bare hands and teeth to roadside bombs and unmanned aerial drones. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s penetration straight into the heart of the Confederate South was so swift and violent that it broke the back of the region and was an integral part of a northern victory. During the Battle of Midway, it took six minutes for American naval aviators to decimate three of the Imperial Japanese prized fleet carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu—radically altering the course of the war in the Pacific.2 The First Marine Division, outnumbered six to one and deep in enemy territory, fought its way from the Chosin Reservoir to the Sea of Japan, urged on by quotes such as: “You’re the finest regiment in the finest division in history. We’re not retreating! We’ve about-faced to get at more of those bastards. Be proud you’re First Marines.”3
These vignettes are but a fraction of those about the conflicts of yesterday. Although these battles and operations were conducted at various times throughout history and with vastly differing weapon systems, one factor remained a constant: leadership and the necessity of effective leaders who can not only inspire, but make decisions and execute. The Navy and Marine Corps are two institutions built on a massive pillar called leadership.
Without effective leadership, the young men and women who do harm to the enemy on behalf of our nation do not have a purpose or a direction. With leadership comes responsibility to the mission. The warriors who are accomplishing this mission at our behest are some of the finest that our country has to offer. What we owe them is simple: We must lead them. But what does leadership look like? Is it taught, acquired, nurtured over time?
As a young officer, I view leadership through a lens that is drastically different from that of the next young officer. This is because none of us is cut from the same mold. We are all parts of an institution that instills in us a warrior ethos, one that, over time, shapes our individual morals and values to closely resemble those of the institution. However, our personalities and backgrounds allow us to maintain a certain level of individualism. This gives the pillar of leadership a much different shape and color from one leader to the next. Despite the varying definitions and perceptions of this quality, the bottom line is that tossing aside the zero-defect mentality while establishing a foundation of trust and decentralized command and control results directly in speed, flexibility, and violence of action in the execution of a very capable and cohesive unit on the battlefield.
The Zero-Defect Mentality
Establishing this foundation before crossing the line of departure is a cumulative process. At the very beginning, there can be no trust and absolutely no ability to decentralize command and control if leaders harbor an archaic and obsolete mentality of zero defects. The Marine Corps’ style of warfare requires intelligent leaders with a penchant for boldness and initiative down to the lowest levels.4 This means mistakes will be made and should be expected, and even encouraged. We must preach that training is “the land of free mistakes,” a place where they are welcomed as an irreplaceable teaching tool.
In 1935 at The Basic School, while a young Marine second lieutenant was serving as the officer of the day and inspecting guard posts, he parked his government car on the railroad tracks, where a train subsequently demolished it. Later that year, the same lieutenant sent the USS Arizona’s (BB-39) 19,585-pound anchor, chain and all, to the bottom of San Francisco Bay in the middle of the night.5 That young lieutenant was named Victor Krulak, and I wonder what the landscape of Marine Corps amphibious doctrine would look like today had he been forced out of the service for those infractions.
Now, tossing aside the zero-defect mentality should not be confused with not holding warriors accountable for their actions. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Effective leaders are not eager to maximize punishment for their subordinates’ mistakes. Rather, they ensure that no error makes it past them without a lesson learned from it. Naval leaders are expected to make decisions, and quickly, as the enemy does not wait for a determination to be made before it seeks to impose its will. The boldness and initiative that is the hallmark of naval leaders cannot be stifled in favor of a desire for perfection.
Once they are stifled, leaders are unable to confidently make decisions and execute, especially with the onset of friction and uncertainty. This gross failure on the part of a leader and those who trained him or her is a horrible disservice to our warfighters and must be abolished across the naval service. Holding leaders accountable for their actions but trusting them to effectively execute allows them to flourish under the tutelage of a senior officer, and the main beneficiaries of this mentality are those who directly carry the fight to the enemy.
As noted, the foundation of trust is built cumulatively. Without accepting mistakes and applying the lessons learned from them, there can be no trust between leaders and their subordinates. Commanding in battle is built upon trust, which amplifies the ability of a unit to execute with speed and accuracy on the battlefield. Our philosophy of command must exploit the human ability to communicate implicitly. We believe that implicit communication—communicating through mutual understanding—is faster and more effective.6 Between a leader and the led, it is possible through trust, a two-way street based on a shared philosophy and experiences. The leader has confidence in the capabilities of the unit, which has confidence in the competence and support of its leader.
Trust is nurtured through genuine care for warriors. General John A. Lejeune put it best when he said:
To be a really successful leader, a senior officer must avoid aloofness . . . He should not place himself on a pedestal and exercise command from a position far above the heads of his men, but he must come down to the ground where they are struggling and mingle with them as a friend and as a father. A word or two of sympathy and of praise spoken to men exhausted from the stresses of combat may change depression to exaltation and, being spread about among the men may cause them to feel that their chief has their welfare at heart and he is full of human sympathy for them.7
Subordinates witness this genuine compassion coming from their leader, a real desire to put others before self, and they put their trust into that leader. This will cause them to go to great lengths to cover any weaknesses the leader may possess. Once this relationship begins to flourish, the leader and his warriors develop a closer relationship, thus exponentially increasing the ability to implicitly understand and unhesitatingly trust one another.
It is at this time that conditions are in place for the implementation of two incredibly important facets of the Marine Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare: mission tactics and commander’s intent. These facets are the bedrock of decentralized command and control and allow our force to operate at a much higher tempo than that of our enemy.
The ever-increasing presence of technology and its impact on warfare are quickly changing the face of war. Logistical, communication, and weapon capabilities as well as an asymmetric battlefield have given Marine rifle squads the ability and the burden to operate alone and unafraid, essentially cut off from the comfort and control of their higher headquarters. These advances have strained not only lines of communication and logistics but also command and control, adding to the already important and necessary ability of small units to operate based on a purpose, the “why” of a mission statement, and the overarching intent of a commander, the end state.
Since trust and implicit understanding have now been established by the abolishment of a zero-defect mentality, the next step in effective leadership in a maneuver-centric environment is mission-type orders, the act of assigning a subordinate a mission without specifying how it must be accomplished.8 This process gives subordinates the ability to put into effect boldness and initiative within the guidelines set forth by the commander. In my view, it is imperative that this should first occur in a training environment, because of the great degree of variance in the decision-making and overall experience of subordinates.
There is a great deal of implicit understanding, trust, and patience involved in a commander giving an order to a subordinate and expecting that it will be carried out quickly, timely, and in the right way. But because the unit’s cohesion and ability to execute quickly on the battlefield arise from this method of leadership, the work done on the left side of the first shot is worth it in the end.
Outside of knowing he is genuinely cared for by his commander, there is no greater feeling for a subordinate leader than to be trusted and empowered to make decisions. Mission-type orders alone only work if there is still a mission to be accomplished. Because war is a fluid phenomenon that does not occur in a vacuum, situations constantly change in the time between receiving an order from higher command and executing it on the deck. If my orders are to destroy the enemy on Hill 450, but there is no enemy on Hill 450 when I get there, do I sit down and wait for someone to tell me what to do next?
The answer is yes, if all I was told was to destroy the enemy on Hill 450. Enter commander’s intent, the “why” of all of the missions we ever receive. I have learned over the past few years that Marines will fight through the gates of hell if they understand why they are doing it. As leaders, we owe an explanation to our warriors, and it is not a difficult thing at all to give them. With a purpose attached to my mission, it will look something like this: “Destroy the enemy on Hill 450 in order to allow India Company to seize and clear Battalion Objective Two.” Since there was no enemy on Hill 450, my mission is obsolete. Therefore, with a clear and concise purpose, I can effectively maneuver my forces to best support India Company’s assault on Battalion Objective Two, which is in line with my commander’s common vision for the unit, or his intent. The application of decentralized command and control, once mastered through learning from mistakes and implicitly trusting subordinates in a training environment, directly contributes to speed, flexibility, and violence of action on the battlefield.
Right of the First Shot
Relative speed is nothing without the ability to transition. As noted previously, war is a fluid phenomenon, with shifting situations and the momentum constantly changing the laydown of the battlefield. A great battalion commander once told me that the side that can change directions most quickly in battle will be victorious. Our ability to change directions on the battlefield quickly and efficiently lies in the ability of our leaders to train their warriors to be thinkers and make decisions with limited information. It must be understood by leaders of all ranks that while it is fantastic to develop plans, continuous planning through the preparation and execution phases of an operation is the bread and butter of leaders who can act. Mike Tyson may not have been talking about maneuver warfare when he said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” but the quote cuts through to the understanding that intelligence and decisiveness are necessary prerequisites of great leaders. Our speed and flexibility determines our tempo, and our ability to execute a good plan now is infinitely better than executing a perfect plan next week.10
While it is important that leaders master speed and flexibility to outmaneuver the enemy, our actions on the objective must be executed with ferocious violence of action, or else everything we do up to that point will be for naught. As leaders, we are developing thinkers, men and women who wear antennae rather than horns on their heads to maximize their understanding of the environment, the enemy, and the overall situation. However, there will come a time when those antennae are traded for a set of horns that allow warriors to crush any enemy resistance they encounter on an objective. As General James Mattis put it, “I don’t write policy for my government. I just carry out the last 600 meters of my President’s policy.”11 To our core, we are warfighters. Our actions are a means to an end, and as leaders, we must provide the end to our warriors who are taking the fight to the enemy.
These fundamentals exist prior to and right of the first shot. They are cumulative and continuously build on one other. Leadership is not making a decision under stressful conditions, it is teaching subordinates to do so by forcing them to learn from their mistakes while continuing to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to boldness and initiative. It involves trusting subordinates to execute and do the right thing while at the same time earning their trust through our competence and decisiveness. Finally, leadership demands that we give clear and concise orders and intent that allow them to flourish while we support them with everything we have, morally, mentally, and physically.
These actions start at the beginning, the moment a leader takes command and sets the tone. The payoff is ultimately seen on the battlefield, with a unit executing with speed, flexibility, and the ability to ruthlessly exploit every opportunity to defeat the enemy. General Sherman, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and General Chesty Puller were all incredible leaders with varying styles based on their personalities. All were leaders who could think and act, and who trained their units to close that last 600 meters with overwhelming violence of action. We, as current naval leaders, are no different in that the principles of war and leadership have not changed, only the weaponry. Therefore, we must remain true to the basics of outthinking and outmaneuvering the enemy as we adhere to our warrior ethos. The former will accomplish the mission; the latter will inspire warfighters to accomplish the mission ruthlessly and decisively.
1. MCDP 1, Warfighting (1997), p. 3.
2. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 335.
3. Burke Davis, Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller (New York: Bantam Books, 1962), 3.
4. MCDP 1, 57.
5. Robert Coram, Brute (New York: Little, Brown, 2010), 50-51.
6. MCDP 1, 58, 79.
7. B. P. McCoy, The Passion of Command (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 2007), 48.
8. MCDP 1, 87.
9. MCDP 1-3, Tactics (1997), 60.
10. MCDP 1, Warfighting (1997), p. 87.
11. Paul Szoldra, “Legendary General James Mattis Just Gave One of the Best Talks on Middle East Policy We’ve Ever Seen,” 20 July 2013, www.businessinsider.com.
Captain Gray serves as the commanding officer of Company M, Third Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. He previously served as a rifle-platoon commander and rifle-company executive officer with Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment, where he deployed to Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010 and again in 2011.