A somber voice makes a radio transmission that echoes above the gunfire: “Five wounded, one martyred.” The memorable communication was recorded on 11 May 2007 from the streets of Baghdad after Major Doug Zembiec was shot moments after ordering his men to take cover from enemy fire.1 The deliberate choice of the word “martyr” for Major Zembiec was the ultimate homage to the example that he set for others in his life of leadership and service.
Major Doug Zembiec, U.S. Marine Corps, was a man of honor, compassion, and courage. He was serving with the CIA Special Activities Division leading and training Iraqi forces when he was killed in action.2 Major Zembiec left behind many inspirational writings and letters that show how much he loved his fellow Marines and how deeply he believed in his call to service. He was known for his confidence, humility, and courage. His ideals and beliefs overshadowed any of his fears as he fought the enemy, leading his men from the front lines. His bravery earned him the nickname “Lion of Fallujah.” He told his wife in a letter that “my men fought like lions” during the Battle of Fallujah.3 His men loved him for the leader and warrior he was and the example that he will always be.
Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale spent many years contemplating two questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” These two questions are not easy to answer, but they form the foundation of who we are as people and the leaders we become. I remember being asked those questions during an ethics course; at the time, I had not thought enough about the responsibility of officership and the encompassing identity. I had spent the early years of my career so focused on mastering the skill sets of my trade that I failed to recognize the overall expectation of being an officer and answering these questions for myself.
Though there is a definite credibility established through intelligence, the ability to relate, understand, and communicate with others—which is commonly known as emotional intelligence—forms the deepest foundation of leadership. Major Zembiec’s and Admiral Stockdale’s abilities to lead by example and know themselves are some of the reasons that they are among the most respected and revered leaders of their times. Through their examples and the passion demonstrated in tough times by my good friend Lieutenant Bradley Snyder I found my answers to the questions above, and determined the person and leader I am striving to become.
Identity—Who Am I?
When I think about Major Zembiec, I cannot look past the choice of the word “martyr.” I am impressed that he dedicated his life in such a manner that his beliefs were known without question by his people. The strength of his character was forged through multiple acts of integrity and honor, and it resulted in the heroism he consistently displayed on the battlefield. Major Zembiec took an active role in accepting his identity and reflected on the great responsibilities that come along with being a leader.
I want to accept my officer identity more deeply so that I can achieve my goal in becoming the leader my sailors deserve. This identity needs to permeate all aspects of my life and cannot be something that I display only in a work environment. Leadership is much more than flipping a switch or playing a role. I cannot separate my character as an officer from who I am as a husband, friend, or brother; these roles must enhance the same individual I am when I am in charge of people.
Military service is often described as the “profession of arms.” A profession implies something much deeper than an occupation, but rather something that encompasses a lifestyle. This lifestyle is not easily obtained, however. In The Armed Forces Officer, it is written, “the notion of willing self-identification with the officer’s role may not be coincident with commissioning but marks the point at which the officer truly commits to the notion of being a professional.”4 It is clear that there are high expectations for officers and that accepting this identity is a personal choice. Officership carries with it a significant burden as well, as retired Marine General John Allen writes: “There is no greater demonstration of the trust of the Republic than in its expression and bestowal of an officer’s commission.”5 As you recall the great leaders under whom you have served, I am sure you can note their willing acceptance of the full responsibility of officership and how their identity as officers was a significant makeup of who they were as individuals. But I contend these great officers were not born with this identity, but developed it through deep personal reflection, a conscious acceptance of this identity, and an understanding of the responsibility behind the commission.
Good officers exhibit many traits and competencies that enable them to effectively lead. In my experience I have found it is vital that officers establish credibility in order to lead, which is generated from a demonstration of a high level of intelligence and competence in their field. Though competence is always respected, what is often overlooked is the emotional intelligence necessary to lead others.
Emotional intelligence encompasses our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. The summation of our emotional intelligence determines how well we can perceive, reason, understand, and manage our emotions. Our primary biological sensors are in the spinal cord near the brain, and as new sensations travel to the frontal lobe of the brain they must first pass through the limbic system, where our emotional reactions occur.6 We react first, albeit very quickly, emotionally then rationally. Knowing this you can see how challenging it is to remove bias from any decision since emotionally we are already forming an opinion prior to applying any form of logic. Thus, it becomes imperative we have control over our emotional reactions. We all have had times where we lost our cool, where we said something we regretted later, or simply were so emotionally charged that we failed to listen to an individual. Nobody likes dealing with a leader like this, so we must take an active effort to control our emotions.
Studies have shown that 85 to 90 percent of top performers across multiple industries score high in emotional intelligence (EQ), whereas the bottom 20 percent of similar groups exhibited very low EQ scores. The good news is that EQ has nothing to do with IQ. In fact, similar studies have shown that individuals with average IQs but high EQs outperform those with the highest IQs nearly 70 percent of the time.7 EQ can be developed by all of us as it is not a genetic trait. In a manner similar to Admiral Stockdale’s quest to find the best possible version of himself, we can pursue becoming contemplative in our emotional responses to better temper our reactions as leaders.
You may have taken a personality inventory at some point prior to your commissioning, or you may be fortunate enough to have had one in recent years. I believe this to be critically important in our personal development. I retook one nine years after my initial analysis, and I found it to be a great source of feedback. This is an opportunity to identify changes in our behavioral traits and other areas that we can continue to improve. This knowledge was incredibly beneficial in the first steps of understanding who I was and reminded me that the journey is a long one.
Another area in which we grow and accept our identity is through the feedback we receive through mentors. I view the relationships with my mentors as the most critical component of my individual development. My mentors are able to observe behaviors I am unable to see. Without a mentor we tend to justify or make excuses for our shortcomings. Just like an older sibling, a mentor is not afraid to let you know where you failed, but he or she also give you guidance to steer you back onto the right path. It is through this form of learning and accountability that we are able to reach new levels of professional and personal growth.
Passion—Why Am I Here?
We have all had points in our careers where the work was tough—maybe even overwhelming. During one of my sea tours I feared getting out of my car in the morning to start the workday. My stomach would turn, and I was stressed to the point where I was seeing a therapist. I lost my passion to lead. In fact, I hated what I was doing. I had lost sight of why I was an officer. I was so caught up in the tasks of the job that I was missing opportunities daily to make an impact on my sailors. Could my sailors see it? Probably. If they looked in my eyes—after all, it was clear I was not sleeping enough and was drinking too much. “What a miserable life,” I thought to myself. I went through a long period of constant complaining until my attitude became so poor that my wife intervened. She made me see that the majority of my complaints were either falsely founded or outside my control. She challenged me to find something to be passionate about, and reminded me that my attitude directly affected the sailors who worked for me. While I was greatly disappointed in whom I had become, I recognized that I could make positive change that very day.
This turning point was the start of my commitment to leadership. I began to remember that I had wanted to be in a position of leadership all of my life and that nobody or nothing was forcing me into this role. In fact, I chose this position. My misery was self-induced, and once I learned to stop focusing on the negative things, I started to see all the good things that originally inspired me to lead others. I began to use more of my emotional intelligence to connect with my sailors and learn of their motivations and goals. I became active in helping create an enjoyable environment that fostered hard work, innovation, and trust. Not only was I happier, but I saw a significant impact in my sailors’ efficiency and attitude. This passion to lead was solidified through watching the tragedy that befell my good friend and classmate.
I have been blessed to know Lieutenant Brad Snyder, an explosive ordnance officer. I have always known him to live life joyfully and for the service of others. On 7 September 2011, Brad was training local Afghani military personnel in the Kandahar region when an Afghani soldier stepped on an improvised explosive device. Without hesitation Brad ran directly to the soldier to render aid.8 Some would call this action instinctual. I call it passion. Brad saw someone in need and knew he had to answer the call. It was who he was and what he loved doing the most. As Brad ran to help the fallen Afghani soldier, he stepped on a second device. With his life in jeopardy, Brad was immediately flown to the United States for emergency treatment. During my time visiting him in the hospital, we had no idea if he would survive or what the lasting impact would be on his life. After several surgeries, we were told by the doctors that he would be permanently blind. We were all deeply saddened, but it was Brad who reminded us that he was alive, lucky, and well. His happy and passionate attitude about his new life was a great example to me in always seeking out the positive side to a problem.
That was just the start of his incredible story. Now Brad inspires people through sharing his life experiences and the remarkable recovery process that led him to become a Paralympic gold medalist in multiple swimming events. Brad survives on the passion he has for relationships with others. In addition, he believes that the most important things in life are the things unseen. This is a great lesson that hopefully we all can realize as individuals and leaders. We need to be able to step back from the tasks of our jobs and think about the impact we can have on those we are entrusted to lead. If we have lost sight of our leadership responsibilities, we simply need to search for what really matters and discover that our sailors deserve the best we can give them each and every day.
Service—Our Underlying Purpose
As a midshipman, I loved hearing stories of heroism. It is hard to forget Captain Gerald Coffee’s speech about being a prisoner of war pacing the few square feet he had in confinement in Vietnam, or picturing Colonel John Ripley crabbing under the Dong Ha bridge in a storyline that not even Hollywood could replicate, or Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley screaming across the Pacific in his PT boat sinking enemy Japanese boats as a young lieutenant in command. I always believed those individuals were cut from a different cloth. Brad taught me differently, however. It is hard not to think about Brad as I knew him when we were in school together and never would either of us have thought we would have what it would take to be considered a hero. When Brad was wounded he did not suddenly become a hero. He had that same ability to lead and inspire others his entire life. Brad knew who he was, and it was through his passion of leading others that he found refuge and strength in his recovery. I can assure you that Brad has never taken a course in heroism, but it is through his daily commitment to being the best leader he could be that he was able to overcome his biggest challenge. We all can make these same choices daily to accept our roles and find passion in our leadership. We are all cut from the same cloth as the heroes who have walked before us, as we all have answered the call to serve.
It is easy to become focused on the details of our jobs or even your own career progression. Leaders command their people as they are entrusted to execute the assigned missions. We all must remember, however, the raison d’etre for officers is to lead and serve our sailors. As leaders, we build the culture in our shops and on our ships. As the standard bearers for character we must accept our identity and live it so deeply that our sailors will emulate the same. We must take a specific interest in our sailors and remember that developing emotional intelligence is a large part of creating a successful work environment. Understanding our role and carrying it out passionately are the challenges that we must accept and carry out daily. We must strive to be worthy of the trust placed in us by our sailors and earn the privilege of serving—even if it costs us everything we have.
1. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Legendary Marine Maj. Zembiec, the ‘Lion of Fallujah,’ Died in the Service of the CIA,” The Washington Post, 15 July 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/iconic-marine-maj-zembiec-the-lion-of-fallujah-died-in-the-service-of-the-cia/2014/07/15/71501d2c-0b77-11e4-8c9a-923ecc0c7d23_story.html.
4. Department of Defense, The Armed Forces Officer (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2007), 22
5. Ibid, xiii.
6. Travis Bradberry, “Emotional Intelligence—EQ,” Forbes, 9 January 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/01/09/emotionalintelligence/#356637983ec.
8. Quil Lawrence, “A Year After War Wound, Vet Wins Paralympic Gold,” NPR, 7 September 2012, www.npr.org/2012/09/07/160674083/a-year-after-war-wound-american-wins-paralympics.