Unselfishness, as far as you are concerned, means simply this—you will put first the honour and interests of your country and your regiment; next, you will put the safety, well-being, and comfort of your men; and last—and last all the time—you will put your own interest . . . .-Field Marshall Sir William Slim (1957)
A call to attention. The order is published. Applause rings out. Then the honoree invariably observes that whatever accomplishments were attained, they were the result of teamwork, outstanding leadership, and collective dedication to the mission. Yet despite our instinct to deflect praise to those by our side, most of us view our military careers as a deeply personal matter. I felt called to duty. I enjoy serving. I was promoted. I was selected. Both collective and personal sentiments are valid, and justified. But their uneasy coexistence, and the emotional attachment to the personal nature of our service, presents a subtle and significant danger to our ability to lead effectively.
Colonel Ken Gill rose meteorically through the Marine Corps, gaining momentum at every step. Through successful deployments and transformative commands, he earned the admiration of all he touched. He was destined for greatness in the Corps he loved. But on an early morning run, a pothole sent him reeling. His broken ankle was surgically repaired—repeatedly—but never fully healed. Assigned to a billet leveraging his strategic insight while minimizing the need for a good ankle, he abruptly retired. A heartfelt Facebook post explained his physical limitation prevented him from leading in the way he expected to be led—from the front. And thus, a Marine’s Marine did a sharp about-face and walked away from the only cause he had ever served, into the unfamiliar abyss of the civilian world.
Colonel Gill’s exceptional self-awareness was exceeded only by his understanding of a fundamental leadership truth. As military leaders, we are both the instrument by which our nation exercises geopolitics when other means have failed, and we are the vehicle by which our blood and treasure is applied prudently and effectively in conflict. And though personal accomplishments, realization of individual ambitions, and even the comfort of remaining among our fellow patriots as long as we can may be rewards of serving well, their pursuit does not justify continuing to lead when our capability to lead effectively is diminished.
The topic of continued service notwithstanding diminished capabilities invites disagreement. Could Colonel Gill have performed superbly in a strategic billet, leveraging more than two decades of leading Marines? Certainly. Can a judge advocate who cannot deploy still perform top-shelf legal analysis? What about the judge advocate who breathes a sigh of relief with every passing Army Physical Fitness Test score? Or every height/weight measurement? Or perhaps the leader who is dogged by external, medical, or psychological challenges that, despite all efforts to overcome them, remain and distract. If one of these queries hits close to home, are you leading the way you want to be led? Or has your personal attachment to service allowed you to give yourself a pass. Have you placed your interests ahead of your country’s and your Soldiers’ interests?
Many reading this article are emerging leaders, and not yet at the inflection point of choosing between personal interests and our country’s and our Soldiers’ interests. But that inflection point is avoidable. Developing leaders have the ability to avoid having to make this choice if they appreciate that the privilege of increased rank does not lessen the imperative of continuing to master the building blocks of Soldiering that are the foundation of great leadership. True, some will succumb to a pothole, literally or figuratively. But many more will be slowed by the cumulative effect of poor choices along the way. Failure to deal with lingering effects of a deployment. Throwing yourself into your work and finding comfort in an outstanding evaluation, rather than facing challenges on the home front that the demands of military service often lodge. Or failure to care, physically, for what General Milley refers to as the “most important combat system in the Army”—yourself. Without lifelong attention to factors that steel our resilience, these failures come to roost, eventually. And when they do, a distracted, diminished leader results.
Few topics are as over-written and over-studied as leadership. Principles, elements, and guidelines. Tenets, keys, and qualities. There are 3.9 billion Google results on this single topic, much of which was authored by individuals who were successful leaders. But if you prefer the Cliff Notes version of this mammoth body of work, ask yourself what kind of leaders inspire you. In a dynamic, demanding, conflict-laden environment, who would you rather follow? Someone who places nation above self, or someone the system entitles to lead by virtue of tenure or rank? Someone who exceeds the standard, or someone who gets a pass, despite diminishing factors that could have been avoided? In every military organization, there will be great patriots who are overcome by their personal desire to serve, despite shortcomings. There are far fewer Ken Gills. My challenge to you is to be neither. Take care of your business, and take care of yourself. Now. And when your time to lead arrives, you will be able to lead from the front. TAL