Parting Reflections

by Capt Dan Brendel

My name is (former) Capt Dan Brendel. As of 1 June my active service as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps has ended. As I shut this chapter of my life, I thought it would be appropriate to offer some parting thoughts that might be of some value to my fellow officers who remain in the proverbial fight.

The Marine Corps is a pretty great institution, as far as institutions go. I’m grateful for the lessons it taught me. That being said, there are a host of areas I think need some serious improvement, so much so that they were a primary factor in my deciding to leave. Foremost among them is leadership development. During my 6 years of service I became wholly convinced that Marines in general are neither as decisive nor as autonomous as they could and should be. There are plenty of Rowans who can carry a message to Garcia, but not nearly as many who will. Why? In my opinion, for all its rhetoric to the contrary, the Marine Corps as a whole does a bang up job of deterring decisiveness, initiative, and ingenuity. This isn’t just a problem. It’s a gargantuan problem. It threatens the very heart of maneuver warfare. And it’s our fault as officers.

Before I continue, let me make two things clear. First, I write with genuine concern not contempt. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have written anything other than my name on my checkout sheet. But no individual or organization is above reproach. We should not be so institutionally narcissistic to think the Corps is somehow the exception to the rule. Second, I would love to think everything I write about here goes without saying, given that we have all read Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, at some point. But that has not been my experience – at all. For all the endless talk about this tired subject, nothing changes; it’s all lip service.

Now let me tell a true story for anyone sitting on the fence about whether or not there is indeed a problem. When I checked into the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, in 2008, I attended the 2-week Series Commander Course. This course teaches incoming officers the intricacies of the recruit training environment. One morning my class went to observe the Crucible, the recruits’ final field exercise. I was standing off to the side watching a few drill instructors prepare their recruits to begin a hike. The recruits were wearing reflective belts in accordance with a depot regulation requiring them to do so until 0800. One of the drill instructors, a sergeant, wanted to know if he should enhance safety by having the recruits continue to wear their reflective belts past 0800, given that it was overcast and dim. He asked his senior drill instructor, a staff sergeant in charge of the platoon’s recruits and junior drill instructors. The staff sergeant shrugged, turned to me, and asked what I wanted him to do.

What do I want you to do? You’re a staff sergeant, a drill instructor, a senior drill instructor. This is a pretty trivial decision. What I want is for you to decide something and to march. I hate that you think you have to ask just because I have shiny stuff on my collar. Quite frankly, that scares me. This instance set the tone for the remainder of my tour.

Somebody reading this is thinking, “Well, that’s the drill field, not the real Marine Corps. That doesn’t happen with my Marines during real missions.” Really .^No duty station exists in a vacuum. I could enumerate many more “real” illustrative stories from my own combat experiences. But if the story above doesn’t convince you there’s a problem, I doubt any will. Trust me. There’s a problem.

Its root is our organizational preoccupation with control. Our leadership culture centers on achieving compliance. But consider for a moment that the most successful organizations in the private sector are moving away from the outmoded managerial technology that says managers think, workers tighten screws, and that’s just the way it is. That style worked for Henry Ford, when each guy on the assembly line only needed to know his one simple part. Tight control over workers meant screws were turned faster and more cars were produced. But today, the market is far more complicated, and blueprints change at digital speed. Workers today need to think quickly and across hierarchical and functional divides. Empirical psychology tells us that tight control is detrimental to this sort of creative work. (Read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink, Riverhead Hardcover, 2009.) And so creativity is replacing compliance as the primary aim of leadership in industry. But the Corps holds out. There is no threat of extinction from competing entities that have found a better way of doing business, so the impetus to change is reduced. That isn’t good news for our Marines in the context of fourthgeneration warfare. Like modern business, this type of warfare is increasingly complex and fluid, meaning it demands increasingly creative and autonomous people to engage in it. What follows are some interrelated practical thoughts regarding what Marine officers can do to better produce 21st century warriors.

Be More Deliberate About Developing Cognitive Skills

Don’t reduce leadership to a series of checklists. The Marine Corps has plenty of checklists for annual training, training and readiness events, etc. To a point, I understand their value, and I’m a huge proponent. Indeed, it is inadvisable to focus on cognitive skills without first securing a foundation of rote ability. However, it is essential that we, at some point, move beyond that. The reason is simple. Checklist training habituates checklist dependence. But we don’t need walking, talking manuals. We need artistic leaders – Gen Lees and Capt Kirks. More accurately, in the modern era of distributed operations, we need Sgt Lees and CpI Kirks. We need leaders who are practiced in creative problem solving, not regurgitation; practiced in inventing step Q without first checking off steps A through P; practiced’m audacity. It should be a truism to say we can’t expect our Marines to become practiced without actually allowing them to practice. But it’s not.

So let them practice. Offer minimal direction – on purpose. Next time you write a letter of instruction, consider sparing your Marines the five pages of coordinating instructions. Tell them to get a message to Garcia, and then shut up. Create situations where your Marines must actively design solutions and not simply apply the steps you or some manual has already given them. Do it often. Do it with all of your Marines, even the junior ones – especially the junior ones. If you think a staff sergeant, as a rule, will magically become a wellspring of creativity and initiative after 7-ish years of being told exactly what to do, I think you are mistaken. (There are indeed great Marines who shine despite the constraints. Imagine how much better they would be under fewer constraints.) Marines need to understand they can and must be thinkers and frontier shapers, not merely coal shovelers in the “Big Scarlet and Gold Machine.” Then perhaps they will leap at pressing the attack without any inkling of being driven or dragged. If you do it right, the less you tell people what to do, the less you’ll have to.

Demand Initiative and Autonomy

These things shouldn’t be icing on the leadership cake. A staff sergeant once submitted his Marine reported on worksheet (MROW) to me late and without any professional military education listed. When the college courses he was taking didn’t show up on his fitness report, he complained to me about it. I told him too bad. Had he ever heard of the Performance Evaluation System Manual, which explains how MROWs work? Yes, because I told him about it in his initial counseling. Had he ever read it? No. So whose fault was it that I didn’t know about his college courses? Some of my fellow company grades thought I set the Marine up for failure by not giving him a soup-to-nuts class about MROWs and not riding him to get it into me complete and on time. I disagree. He’s a staff sergeant. He knows how to read and how to look up an order. Why didn’t he? Probably because he had grown accustomed to his reporting seniors doing the legwork for him – filling in his Section C from scratch, tracking him down to find out his duty station preferences, etc. That became the norm for him. So did I set him up for failure, or did the reporting seniors before me? If he is unable to learn something simple about fitness reports without a captain spoonfeeding it to him, why do I want him to get a great fitness report and become a gunnery sergeant? I’m not just talking about fitness reports here. It’s your job to create an environment that affords Marines the enduring opportunity to fish, not to condition them to having someone else bait and cast their hooks.

Unplug Yourself

In the age of AN/PRC-119s, Blackberries, and Microsoft Outlook, you can be down in everyone’s weeds. But why? Maybe that decreases mistakes in the short term, but it impedes real learning in the long run. Think about the movie Master and Commander. Ships’ captains back in the day sailed with commander’s intent and then had to be creative and decisive because the admiral couldn’t e-mail them 50 times a day. Do you think everyone in al- Qaeda gets e-mailed 50 times a day? Ii you create an environment of centralization for your corporals, guess what’s going to happen when they become staff sergeants? Ten to one, they’re going to ask some random first lieutenant whether or not they should wear reflective belts. Don’t let your Marines become accustomed to remaining static unless you approve their dynamism. Don’t hover. I’m not suggesting you take yourself away from the decisive point, take the S out of BAMCIS (begin planning, arrange reconnaissance, make reconnaissance, complete the plan, issue the order, supervise), or dismiss safety. But if you are always around, then your subordinate leaders aren’t really in charge. What’s going to happen when the wag bag hits the fan, and you aren’t there, and they actually are in charge? Are they going to take charge, or are they going to fumble over the radio to ask the command post what to do? Let them lead. Let them fall down, especially during training. Show me an organization in which junior leaders never fail because their seniors are calling or approving all the shots; I will show you an organization that plateaus at mediocrity because it doesn’t pay the price to let its junior leaders grow.

Learn How To Conduct Training

Do you know what the Navy Marine Corps 3500.XXseries is without consulting Google? Can you talk intelligently about the systems approach to training? Probably not. Company grade officers and SNCOs across the board are terrible at planning and executing training. (As a lieutenant, I certainly was, and so were my peers.) The reason is that we too often define training as an event rather than a process. A brief isn’t training. A “familiarization fire” isn’t training. Yet this is usually exactly what our training looks like. These events lack any meaningful feedback, evaluation, and remediation. This is unfortunate, since real training hasn’t occurred until these phases take place. Officers on the whole don’t really grasp that. Leaders should learn how to conduct standards-based training better. Keep in mind that, when it comes to higher level cognitive functions, the standard is the effect, not the method. Don’t get wrapped around the axle about one way to skin a cat. If I could do only one thing over again, I would make greater haste to learn how to conduct training properly.

Check Your Motives and Have a Voice

“Yes men” are in no way inspiring. They dowse boldness in their organizations. Hopefully you aren’t the presents under the Christmas tree, but high fitness report ranking isn’t a legitimate objective. Kudos if you get an end of tour award, but you should neither shoot for nor expect one. Good for you if you retire after 20, but that isn’t your mission. During my pumps to Iraq, I especially felt I spent more time fighting my own institution’s “wait to be told” and “check in the box” mentality than I did fighting any enemy. (I don’t say that with an air of superiority. Truly. I was by no means God’s gift to the Marine Corps. I made plenty oí significant mistakes and poor judgment calls. But what I’m talking about goes beyond mistakes.) This is a common misgiving among many junior officers I have met. Every time something trickled down that just didn’t make sense, the almost universal reaction up and down the chain was seemingly blind compliance, even though everyone admitted it didn’t make sense. I’m not positive, but the only reason I can figure is that no one wanted to risk an otherwise imminent award, promotion, or retirement by making waves. And that’s not okay. What do you think happens to a Marine’s boldness and bias for action when that’s what he sees from his officers?

I dug in my heels over a lot of things in my time. In hindsight, I was often too belligerent and public. And I wasn’t always right, either. As I have matured, I have come to better appreciate the wisdom in King Solomon’s admonition that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Sometimes silence is prudent, but not unendingly. There is a time to speak. I remain convinced that, in the end, a bold word is better than cautious silence. That’s part of audacious leadership. That’s how things change for the better. Why don’t we want that from ourselves and from our Marines? Now I’m not advocating mutiny or open dissention. I understand unity of command and that orders are orders. But I also understand that a rubber stamp from Staples costs a lot less than an officer’s salary. Don’t ever hesitate to say or do what you think or know is right because you are afraid of what it might do to your career. Be tactful, close the door behind you, and choose your battles wisely, sure. But choose battles.

Rounds complete. I hope you have not gotten mired in the yeah-buts and what-ifs, but have instead applied your own common sense. I hope you agree there is an immediate need for change in our leadership culture. The onus falls first on the officer corps. We need inventive, not prescriptive, leaders. All Marines have the intrinsic potential to be such leaders. But they don’t come prepackaged; they have to be conditioned in a better environment. I hope you take these things to heart when you lead your Marines. They deserve the finest.