THEY WHO EAT LAST
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 23 July 2010
"Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.”
Harold S. Geneen (1910-1997)
Books and more books, essays, articles, training manuals, and more have been penned about today's topic. And it's popular fodder for academia, workshops, seminars, role-playing exercises, and the like. And there's certainly no shortage of opinion.
For today, the synopsis of several conversations with a handful of folks over the past month. One way to describe it--surface simplicity and sub-surface complexity. Thoughts are to the point so pardon the staccato approach. What little humor is subtle; if that. There's plenty to think about. And, depending on passion and sentiments about current events, some may feel like crying.
In the end there will be more questions than answers and plenty of opinions. So be it. Here goes...
Anyone who has worn the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor knows the two-fold goal of Marine Corps leadership is 1) accomplish the mission; 2) welfare of the Marines.
It is that simple, and it is that complex.
To achieve the two-fold goal the Marine Corps teaches from a foundation of a complementary set of eleven principles and fourteen traits. There is nothing secretive, magical nor complex about them. Leading by them, through thought, word, and deed--in the best and worst of times, can be complex and will test the character but success is practically a given. Talk about them and act to the contrary and failure is guaranteed.
That said, Marine officer leadership can be synthesized into three words--officers eat last.
Officers eat last is a philosophy of leadership; practiced literally and figuratively. It encompasses everything.
To readers not familiar with the Marine Corps that may come as a surprise. Frankly, those not familiar with the Corps likely assume officers, thanks to rank, not only eat first but the best--and the higher the rank the quicker and better the chow. Nothing could be further from reality.
And let's be clear, the "eat last" philosophy permeates through the leadership from general to warrant officer and down through the enlisted ranks from sergeant major to a lance corporal fire team leader. That is life--every day--in the Corps.
Leadership. It's tough.
Marines will follow officers whom they see sharing equally, and more so, in their hardship, risk, and danger. Marines will follow officers who are calm and decisive under pressure. Marines will follow officers who show genuine concern for their welfare. Marines will follow officers who sacrifice. Marines will follow officers who endure. In other words, Marines follow officers who set the example; who eat last.
Eating last matters not if wearing gold bars of a second lieutenant or five-point silver stars--one, two, three or four--of a general. And it matters not if wearing a single ribbon or so many upper rows must be shifted to properly display them all. A uniform is a costume of sorts--an external symbol denoting time, experience, and ability. It is not a shield for character flaws; rank notwithstanding. A uniform attracts attention, but does not necessarily hold respect. It is character that retains attention, holds respect, and compels Marines to follow. And it matters not if the uniform is Dress Blues, Service Greens, Utilities, PT gear or even civilian attire. Threads do not the leader make. Marines follow leaders--not uniforms.
So where is this primer--this talk about leadership--going?
Credible public opinion polls as to the president's approval rating continue to fall and so goes the president's popularity. Why?
Sundry reasons. Some simple. Some complicated. The complicated can be simplified by saying folks are less enamored with Mr. Obama and do not like the direction he is trying to drive the country; some are convinced into the ground. The simple can be complicated by saying Mr. Obama does not eat last. In essence, the folks--exclusive of the elite; anointed or self-appointed--look to the president for example. It's missing.
Look no further than the most obvious.
Instead of Maine, why not a first family vacation to the Gulf Coast?
If there's no problem along the Arizona border (and other border states), why not a first family vacation out west?
Racism is wrong. The president did bill himself as the "post-racial" president and a uniter--why not a stern public statement (using the video proof) about paramilitary-attired and armed New Black Panthers intimidating voters (and station workers) and one of the same later recorded shouting vile hatred about "crackers" (a term as offensive as the "n" word) and the need to kill them? And not to forget the president's heritage. Was he not offended? As a person? Outraged as our president? The Justice Department dropping the matter is another conversation. Silence especially puzzling when considering a hasty statement, without any fact, publicly ridiculing a police officer (who happened to be white) for performing his duties; legitimately. A presidential mistake and an embarrassing one.
And then there's this week's Shirley Sherrod fiasco. Not the president's fault but he had to help clean it up. This race stuff is tiresome. Quite tiresome. What better president to move it forward? He's not living up to his billing; yet.
Examples aplenty but the point made.
Petty? Hardly. The conversants noted in the second paragraph standfast to the contrary. The simplest, most basic leadership arguably the most important. As it goes to psychology, and setting a tone instilling public confidence. Not only is there not public confidence today there is some fear--fear the president and his administration do not know what they are doing. Is mass despair and hopelessness next? And god forbid, violence? So it's not too terribly difficult to figure out why the public is throwing incumbents--namely Democrats--out of office; no confidence in their leadership.
As goes the president so follows the Cabinet and many in Congress. How many have journeyed with family to the Gulf Coast or west to the border states for vacation? Expressed outrage about the New Black Panthers antics? Not nearly enough. The Sherrod matter is still bubbling.
As goes the elected and appointed so follows the public.
Charles Krauthammer, noted psychiatrist and award-winning author and syndicated columnist, early on labeled Mr. Obama a narcissist. Some of the president's harshest critics refer to him as the Messiah, his Imminence, and a king. Those labels coming from his behavior--his example or lack thereof; which they find reprehensible. Respectful titles? Certainly not. They're offensive. Appropriate monikers? They are what they are.
Can a narcissist lead?
One-day-to-be kings and queens are born adored by the privileged, prosperous, and peasantry. Though when crowned they're respected but not necessarily followed. Such protocol is not applicable to one-day-to-be presidents for we know not whom they are. With presidents, public adoration and following are not lovers but strange bedfellows. And fickle.
There is nothing simple nor easy about leadership. Yet, it is so simple. Set an example--eat last.
Marine officers sweat and ache and accept risk and danger as much as their Marines; more. And they go hungrier. And they lead from the front--by being at the end of the chow line, and the proverbial chow line. So goes the responsibility of leading Marines. Officer Candidates School, an arena for assessing leadership potential, dismisses those unfit for the privilege. It must. For the price of failure, while training or fighting, too high. So as it must be, not everyone--including presidents--can be a Marine. Fewer still a Marine officer. But how ironic yet a necessary dynamic of our Republic--the president is entrusted with the title "Commander in Chief" and commands Marines. And Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen, too. They follow; as required by law.
There is nothing simple nor easy about being president. Yet, it is so simple. Set an example--eat last. It seems one clever enough and driven enough to be elected president would not only grasp this elemental point but, more importantly, behave accordingly.
Royalty--those who eat first. Our Founding Fathers fought to be free from rule by royalty.
Though they often come across as acting like royalty our Congress, Cabinet, and President are not. They are servants--elected by and servants of the public with the odd twist of an expectation of leadership; something not usually expected of servants. But so goes their duties--to lead.
America does not want a king or queen nor want a Messiah or Imminence. America wants and needs a president.
Where is he?
Or, where is she?
You know, the one who will eat last; always--the leader.
Post Script: “Leadership is action, not position.” Donald H. McGannon (1920-1984)