Military Leadership – “The mission, the men, and me”

Following is the author’s address to S.C.’s cadets and midshipmen of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis), the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Merchant Marine Academy and their families at the “All Academies Holiday Ball,” Dec. 21, 2010, at the Palmetto Club, Columbia.
When I was first asked to speak to you, I knew I wanted to address the topic of leadership. Problem is, “leadership” – that sometimes vague, somewhat ambiguous magic of getting people to do what needs to be done – has been discussed, written about, and mused-over since armies first marched and navies first sailed, and every leader has tried to convince others that he or she has the perfect formula for that particular kind of magic.

And so I don’t want to bore you all with a rehash of old or emerging methodologies, nor do I want to attempt to reinvent the proverbial wheel with some new method of getting people to do what needs to be done.

Still, the art of leadership must be discussed, because far too often the existing formulas are so full of the ingredients gathered for centuries that we become too focused on the ingredients, not enough on what the end result actually looks like.

So, in the end, we’re not sure what truly works or why.

Moreover, not all leadership formulas and styles work for all people in every setting.

Military leadership, for instance, is not the same as civilian business leadership.

One is more mission-focused (seizing the objective, capturing ground, destroying the enemy, sinking his fleet).

The other being more bottom-line focused (profits, percentages, that kind of thing).

Though there are indeed parallels.

In fact, in the modern world, business leadership is often what the business world has learned from military leadership. Business leaders even use military buzzwords.

And combat leadership is not the same as non-combat leadership.

Royal Navy Admiral Michael Boyce says, “There are obvious differences [between military and civilian leadership]. In military life you are trained to lead, and also on how to be led, until the principles become ingrained. I mean training, not education. You train for leadership, as you would train for a Marathon. Also, the military conditions are different. You need to be able to depend on colleagues for your mutual survival. Decision-making has more life and death consequences than in most other professions.”

Yet we know that all leadership is almost always based on a set of core principles and methods which govern leaders. And some of those core principles and methods we find to be inherent – depending upon the individual (we’ve all heard of the born leader) – but most of those core principles and methods are learned in the classroom, by reading, by observing other leaders, and by experiencing failures and triumphs in ourselves as leaders.

And make no mistake, you will make mistakes as leaders – some of you already have – and that’s okay.

There is not a leader in this room who has not made a mistake in leadership. The important thing is to learn from mistakes, don’t dwell on them, and don’t become so consumed by them – mentally and emotionally – that you are unable to progress as a leader.

What I want to do this evening, is discuss the very basics of leadership with a focus on military leadership – and do it in such a way that we skirt all the professorial stuff and just get down to the earthy basics of leadership, command, and management, all of which are different, but all of which are inextricably connected.

When we look at the very genesis of good leadership, we see that it is not at all what we might perceive it to be.

Most people think that history’s earliest great leaders were these charismatic, Herculean sorts who lorded over their charges and inspired through fear. And there were those sorts, and they did experience success, and so we view them as great leaders.

I won’t name names, but we all know the types – the stereotypical Goliaths of men in history who vanquished foes and conquered on land and sea. But if we look close we also see that their lives and careers as leaders often ended in tragic betrayals, and those tragic ends came because their leadership was never anchored in the bedrock of what we know true leadership to be. Their leadership was like the proverbial house of cards.  

So what is the basic seed of leadership? That tiny little leadership-life-germinating thing that every leader should build upon, and not just in word, but in desire and deed.

It’s “service.”

I know that sounds corny and cliché, and many of you are thinking, “Oh yeah, service is that old trite word that everybody uses to refer to their own individual selflessness, but it really means nothing.”

Though it really does – and should – mean something.

In fact, the word “service” has been so overused that people often say “military service,” and think only of time and work spent in the military without really hearing the word, “service” which means “helpful activity; helping others; aiding someone or aiding society.”

In other words, serving others.

And serving others is the genesis of leadership. If you don’t put others ahead of yourself – and your own personal interests – you will absolutely fail as a leader when your leadership is required in a critical environment.

And you can’t just serve, you have to want to serve. The desire to serve has to be there. You have to feel a sense of reward that the aid you are providing others is returning to you as energy even if no one else is aware of your service.

On a more basic level you have to love others. You cannot effectively lead other people if you don’t like or respect them. You don’t lead by feeling your authority and looking down at others. You literally have to see the people you lead as having greater value than your own. Now that does not mean, you don’t look out for yourself. You absolutely must look out for yourself. But your people always – and I cannot stress this enough – must come before you.

And they come before you, not because I am standing here tonight and telling you your people come first.

They come before you, because in your heart, you have to want them to come first. And if you can’t develop that sense of service to your fellow man, and particularly those who will follow you, then you are in the wrong business.

So you need to think long and hard about that, and you need to look deep inside yourself for this selfless desire to serve others without tangible reward.

When I was a young Marine recruit long before most of you were born, two things struck me right off.

First, was the perceived cruelty of my drill instructors. 

I say “perceived” because I learned that the seemingly impossible demands they were placing on me and my fellow recruits – and the mercilessness with which they would wash out a non-hacker from the platoon – seemed heartless, and it was almost as if they were enjoying our suffering.

On the contrary, they were preparing us for war and other challenges required of young Marines, and they were trying to do everything they could to make sure we had the best chance of surviving in any environment.

The young men they washed out – those who the drill instructors said did not pack the gear, physically, mentally, or emotionally to be Marines – would have hurt themselves and the rest of us in a challenging environment.

It reminds me of what Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, told me, about his own approach to combat leadership. He says there must be “hard training, and motivating and taking care of your people. If you try to elevate people — force them to look at themselves, force them to elevate themselves, force them to be more demanding of themselves — they will meet and raise the bar.”

And that will help them survive.

So the drill instructors were helping, protecting – “serving” – us and the platoon.

Another thing I learned in boot camp which I have carried with me always is what I personally believe to be the most perfect maxim for military leadership in existence. And I hope if you get nothing else out of this tonight, you will leave here with a basic understanding of this maxim, and that in time, you will learn to embrace it.

This maxim – which I’m willing to bet many of you are already familiar with – is simply “The Mission, the men, and me.”

And by the way, when we say men, we mean “men and women” depending on who you are leading.

But what this maxim means is that in every instance of sound military leadership, you must always put the mission first, then take care of the men (but that doesn’t mean the men are taking a backseat to the mission). In fact, many of us like to say, “The mission first, the men always.”

Then lastly is “me.” And, yes, “me” does take a backseat to the mission and the men. As Gen. Livingston, also told me, “the ‘me’ part of the maxim must be far removed from the mission and the men.”

It doesn’t mean you neglect yourself, because that would be irresponsible. But it does mean, leaders eat last, and put their people first.

It’s kind of like when you were kids, and your mom had a mission of going to the grocery store and buying the groceries.

But if you were with her, she didn’t just jump out of the car and run toward the mission of buying the groceries. She made sure you safely got out of the car, she held your hand as you crossed the parking lot, and once you were at the store, she made sure you got through the automatic door safely.

Yes, the mission was key, but always taking care of you in the process.

Mission first (buying the groceries), always the men (taking care of you), lastly was herself.

I remember years ago in Korea, it was bitter cold. We had been in the field for days. We were tired, hungry, footsore, cold, wet, and filthy. When we moved back into our expeditionary camp, the lieutenants were permitted to take showers first with hot water. Then they ate first. We – the enlisted Marines – had to shower with cold water, and we ate second.

I don’t think I have to tell you, morale in the company – because the platoons were already physically and mentally strained – suffered because of something as simple as showers and food.

That was a simple failure of leadership on the part of the company commander. And it did not have to be that way. 

But when we look at the maxim – “The Mission, the men, and me” – and when we remember that the genesis of all substantive leadership is serving others, we need to also know that the “men” component does not simply mean those who are subordinate to us.

It also means that a good leader realizes that he or she has a responsibility to those superior to him or her.

You have to serve your superiors, not in a fawning – hoping-to-get-some-benefit-out-of-it way, but in a way that you are selflessly taking care of that person or persons who are ultimately responsible to the unit.

In that way, you are protecting both your superior and your subordinates, essentially, the unit.

And since we are discussing the basics of leadership, let me touch on some of the particular characteristics of good leaders –

Temperance – this is a big one, because you have to be cool under fire. And if you have an anger problem, you best get a handle on it, and quick. People with anger problems do not do well under conditions of extreme stress.

Integrity – you must have integrity as in being loyal, truthful, and always adhering to your given sense of honor. And being able to survive the challenges to your integrity by those who seek to undo you for whatever reason.

Courage – this is part of your integrity. And it doesn’t mean you might not be afraid. But it means that you will do what needs to be done despite your fear. In fact, there is no courage without fear. So don’t worry about being afraid. It just means you are sane and rational.


There are so many other characteristics of good leadership, and we frankly don’t have time to get into them tonight.

You know – since I’ve mentioned the Medal of Honor, some of you in this room have known or perhaps met a Medal of Honor recipient. You are all attending the academies, I’m quite sure many, perhaps even most have been privileged to be in the presence of a recipient of our nation’s highest award for valor.

In fact, let’s see a show of hands – Who here tonight has ever met a Medal of Honor recipient?

I too have been blessed to both serve with Medal of Honor recipients – during my time in the Marine Corps, in my career as a journalist and war correspondent, and in my service with the S.C. Military Department.

But particularly in my time with the military department. In fact, we – both the S.C. State Guard Foundation and The Citadel – recently hosted the Medal of Honor Society’s national convention in Charleston, where I worked as media director and was able to meet and get-to-know personally over a two-year period several Medal of Honor recipients.

And one of the things I learned about them is that there seems to be this common thread among all of them wherein they all have this innate, almost inexplicable desire to put others first.

Most people when they think of Medal of Honor recipients, they think of yeah, the bravest of the brave. And yes, they are brave to be sure. But there are several other decorations for sheer bravery.

But you have to be more than just brave to receive the Medal of Honor.

You have to have exhibited an almost superhuman level of selflessness on top of that bravery.

You have to have shown an extreme willingness to serve. You have to have followed the maxim, the mission, the men, and me to the letter.

And you have to do all these things in the face of the enemy, which is why – unfortunately – most of these heroes don’t survive the action for which they ultimately receive the award.

Let me share with you an anecdote which I think best illustrates this point.

In 2009, I wrote a piece for entitled “All men are not equal,” and let me just share a bit of it here.

“Whoever believes, ‘All men are created equal,’ never stood face-to-face with Michael E. Thornton.

“Of course, I’m being facetious: All men are indeed created equal in the eyes of God and the law.

“But I do stand by what I’ve been saying for years: That is, retired Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton could walk into any fraternity house in the country and instantly be the biggest, baddest man in the house. No exaggeration, and the guy is 60-years-old…”

In Sept. and Oct. of this year, America paid tribute to its Medal of Honor recipients at the Medal of Honor Society’s national convention in Charleston. And what I find particularly interesting was that many of those who planned and raised money for the event were recipients themselves. And they were doing it not for themselves, but to make sure the convention was the success that it was. That it created an awareness of our great heritage (because military and maritime heritage and tradition is the lifeblood of our national defense). And that it paid equal tribute to every single American soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman, and Merchant Mariner serving today.

So, yes, Mike may have been – at the time of the interview, and he is today in my opinion – the biggest, baddest man in the house. But like his 86 fellow living-recipients, he’s also the most humble and self-sacrificing.

That, ladies and gentlemen – humility, selflessness, and a willingness to sacrifice – is the essence of leadership.