Introduction: Colonel Tim Patrick retired from the Marines after 29 years of service in 2017 as the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 41 in Fort Worth, Texas. He joined Two Blue Aces as a Senior Consultant in 2018. You can read more on his biography here.
Those seemingly innocuous actions leaders make daily say a great deal about them. And, subordinates are watching. It is the small things that can add up and paint a picture about a leader. Demonstrating positive leadership is as much in those smaller actions as in the larger decisions. As a Marine Corps Commanding Officer, I was watched like a hawk. Marines are taught to be leaders from their beginning in the Corps and there is no tougher group to lead. I knew they expected a great deal. Just as I did when I was a junior enlisted Marine. From the time Marines step off the bus at Parris Island for Basic Training or arrive at Officer Candidate School in Quantico; they are steeped in the urgency of leadership and its role in winning our Nation’s battles.
I set three priorities during my last command that would guide the 3,000 Marines in the Marine Air Group I led: leadership, readiness and character. I firmly believe that everything rises and falls on sound leadership. My primary occupational specialty was as a 7557- KC-130 pilot for most of my career. But those I interacted with 99% of the time never saw me fly a KC-130. They couldn’t have cared less about my flying skills. What they saw was my day-to-day conduct and they wanted to know I was going to lead them whether I was in a cockpit or not. Here are a few examples of some of the little things Marines watch for in their leaders.
The Commander should always be the first up on physical fitness tests. We had two tests we ran annually. Pull-ups, sit-ups and a three-mile run during the Physical Fitness Test. The second, the Combat Fitness Test is also three events: the ammo can lift, half-mile sprint and 300-yard shuttle run in which Marines are paired up by size and perform a series of combat-related tasks. Both tests are timed, graded and scores recorded into our records and considered on evaluations. Granted, I was rarely ever able to get maximum points on some of these and I hated that. But the Marines saw me struggle to get as many pull-ups as I could as the first one on the bar. Or, during the Combat Fitness Test, carry one of the biggest Marines during the shuttle run. (Usually followed by a bit of cursing under my breath.) They needed to see that I was holding myself accountable to our standards. Otherwise, I was just the old man sitting in the corner office.
Leaders in the Corps eat last. Marine Officers always eat after their unit, especially in the field environment. It is a big faux pas to be caught standing in the chow line with a junior Marine behind you. It could indicate a degree of selfishness, a lack of regard for the welfare of those junior to the Commander. At a minimum, it showed the CO was just not paying attention to this tradition. Whether intended or not, this could come off as in the young minds of the Marines that you lacked selflessness. It is hard to trust a selfish leader.
Lastly, when visiting my units, I tried looking at every space- offices, hangars, maintenance bays, warehouses, etc. that I could. Our Air Group was spread out over six states. We had over 50 aircraft of seven types and two large Wing Support Squadrons with plenty of construction equipment. Being a KC-130 pilot, I was certainly not the expert in operating and maintaining all of this. But, after meeting the Marines and Sailors at each site, I would tour their facilities. What I saw told me a great deal about the leadership. What they saw was that I cared about attention to detail. (One time, I found a hidden aquarium with a couple of piranhas in it!)
Stewardship of the men and women entrusted to my charge was the highest honor and responsibility I could have had. The Marines and their families expected that I ensure they were ready to answer the call to do what they signed up for…fight. When that call came, the example I was striving to set in my personal conduct would give credence to the priorities I set from my experience. Through the small things I did, I strived to set an example that would spread throughout the Air Group.
These few examples come from my experience in the Corps. But I believe anyone being led watches the behavior of the leader, military or civilian.
What are those around you seeing through your daily actions? Do you like what you think they see?
Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and ‘do windows’ (or dishes) if required? And mentor your subordinate leaders at the same time?
Are you leading from the front? When challenges present themselves, where are you? Are you hacking the load?