Do you remember what it feels like to move up into a new leadership position? Remember the feeling of excitement and nervousness that comes with it?
I took command of 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, at Camp Pendleton in July 2010, and I remember those emotions quite well. I had arrived at that point as an alternate for command (I was not the primary candidate for the position, the primary had to bow out due to health reasons). I believed in myself, but the circumstances leading up to me taking over left me feeling both grateful and determined to be the best version of myself possible.
My goal in the first 30 days was to get to know the people in the battalion and to try and define my leadership style so that collectively we’d be as effective as possible. The battalion was in good shape, I didn’t see it as my role to come in and shake things up. Rather, I felt I needed to continue the positive trajectory that my predecessor had established.
During that first month, a small group of us traveled from Camp Pendleton to the Marine Corps’ largest training base at 29 Palms, California, to perform a site survey in preparation for a major training event scheduled for September. The group included several of our company commanders and our operations officer, there were six or seven of us in total. I remember feeling excited about the trip, because I was expecting to walk through the training ranges with these younger leaders while discussing ways we could maximize the ranges’ value for our Marines. I remember thinking that this was one of my first opportunities to provide real mentorship since I had taken command.
Boy, was I wrong. Our little group included several Marines who had been instructors at the Infantry Officer Course. Not only did that mean these former instructors ranked among the best infantry officers in the world, they also had used the ranges at 29 Palms about 4-6 times per year as they trained each class of student lieutenants. Plus, a couple of those with us on the site survey had been stationed at 29 Palms for their platoon commander tour, they were already intimately familiar with the ranges there and could clearly articulate how to get the most training value from them. I realized very quickly that I was learning a lot more about the ranges from the Marines in the group than I could ever teach them.
This was a watershed experience for me and for my growth as a leader. For starters it was a visceral lesson in humility, and I was lucky enough to have the self-awareness needed to recognize it. I also realized that after the site survey, I needed to think deeply and come up with an answer to the question: How do I bring value to the battalion? It was crystal clear to me that relying on the skills I had used in lower-level leadership positions would not be enough.
So, what did this experience teach me that could also be useful for today’s leaders?
1. I learned that humility really helps you hear what people are communicating. I probably approached the site survey in a humble fashion because I had been an alternate for command and because I respected the background and skill level of the others on the survey with me. One thing is certain, what I absorbed from them on that trip caused a tectonic shift in my leadership approach going forward.
2. That experience helped me understand how important it is to add to your leadership tool kit when moving from one level up to the next. On the site survey, my comfort level was to focus on the ranges, but the other Marines taught me that running ranges is company commander business. I needed to look deeper and shape the environment so that they would be successful, and to do that I had to employ – and in some cases, learn – more sophisticated skills.
3. This experience early in my tenure shoved me out of my comfort level. It changed the way I thought about my role and challenged me to elevate my leadership game. This was one of the principle influences that helped make me into a sound battalion commander by the time we deployed to Afghanistan a year later, and I’m thankful for it.