Leadership and Followership

What the Marines I Led Taught Me

This Memorial Day, my neighbor and I—Vietnam era vets—were swapping lies, as we washed cars. By so many metrics, we could hardly be more different. Nevertheless, we share a nuanced kinship, due to our service. We both joined out of a sense of duty. There was no flush of adrenaline, or youthful idealism for either of us. But that’s where the similarity ends. He joined straight out of high school. I signed up while still in college, and was commissioned the day I graduated.

My neighbor served one tour (valiantly and honorably) in Air Cav, in sunny SE Asia—the A Shau valley, among other places. I served as a Marine officer for more than twenty years, pretty much everywhere but Australia and Antarctica. My “swan song” was Somalia.

My neighbor is a self-described back-hills country boy, who couldn’t wait to get out. I, on the other hand, left only with great reluctance. I came to love my brother and sister Marines in ways you can appreciate only if you’ve been afforded the honor of leading them. That said, there may be no better time to dispel an oft-touted myth about Marines and the Corps. The Marine Corps is not the service it is because of great leadership. It is the service that it is because of great followership.

Not my line, I confess…much as I would love to report I was perceptive enough to have crafted it. It was one of my instructors at Command and Staff College. Yes, I felt it before I heard it articulated. But it was Lt.Col. Ray Bitner who uttered this obvious truth hiding in plain sight. So thanks, Ray, for that observation. To whatever extent Command and Staff College made me better, this simple observation helped keep me just a little humble and on occasion, remind me to be better.

Self-Reinforcing Greatness-Or Dysfunction

If you’ve read this far, you’re wondering if I have a point. I do, as it turns out. Great followership tends to improve leadership — and vice versa. Not always but usually. Most decent humans in positions of leadership strive to live up to his or her followers. In turn, followers will nearly always extend themselves to live up to their leaders’ example.

So. Leadership matters. But so does followership. And if it isn’t already obvious where I’m going with this, these truths are applicable in all organizations. It applies equally in civil or military organizations—organizations large and small, formal or otherwise. Which brings me to how we can (and must) apply those truths to the civil body politic.

The counterpart relationship to leadership and followership in governance is citizenship and stewardship. Blinding flash of the obvious? If it isn’t, it should be. It is citizens who police the stewards of the public trust. If those stewards do not respect their citizens, it will always be manifested in their behavior. Our previous presidential administration is a perfectly illustrative demonstration case.

By March of 2018, seven of the previous president’s current or former cabinet members had been caught in one form of malfeasance or another. Let that sink in. There are only 24 members of the presidential cabinet, exclusive of the Vice President. So more than a third of the former president’s cabinet was embroiled in scandal. Given the tenor of the man’s campaign for president, no one should have been surprised. By July of 2021, 11 of his associates had been charged with crimes, some convicted and (some) pardoned by the president. Many more, I suspect, are still to follow.

We're the Ones We've Been Waiting For

A couple fair questions that come up a lot, in discussion. How on Earth did he (or they) get away with it and why has it taken so long to hold them accountable? There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is we let them get away with it for years and we have been borderline criminally negligent in holding them to account. In too many cases, that continues to be true. But those truths also validate the point I was just making. Whether we’re talking about leaders and followers, or stewards and citizens, the behaviors in both interrelationships are closely bound and mutually reinforcing. We live up—or down—to each other, in a self-reinforcing spiral.

No administration (or organization) is devoid of blemish. And we should all remember that, when we level criticism at our leaders, or stewards of the public trust. But some things must not be tolerated. Malfeasance, naked greed, or self-serving abuses of power come to mind. If governance tilts toward the already advantaged at the expense of the less fortunate, it’s time to remember that what we permit, we encourage.

Now for the good news. We can change…and reinforce the best in each other, as citizens and/or stewards of the public trust. It’s an imperfect feedback loop, but it’s all we have. And in the interests of not sacrificing the good for the perfect, we should all remember that. But as underwhelming as this simple observation may seem, it really is up to us. It’s followership 101. And in the third decade of the 21st Century, it’s never been more important that, leader or follower, we keep each other honest. It is our duty to do so.


Dirk's path to authorship wasn't quite accidental, but almost. Through two previous careers, first as a retired Marine officer and later as a corporate trainer, he started more stories than he finished. But in the backwash of the 2008 financial meltdown, Dirk's employer filed for Chapter 11 protection. Cordially invited to leave and not return, he found himself out of work and excuses. Since then Dirk has finished six titles and has two works in progress. He currently lives in Laguna Niguel with his wife, two pschotic cats and a fourteen year old Ball Python named Corona.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. PaulieV

    Love your balanced take on this. We’ve traveled a lot of the same paths. Thanks for posting.

    1. Dirk

      Which service? Whichever, thank you for your contribution to the national defense and your subsequent citizenship. And for stopping by. Looking forward to hearing from you again. Best wishes, Dirk

  2. DT Mandrich

    I don’t know why, but I never thought of it this way. It makes sense, kind of. You really don’t think much of the previous president, do you?

    1. Dirk

      No. He’s not a leader. He’s a taker with millions who let him get away with it and even cheer him on. It is the very definition of a cult figure.

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