People, Honor and Power

What the Marines I Led Taught Me

Khe Sanh, Quang Tri Province, Republic of Viet Nam, 1968 (Combat Camera, Public Domain)

Last 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 (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, literally 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’m 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 expressed, but it was LtCol. Ray Bitner who articulated that inescapable truth. So thanks, Ray, for that observation. To whatever extent Command and Staff College made me better, it is your words that helped remind me I’m not nearly the leader I should have been.

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 tend to extend themselves to live up to their leaders’ example. So, does leadership matter? You’re damn skippy it matters. But so does followership. The better the followership is, the better the leaders tend to be.

This is generally true in all organizations, large or small, formal or otherwise. Which brings me to comment on the civilian 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 becomes obvious in their behavior. The example of our previous presidential administration is illustrative.

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. 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.

A fair question—one that comes up a lot, in discussion. How on Earth did he (or they) get away with it? The bad news is we let them. And in too many cases, continue to let them. 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 the 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 for change. What we permit, we encourage.

The good news is, we can reinforce the best in each other. It isn’t a perfect feedback loop 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.


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.

Leave a Reply