2006, Camp Fallujah, Iraq, I was a very fresh 24 year old Marine First Lieutenant. We got back in from Zaidon one long hot day around 1900, two other fellow Lt’s came back in from their respective areas, we had dinner and headed back to the head shed, our small office of which we shared with the Company 1st Sgt and the Company Commander, Captain Joe B, USMC. (Field Comment – Name redacted for professional courtesy, those in service within this era are familiar with “Smoking Joe” = Capt B).
Smoking Joe was ancient, prior to becoming a Counterintelligence Officer he had been an enlisted Man for a long stretch, Captain B was a Marine Radio Reconnaissance Man. The Man had no body fat, he was about 900 years old and could out PT everyone, on Earth, true story, he was also legitimately brilliant, levitated, and cooked minute rice in 59 seconds. We thought we were hot shit, we were wrong.
Leadership is the action of leading a group of people or an organization, I’ve seen all types. Paradoxically you learn the most from terrible leaders. There are more terrible leaders than good ones, the definitive, most critical element of any true leader is simply a profound, inherent fragrance of selfless humility. Write that down.
Captain B, when he was not reading every single line of every single intelligence report pouring out of HUMINT Exploitation Team’s MNF-W wide he was chain smoking, quietly telling inept superiors to fuck off, mentoring, running 16 minute 3 miles, doing super sets of pull ups in full kit, fantasizing about a life within an era in which Men still carried swords upon their hips and used them abundantly, and keeping his guys, and we were all his, alert, motivated, in line, and focused on our tasks, he was an engine, our engine, and yes, we needed him. I’ve never heard another Marine discuss him without a reverent air of lead weighted sacred respect, I’m not even kidding.
So sitting in the office, three or four of us Lieutenants, writing our reports, red eyed and exhausted, engaged in gregarious shit talking, eyeing the clock for midrat chow, few of the guys were on the phones in the back talking to their teams over the SVOIP or calling the wives back home. Captain B entered the room, like a Ninja, as he always did. If you ever have to tell someone you are in charge, you aren’t. When in Command, Command, Smoking Joe barely spoke, he had no time to waste on luxurious arbitrary discussions. In Al Anbar we were losing too many Marines each month, nearly 50, with 50-70 more Iraq wide. The week earlier a rocket had exploded directly outside the same office we were sitting in cutting a civilian support contractor in half. A week afterwards we would lose our bro Nate. I think about him every day. That’s a whole other post.
At that late hour, all of us, strung out, exhausted, slightly pissed off, inside our own heads, with a cigarette over his ear, blouse off, no rank showing, Captain B exited his office and did the most incredible thing, he quietly picked up a wooden and straw broom and started sweeping the office. I bet you’re all going, what? Yes, Smoking Joe simply picked up a broom, and quietly started sweeping the office, it was the most routine of events which eventually became to me the greatest example of leadership I’ve ever witnessed. Hang tough with me. . .
100% of the time it was a very junior Marine who would sweep the area, this was not a job for the Skipper, yet there he was, methodically clearing caked mud and removing the moon dust off the cracked stone floor, it was a futile thing, sweeping or cleaning really anything in Iraq, yet he swept. I remember looking up innocently and seeing the CO sweeping the floor and initially I thought nothing of it. In less than a minute I felt self disgust and verge nausea realizing that our beloved Sir was cleaning, by himself. Everyone in the room silently stood one by one, pulled brooms and began to clean, in no time at all heaps of dirt were emptied into garbage bags, then monitors were cleaned, without verbal direction, tables were cleared of empty dip cans, keyboards were scrubbed of that fine silt with cloth pads, laminated maps were gently wiped down to clean, it was infectious, truly.
As each Marine finished cleaning their area, the brooms were put back to bed, and each returned to their work, furiously typing to get in their paper before the close of midnight food service, Captain B was the last man standing, he put his broom up last. He walked around the room slowly, then put his broom against the wall, smiled, placed his Marlboro from above his ear into his mouth and slowly walked outside, if there was a wind, and in my mind there is, he did that whole walking against the wind thing, and it was majestic.
There is no leadership without leading by example. Ductus Exemplo. I’ve never forgotten that moment, seeing my Captain, sweeping alone and feeling that great deep internal swell to aid him, we all did, and that’s all I ever needed to know about being a Leader. Thank you Sir.