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The "R" Word

August 01, 2004  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

"The price of greatness is responsibility." - Sir Winston Churchill

The great thing about writing this column is that it usually comes easily because the subject matter seems to present itself in the daily routines of my life.

For the last two weeks I have been on my annual active duty training with the United States Marine Corps. As a major, I was the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the two-week evolution. On the eighth day of our training we were positioned on a desert ridge at 29 Palms, Calif., calling in artillery fire on "enemy positions." It was 110 degrees and I had been there a few days in advance to prepare for my unit's arrival. Months of planning and training by numerous Marines had brought us to this point.

About midway through the exercise I finally had a chance to sit down in the back of a Humvee that served as the mobile command post and watch the forward observes call in the strikes. (To me, the sound of artillery booming is synonymous with the sound of freedom.) Maybe I looked too relaxed, because the junior officer next to me, a lieutenant who was plotting positions on the map board, said to me, "It is good to be the king, isn't it, sir?"

Now, I know it was an innocent remark and nothing was meant by it, but I was somewhat offended. While watching the progress of the operation my body may have been momentarily at rest, but a thousand things were running through my mind. We still had to complete the operation safely. I had to get 65 Marines, 13 vehicles, and a million dollars worth of weapons and equipment back to base. Once there, they would join the rest of my Marines to clean, inventory, inspect, and store all of that aforementioned gear. One Marine had medical problems; another had a death in the family. One of my best forward observers had legal problems and might have to be discharged. After the operation I still had to complete 14 fitness reports and 79 proficiency and conduct reports. True, maybe it is good to be the king sometimes, but good kings have a big word constantly hanging over them: responsibility.

First, don't think that the lieutenant didn't get a dose of my opinion on the subject after his comment. He did a great job for us during the training and, after some mentoring, I think he understood my position a little bit better. After all, a few years down the road, he might have my job.

I was trained under the rule that as a leader I take responsibility for not only my own actions, but for all that my command, my unit, or my Marines do or fail to do. That is a far cry from what we often see in the news today. Neither Ken Lay of Enron nor Gen. Janice Karpinski of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal seem to take any responsibility for the actions of their personnel, much less responsibility for their own actions or inactions. There are some that do. Capt. Scott Waddle of the USS Greenville took full responsibility for an accident that killed nine Japanese fishermen when his submarine sank their ship.

A good leader seeks responsibility. In law enforcement we often have a very loose chain of command structure. Sometimes what happens is that officers who have problems slip through the cracks of the system and no one takes the initiative to be responsible for their welfare. When a terrible event occurs, such as an officer committing suicide or being arrested for a crime, we wonder why no one saw it coming. Repeat, a good leader seeks responsibility. Know your people. We leaders can prevent some of these tragedies.

To be clear, do not mistake responsibility for moral accountability. Officers under your command may make mistakes. They are accountable for their actions. As a leader it is your responsibility to train, mentor, counsel, discipline, and communicate the mission in order that mistakes are minimized and are not repeated. And if things do go wrong, and they will, take the bull by the horns and fix it. The death knell for a leader is permitting an environment where moral, ethical, and criminal misconduct are allowed to permeate.

Sure, the perks of being the king are great. Maybe once in awhile you get your own office or a take home car, but the weight of the crown can be a big headache and it can even leave scars. The reward, though, is seeing those you lead mature, progress, and assume the responsibilities that come with being in front...leading.

Tags: Command Staff, Leadership


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