When I started writing Becoming A Leader: A Road Map for My Daughter and the Aspiring Leader, I quickly realized that I could write a very long tomb that covered everything, cover a lot of ground others had covered, and likely it would never be read. At least it wouldn’t be useful. I don’t write for fun. So why? Simon Synek wrote a book and has done several talks about that question. Some of his thoughts came from working with the Marines. My purpose was to provide something for my daughter and son that would be useful early in their leadership careers. So, I decided to make that book short and aim it at the first two years of their experience. In doing so, I left a lot on the table, like 28 years of experience, well kind of because it results from experience. With that decision, I made a deal with myself to write a second book. It’s hard to say that out loud. Writing Becoming made me look hard at myself and focus on my failures and successes to identify useful lessons for my children. So why would I do that again?
During my five years working in the defense industry, I had the opportunity to work with some great people on some exciting projects. Much of this work required conceiving concepts and turning those concepts into reality through processes, procedures, and organizations. One of my regular partners in these efforts was LtCol Tom Sudbeck, USMC (Ret), Suds to his friends. Suds is a helicopter pilot, MEF* planner, MAGTF Staff Planner*, and is one of the most disciplined thinkers I have ever met. We had many long discussions on these subjects and generally about what made organizations successful. As I started my business, I had more conversations with Suds. I realized I had served in several unique organizations and even led a few, where the factors of leadership, mission, and organizational dynamics created a high performing culture. I call this a Culture of Performance. Upon reflection, I recognized that these lessons are repeatable, and I had implemented them successfully in every organization. I wasn’t very good at journaling at the start of my career, but I did write various articles, reports, and procedures that allowed me to reach back significantly when I fell short of the objective. I believe these lessons can be useful in any organization, and I’ve applied them in the Marines, defense companies, and volunteer organizations. Over the weeks and months ahead, I will endeavor to unpack the concept of a culture of performance and create that organization, hopefully to the reader’s benefit. This work is not an academic research project, and it is not a memoir, but I will have to address some facts and science and tell some stories.
“Whether in the military or a civilian organization, the culture of the first organization a young person joins has a tremendous impact, and his or her first immediate supervisor significantly shapes that person’s understanding of the organization and the role of supervisors and managers.”
This lesson was absolutely true for me. I had been raised in a military family, attended the U.S. Naval Academy, The Basic School, and the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course before reporting to 10th Marines, the 2nd Marine Division’s artillery regiment Camp Lejeune, NC at the end of August 1984. I wanted to go to a Direct Support (DS) Artillery Battalion and be a forward observer, deploying and operating with an infantry company. Our nation was still in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and it shaped all we did in training. Other threats were emerging, and the previous October, 241 Marines had been killed by a suicide bomber in their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The 2nd Division had infantry regiments assigned to respond to missions on the northern flank of NATO, South/Central America, and the Mediterranean. Central Command didn’t exist. The Marine Corps had recently resumed routine shipboard deployments with Marine Amphibious Units built around an infantry battalion with an artillery battery, tank platoon, logistics, and a composite aviation squadron.
When I reported to the Adjutant (HR), he put a sticky note inside my officer’s qualification record (OQR) that I wanted to go to a DS Battalion, unbeknownst to me. So, after some waiting, I was directed to report to 5th Battalion (5/10), a General Support (GS) Battalion that employed both M109A3 Self-Propelled Howitzers and M110 8-inch Self-Propelled Howitzers. I was at least slightly disappointed. With three batteries of 6 howitzers each and a headquarters battery, 5/10 was the largest battalion in the Marine Corps. Just a few hundred yards down the street, I reported to the Executive Officer of 5/11 within minutes. The XO took my OQR and delivered it to the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard I. (Butch) Neal, who considered my assignment. At the same time, I waited in the XO’s office in my wool supposedly lightweight service dress green uniform with a wool shirt and a tie in the non-airconditioned, 50s era building. LtCol Neal was the most experienced self-propelled artillery officer in the Corps, had been in command for a little over a year, and had been awarded the Silver Star for heroism as a forward observer in Vietnam, and he ran 8 miles every day at lunch. He was a badass from Massachusetts and would become a four-star general attaining the second-highest post in the Corps as the Assistant Commandant.
My fate was determined. My future Battery Executive Officer, 1st Lieutenant Tim Snyder, had already been called to retrieve me by the time I was summoned to the Battalion Commander. LtCol Neal stood behind his desk as I marched into his office, stopped three paces in front of his desk, and reported, “Sir, Second Lieutenant Connally reporting to the Battalion Commander as ordered.” As I stood at attention, LtCol Neal, all of an inch taller than me, began in his heavy New England accent. “Lieutenant Connally, you have two strikes against you, you are a Naval Academy grad, and you wanted to go to a DS Battalion.” As I recovered from the initial shock of being down in the count 0-2 to start my career, he continued to speak. He said 5/11 was the best battalion and that I would learn more because there were fewer lieutenants in GS batteries and a greater breadth of responsibilities. He continued speaking, and I’m sure it was important, but it either seemed less relevant, or I missed it entirely because he spoke so quickly. I don’t know how long this lasted. Still, when he completed, I figured I was down 0-2, so I’d take a swing. I told LtCol Neal that I brought regards from an Army War College classmate, an Army Colonel whose daughter I was dating, and whose father was a renowned Army General hero of the Battle of the Bulge. LtCol Neal’s response was, “oh, you’re that Lieutenant,” and he dismissed me. So, while I didn’t hit a home run, I think it was a solid single through the box, he hadn’t intimidated me, and I had some grit. I would come to recognize that everything Butch Neal had said was right, and I was getting ready to find out as I walked across the parking lot with Tim Snyder to Battery N or November Battery as commonly known.
Lt. Snyder, or XO for Executive Officer, was a short, stocky, country boy from Idaho. He was tough and had deployed with 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines, and the Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) that went into Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine Headquarters, so he wore a combat action ribbon on his service uniform and in the ’80s when awards were rare that meant something. The Battery XO was responsible for the daily operation of the battery. In the field, he was the position commander, responsible for the defense, operations, and logistics of the battery. It is a position of significant responsibility and one every artillery lieutenant aspires to attain. While we were walking, the XO told me a little about November. We had six M109A3 155mm Self-propelled howitzers that were supposed to be manned by 10-man crews, led by a staff sergeant, 15 5-ton trucks, and a few other odd trucks like gamma-goats that had six wheels and an articulating truck bed. We had ten jeeps, mostly WWII vintage, and many PRC-77 radios, and most of it was Vietnam vintage. Our authorized manning was 100 Marines, but we had assigned 55. So, when we went to the field, we could only man three or four guns. This situation resulted from years of low defense funding and our lower priority as general support artillery. We didn’t deploy with contingency groups like the MAU, as did direct support artillery, and the Reagan Defense Spending hadn’t reached us yet. Lt Snyder also told me a little bit about our Battery Commander John Rodney Buchanan.
John R. Buchanan known to his friends as Rod and to us as CO for Commanding Officer, or Skipper, as a term of endearment for commanding officers throughout the Naval Services, or between us lieutenants when he wasn’t within earshot, Big Rod. Rod Buchanan was a big man over 6 feet, about 225 pounds, and his arms filled up his camouflage field uniform with the sleeves rolled up as we did half the year. He looked much younger than his 36 years. Captain Buchanan was a prior-enlisted sergeant infantry mortarman and served in Vietnam, which came with unspoken respect. Before Vietnam, he had served as a Body Bearer at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., the oldest post in the Corps steeped in tradition, and a culture emphatic about attention to detail. After Vietnam, Buchanan left the Marines and attended Florida State University and tried out for football. I don’t know if he made the team, graduating and earning a commission in the Marines. Big Rod was a man of few words, but the intent was evident when spoken. He rarely spoke of himself or Vietnam. The XO said he had high standards. I can’t say I remember my first meeting with the CO, but the imprint on me over the next year shaped everything I learned and did as an officer and leader. When I left the office that day, I had met the other two lieutenants, Mike Matroni and Rich Severin, and I had my first assignments.