View Full Version : Understand Leadership before You Report It (II)

04-13-04, 06:43 AM

Understand Leadership before You Report It (II)

Second in an Occasional Series

By Matthew Dodd

According to a very wise Swahili proverb, “There are three things that if a man does not know, he cannot live long in this world: what is too much for him, what is too little for him, and what is just right for him.”

To me, that profound observation of life and death is all about one of the fourteen U.S. Marine Corps leadership traits: judgment. As a career Marine officer, I believe judgment is the ability to weigh facts and possible courses of action in order to make sound decisions. From its foundational leadership writings, the Marine Corps describes the significance of judgment as:

“Sound judgment allows a leader to make appropriate decisions in the guidance and training of his or her Marines and the employment of his or her unit. A Marine who exercises good judgment weighs pros and cons accordingly to arrive at an appropriate decision or take proper action.”

An article in the Houston Chronicle on March 14 about the death of a Marine recruiter was unfortunately much more focused on sensationalizing the story than on trying to turn this tragedy into a positive learning experience for readers and other military people that could help save lives in the future. The article, “Did ‘Death Drive' Cost a Marine His Life?” failed to recognize and present through interviews with experts the obvious lessons in judgment from the tragedy. Since it is in those lessons that this tragedy can serve as a catalyst to prevent further deaths by poor personal and inter-personal leadership judgment, I submit the newspaper article failed its readers.

Here is a summary of the facts surrounding this tragedy:

At approximately 7:15 p.m. local time in Mount Pleasant, Tex., a government van driven by a Marine lance corporal overturned on Interstate 30 after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The passenger in the van, a Marine sergeant serving as a recruiter, was ejected from the van and pronounced dead on the scene by Texas state troopers.

The two Marines were returning to their recruiting sub-station in Little Rock, Ark., from Dallas (a 335-mile one-way trip), where the sergeant had been ordered to report to his recruiting station commanding officer for counseling and allegedly some unscheduled physical training after his poor performance in failing to meet his monthly recruiting quota. At the time of the accident, the Marines’ workday was already in excess of 11 hours, with at least a few more hours left until they returned home.

This tragedy is currently being investigated by the Marine Corps judge advocate general and also by a Pentagon safety panel.

The main point of the Chronicle article was that these long drives to be counseled or physically disciplined by their commanding officers have become so commonplace that the Marines have come up with colorful names for these trips: “death/pain/suicide drives.” The article closed with the conclusion, “The Marines, whose hard-nosed work ethic and intolerance of failure are part of their lore, have had a number of deaths [the article briefly described nine deaths – six from one highly-publicized incident] during training sessions and other non-combat exercises over the years [since 1956].”

Since the article was published, I have spoken to recruiters and to former recruiting station commanders for their insights and perspectives on these “death/pain/suicide drives.” Here are their observations:

Are these “death/pain/suicide drives” as common as the article states? Well, due to the geographic separations inherent within recruiting districts, recruiting station commanders often direct recruiters to report to their headquarters and require the recruiters to drive long hours. It is also not uncommon for the commanders to drive to visit their recruiters at those distant sub-stations, officers told me.

However, not all commanders use these visits to “harass” or “physically punish” their recruiters who fail to make meet recruiting goals. Sure, some do, and of those who do, some do it more than others. Most Marines see these visits as leadership tools and opportunities for the commanders to use their judgment to give non-performing recruiters what they deserve, such as a stern warning, a “wake-up call,” or words of encouragement and a revised plan of action to improve.

The newspaper article provided some background historical perspective to the situation in the Little Rock sub-station:

“Marine records show the five-member Little Rock recruiting operation – one of 12 in the Dallas command – had a “mission” of 11 recruits in November and it obtained five. The substation missed its quota in seven of the 12 months in 2003, and fell particularly short in the last four months of the year.”

The former recruiting station commanders I spoke with said that they had to carefully weigh the timing and advantages and disadvantages in calling for a recruiter to make a long drive to the headquarters. Some questions we brought up in our discussions included:

* Is it more efficient and effective to have a non-performing recruiter miss at least one day of actively recruiting being on the road to see the commander, or for the commander to be on the road and away from the office for at least a day?

* Are these trips needed every time a recruiter fails to meet quotas, or are they reserved to repeat or patterned failures?

* How does unscheduled physical training help teach a non-performing recruiter to be a better recruiter?

* What sort of commander would order recruiters to undergo round-trip death/pain/suicide drives” with grueling physical training sandwiched in between, and then not authorize overnight lodging? What sort of recruiter would drive him- or herself, or allow another Marine to drive, beyond his or her fatigue limits and refuse to stop somewhere overnight?

It is because of these types of issues that we have commanders and recruiters who are expected to use good judgment on recruiting duty.

According to the Chronicle article, a staff sergeant who worked with the sergeant did not approve of the way his commander used these “death/pain/suicide drives.” The article said that he brought these drives to the attention of his seniors in Dallas but from his perspective, nothing was done about the drives.

The newspaper article also contained some background information about the deceased recruiter that reflected on his judgment and performance as a recruiter:

“[The recruiter’s family lawyer] said [the recruiter’s] wife told him the fatal trip was not the first time her husband was ordered to drive to Dallas to be disciplined. ‘He'd have to go all the way (there and back) and there would be physical training.’ [The recruiter’s parents] say he worked long hours to meet his two-recruits-per-month mission, but he frequently missed that mark. ‘He averaged about one and a half [in his 14 months of recruiting].’ … And that meant frequent trips to Dallas. … ‘I know he went four or five times on his own and other times he went with a group.’ … [The recruiter’s parents] said their son would have never used his own money to rent a motel room. He was young, married and deep in debt …. ”

In addition, according to the recruiter’s family lawyer, the Marine lance corporal driving the van was not authorized to drive the van. As a sergeant, I would expect the recruiter to know whether his driver was authorized to drive the vehicle and whether the driver was too fatigued to drive.

Marine recruiting, like Marine leadership, is challenging, rewarding, and not for everyone. After reviewing the facts and doing some research, I am disappointed that the Houston Chronicle chose to sensationalize this tragic death, and in so doing, completely missed the personal and unit leadership lessons in judgment all throughout this tragic story. I believe when the investigations into this tragedy are done, we will find that this death was the result of the prolonged poor judgment of Marines – from the commander down to the individual recruiter and driver -- from whom much more is expected and demanded.

Novelist Rita Mae Brown once observed, “Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.” The only thing I would add to her observation is “Sometimes good lessons in judgment can come hidden in badly intended articles.”

Lt. Col. Matthew Dodd USMC is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mattdodd1775@hotmail.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.