May 12, 2006
Combat leaders capture their audience's attention
by Martha Thorn
Trident Managing Editor

When midshipmen graduate and go into combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, what should they expect of themselves and their people?

In the Margaret Chase Smith Leadership Speaker Series, the midshipmen heard from officers like Marine Capt. William Vaughan, who served in the Gulf War as an enlisted Marine and has been deployed to Iraq three times as an infantry officer.

Vaughan told them about fear, the debilitating kind that made one Marine threaten suicide and made others question whether they could do their job. How people deal with that all encompassing fear varies from person to person, but Vaughan shared what worked for his unit.

They met their fear head-on. They talked about their fear, sharing their feelings and letting each other know that they weren't alone. They leaned on each other, helping each other work through and handle the worst of their fear.

When bullets were flying, the enlisted Marines looked to their officers to lead. Vaughan told about one "hairy" situation when his unit had to move 40 meters from a road to a house while being peppered with fairly accurate, low ground, machine gun fire.

"I had 30 Marines behind me," Vaughan said. "For about 30 seconds, they were all looking at me as if to say, 'What now, sir?'"

That's when Vaughan recalled what he had learned from his senior drill instructor in boot camp 15 years before. "Set the example," that drill instructor had said. "Don't ask your subordinates to do anything that you're not capable of or willing to do yourself."

Vaughan took that advice to heart. He stood up and ran across the open space to the house and then provided cover for the rest of his unit to make it across.

"That's when I earned my paycheck and all those salutes," he said.

Vaughan talked about two different leadership styles: authoritative and persuasive. Again, different styles work for different people. For Vaughan, the persuasive style worked best.

Because his subordinates didn't fear him, they tended to bring their little problems to him.

Then, they worked together to solve them before they became big problems.

The same senior drill instructor who taught Vaughan about setting the example taught him about persuasive leadership.

"He never took advantage of his authority," Vaughan said, "and because he didn't, we were incredibly loyal. He also asked for our opinions."

That paved the way to another lesson that Vaughan learned from his senior drill instructor. "Never be intimidated by your subordinates," Vaughan said. "They have good ideas."

Vaughan suggested presenting them with problems and asking their recommendations on how to fix them. He suggested being approachable to subordinates and empowering them to make suggestions.

Students in the leadership class were impressed with Vaughan's leadership philosophy.

"He was great," said Midn. 2/C Bethany Kauffman, a student in the leadership class. "He had some great insight into combat and was very down to earth. I would love to serve under him."

Midn. 2/C Dan Misch, another student in the class, was also favorably impressed. "It was a unique experience to hear from someone who had been in the field," Misch said. "He commented on some of the topics covered in class and it was good to hear them put into action. His stories were compelling and some of his ideas were inspirational."

Thanks to the generous grant from the Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, the midshipmen heard from 16 combat leaders, including Vaughan. The 16 speakers addressed more than 1,000 midshipmen in 55 classes.

"All the speakers possess something midshipmen don't - real life, combat experience," said Midn. 2/C Daphne Ponce. "The more we learn from and listen to these combat speakers, the better prepared midshipmen are to become officers. [There is] no substitute for the impact and importance of [this speaker] series."