[December 17, 2020] Old war stories never seem to stop. Any time there is one Veteran in the room, you are likely to hear a war story about some event or person. A crusty Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt) told a small group of civilians about the time he was a Drill Instructor at Parris Island, S.C.1 His story was about eyeball-to-eyeball leadership.
“They’re on our right, they’re on our left, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us; they can’t get away from us this time.” – Chesty Puller
For those new to the U.S. military, one of the early experiences is likely to be a Drill Instructor (or Drill Sergeant) yelling commands at you from less than 6 inches from your face. By the time you arrive at Boot Camp, you are overtired, hungry, and wondering whether you just made the dumbest mistake of your life by joining up.
For those who have witnessed recruits interacting with a real DI for the first time, watching the intimidation can be awe-inspiring. Intimidation is not the goal, of course. Intimidation drives motivation, and motivation is what makes success. Highly motivated people can efficiently unlearn old ways of being an individual and learn new ways like teamwork.
Breaking down the individual is just one method of turning a “flabby, cowardly, cynical, leftist lot” into a mean fighting machine. The only way to do so is through eyeball-to-eyeball leadership. It means getting down into the trenches with the new military recruit and be willing to get dirty with them, to experience their fears, and to understand your teaching will make a difference.
This was the case with MGySgt John Stannic. He was a highly-decorated career U.S. Marine who saw action in Vietnam. Seven combat tours of duty, two Purple Hearts, and a stack of other medals, this was not a man to be trifled with at any time. I think they made the character Marine Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway – played by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) – from the likes of MGySgt Stannic. Highway, like Stannic, was a hard-nosed, hard-living Marine who clashed with his superiors.
Stannic’s experience led him to become an opinionated, no-nonsense man, prone to loud outbursts, especially when he was drunk. Some will say that Stannic is a relic of an old-styled military. But this is precisely what makes for the best eyeball-to-eyeball leaders. A combination of harsh training and rough mentorship toughens up the men Drill Instructors like Stannic may have to lead one day.
At the lowest levels of any organization is where the job gets done. Without those at the bottom, no company could exist. No product will be made, no war won, and no money made. These are the most inexperienced, the least dedicated, and the most easily distracted. MGySgt Stannic tells us of the eyeball-to-eyeball leadership necessary to make the military work.
- The U.S. Marine Corps boot camp training area on the East Coast.