Strong Enough to Obey

I admire the few highly skilled writers, that with a paucity of precisely chosen words, were able to paint a picture with detail and imagery of much greater proportions than the size of the sentence would indicate. Wordsmithing was their craft. Vigorous, concise prose their propellant. Nuance, innuendo, double entendre their full metal jacket. Shell Silverstein’s poetry and books spoke to the adolescent and the adult with the fewest of verses. In its mere 621 words The Giving Tree delivers to its readers a lifetime’s worth of emotions and imparts upon them the deep value of endless charity. Ovid’s terse, eloquent admonitions were candid and truthful. So compelling was he at delivering his thoughts that, standing the test of time, they influenced artists as diverse as Cervantes and Bob Dylan. Theodore Giselle’s literary potency was rooted firmly in the believability of his creations. He so carefully crafted his arrangements and word selections that it was common for him to spend over a year on one book. Who hasn’t looked for a Zizzer Zazzer Zuz beneath a staircase, or for a wocket in their pocket? The singer, Jim Crocce, is another one of the greats at creating tersely worded imagery. In the song, Rapid Roy, the verse

“He always got an extra pack of cigarettes
Rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve
He got a tattoo on his arm that say “baby”
He got another one that just say “hey”

delivers everything the listener needs to create the perfect likeness of Rapid Roy grinning while leaning against his car. Yes, these are writers who have perfected their craft. Breath in. Breath out. Slow, steady squeeze. Crack! Pink mist. Silence. They are the literary equivalent of the head shot.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is another of the masters. Helping to usher in the Age of Sensibility his musings’ creative and subjective style influenced modern writing. The Social Contract, his most well-known body of work, forever influenced Europe and the West by challenging the commonly held idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate. It is his obscure passage regarding physical and mental strength that ignites a fire within, however. Masterfully crafted, the caveat’s carefully chosen words evoke strong emotions and give much to ponder. Two words, “obey” and “command”, are responsible for comprehension’s hammer-like strike.

“The weaker the body them more it commands. The stronger the body the more it obeys.”

Command: to exercise a dominating influence over or to have command of something. “The master commands, the servants obey”. The word conveys power and control. Obey: to follow a command or behave obediently. “He always obeys his parents”. The word conjures thoughts of submission and lack of control. These two, seemingly diametrically opposed words that at first glance appear to be only 2 sides of the same coin have an interesting relationship. Rousseau must have seen it.

Many books have been written on the subject command; it is an easy one to get wrong. When looking at it in the context of Rousseau’s statement, it isn’t hard to understand. The body is nothing more than a vessel whose cargo of tissue, blood, and bone, is captained by the brain. A leaking, weak, poorly crafted vessel will not take the rigors of sailing a rough sea no matter the wish of the captain. When the body starts to fail it becomes increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to continue one’s level of performance. The corollary to that is the stout ship, one whose hull of thick oaken timbers has been mercilessly built to withstand the onslaught of a raging sea. When the captain says, “Make turns for 8 knots”, there is no hesitation, no push back, no questioning. There is only immediate obedience to orders and a speed of 8 knots. Even while going on little sleep, undernourishment, and while being over worked, the strong body always obeys it’s master. The stronger and more robust the body, the more quickly it can answer the call. Stated simply, it takes strength to obey. In that paradox lies an invaluable component of successful leadership.

Successful leadership takes hard work and utter commitment. When one leads, there is no down time. Accepting the privilege and honor of command means accepting the yoke of accountability from which there is no relief and no quarter given. It means leading by example and doing the right thing, always. Part time leaders get part time results.

Major General W. Lee Miller, then a Lieutenant Colonel, was my commanding officer when I was a Lieutenant with the Warlords, 2d Battalion, 2d Marines. To his junior officers, of whom I was one, he was the “old man”. Greying and wrinkled, standing not quite as tall as he once probably did, we never really viewed him as a physically powerful man. That is not to say he was not highly respected and loved as our commanding officer. He seemed older than other battalion commanders and because of his age we didn’t expect to see him being as physically aggressive as us young bucks who were full of piss and vinegar and much, much tougher. We were on the 20 mile march for our Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation (MCCRE) with full combat loads, when we learned otherwise.

The purpose of a MCREE is to ensure the combat readiness of a unit before it deployed. Commanders have discretion on the structure of their MCCRE based on situations they are most likely to encounter on their deployment. Conducting day and night attacks, raids, and patrols, displacing the battalion headquarters, constructing defensive positions, and performing live fire exercises formed the basis of ours. Staying out in the field for the entirety of the evaluation, the old man decided we were going to march 20 miles out into the field carrying all of our gear on our backs. If we couldn’t carry it, we didn’t need it. Food, changes of socks, ammunition, batteries and radios (not for music), entrenching tools, optics, maps, and every weapon the platoon owned was stuffed, strapped, Velcro’ed, or bungeed to our bodies. It is hard to convey the level of misery, suffering and joy one can experience on a conditioning march. Imagine the emotional roller coaster of being one of 600+ Marines split into two, single file columns, one on each side of the road. Marching for 50 min of every hour at a pace of 4 mph with crushing loads of 50-70 lbs on your back, enjoying temperatures in the 90’s, awash in the NC humidity, and all while maintaining a parade ground perfect 30” spacing between you and the motivator to your front, the Lord’s name, and I suspect the commander’s, was mentioned more than a few times in less than complimentary terms. Each 10 minute break of which, by the time the order to rest was relayed back and you actually got to drop your pack, we were able to enjoy about 3 minutes, Marines did their best to recover a bit and tend to their feet before hoisting their packs up onto their backs for another 50 minute joy ride. Serving as a company commander, I would periodically hike up and down my line of Marines in order to keep them motivated, check in with my squad and fire team leaders, and share in some camaraderie with my trigger pullers. Moving up and down the line of 100 or so men took considerable effort, and it was appreciated by my Marines.

2 columns of 250+ Marines spread out on a “hump” takes up some real estate; about 500 yards or 5 football fields end to end. The Old Man didn’t need to do the march. He had done more MCCRE evaluations and more conditioning marches in his time than anyone else save for the crusty ol’ Gunnies, First Sergeants, Master Guns, and the Sergeant Major. Most of the junior Marines would have never known if he was walking out with us or not. Regardless, there he was. A spark in his eye, sweat on his brow, and large back on his back, the Old Man was marching down the line. His intention was to see every one of the Marines that were doing what he asked of them. Soon I saw him again, marching back up the entire line to get back to the front of the battalion. He intermingled with the Marines the entire 20 miles. A masterful leader, his carefully chosen words and mannerisms let each Marine know that it was ok to be tired, and it was even ok to be hurting, but it wasn’t ok to quit. He’d have none of that, and we knew it. If he wasn’t quitting, how could we? Seeing the Old Man hump up and down that line made every Marine grow another 6 inches and pack on another 20 pounds of muscle.

When one has the privilege of command, they soon realize the interesting paradoxical relationship between commanding and obeying. To be at the top of the food chain, one has demonstrated great strength. However, regardless of industry, once one is at the top, there is enormous opportunity to be weak. Leaders are in position to entreat themselves to privileges that their subordinates do not receive. To the uninitiated and the inexperienced this may seem acceptable and is in keeping with a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. Conventional thinking accepts privilege as the reward for the grueling work which come with being in command. The best and most effective leaders understand that command is the privilege. A leader controls the fates of countless employees, possibly even an entire organization. The reward is seeing subordinates grow both personally and professionally and the organization gain in status and increase its performance. Once in power, the real test of a leader’s strength is in resisting the temptation to accept favor and special treatment, much of which comes in the way of making one’s life easier and more comfortable. A better chair, better equipment, better chow, more comfortable working quarters, different work schedules, being driven to places, etc. Accepting special treatment and favors is damaging. It creates a culture of the “haves” and “have nots”. It also robs the leader of all referent power. Therefore, not only does the culture of their workplace suffer, but their power to do anything about it, literally, evaporates.

As the company commander of Headquarters & Service Company, it was the responsibility of my Marines to set up the battalion headquarters once we arrived at our bivouac site. As such I had a good deal of personal interaction with the Old Man. As we settled in for the night, he could have asked for anything. He was the boss. He had just humped 20+ miles having walked up and down the line more than once. He could have had his own tent. He could have slept in the command post, as so many senior officers and enlisted loved to do under the guise of “needing to be close the radio”. He could have been driven back to the rear for a shower and real food. No one would have known the difference. He was the Old Man, he was important, and he was needed everywhere. But he didn’t. After choking down a tasty Meal Ready to Eat (MRE), he walk over and asked for one of the several cots that the battalion trucked in. A cot. A freaking cot. The same damn cot for which anyone could have asked. Right then and there I would have shot every Red-cockaded Wood Pecker in Camp Lejeune just to make a damn feather pillow for the man. (Marines that were stationed aboard Camp Lejeune understand the gravity of that statement.) The Old Man stayed in the field with us for the entirely of the MCCRE. He visited each company and observed their training. He ate and bivouacked with them. He shared in their suffering.

The Old Man. 50+ years old. Never faltering and, often outperforming Marines half his age. He spent a lifetime crafting his vessel. The timbers of his hull were strong from years of training. No waves of temptation were going to splinter his decks. His body was strong, so he obeyed. And he led.

The weaker the body, the more it commands. The stronger the body them more it obeys, and the better you can lead. During your next workout, when you are thinking about your “why”, spend some time pondering what kind of leader you want to be. In order to lead we must be able to obey.

Semper Fi,
Coach Robby
LIVE – GET STRONG – WIN

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