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Gunny's Corner: Staring into the sun

My promotion to Gunnery Sergeant didn’t come with a lot of flash, glitter and paparazzi, nor was any expected. We were still at war. There were more important things to focus on. The few handshakes, sprinkle of congratulations, and departing remarks were just a momentary break in our day-to-day lives. The true memory happened later that night, around our table when “The Gunny” told a story about a leader referred to as “The Lion.”

“Have you ever heard of the Center of Gravity?”

Our diverse group of senior leaders sat in silence. I figured the question was rhetorical.

“Carl Von Clausewitz wrote a military strategy book called On War,” The Gunny said. “The rank of Gunnery Sergeant runs along the lines of a concept mentioned in that book. Clausewitz called it the Center of Gravity, or CoG.”

Gunny’s passion bled through each word like a branding iron. He lived this philosophy with every breath of air. If there were a single lesson he wanted to convey in our time together, this had to be it.

“It’s like staring into the f@%king sun, do you understand?”

I nodded my head, clueless. What can I say? It’s a subconscious reaction to stress, right?

“No you don’t,” he said. “Look, let me tell you about ‘The Lion’. I believe he embodies this CoG theory.”

“The who?”

“The Lion was an infantry company commander over at regiment and he had almost a cult-like following among his subordinates. He died a few weeks ago in an ambush. All you hear about now is how amazing of a leader he was to his Marines; pure heart, all fight, vicious and honorable.”

“I think I heard of him,” I said.

I shifted in my seat, working through the memory from the chow-hall chatter and camp reports. The man commanded respect by all ranks in such a way that his death effected Marines in their tents, smoking circles, and every huddle all across the area of operations (AOR). The spirited warrior left us grieving in his absence.

“We only exchanged words for a split second, but I knew right then what he had,” he said. “It wasn’t a magical way with words, political charisma, or even that strategic chessboard thinking of some famous war tactician - Nope. This guy had a completely different thing going on.”

“What?” I asked. His paused unnerved me.

“Gravity,” The Gunny said.

Now I paused.

“The Marines around him were drawn to his guidance without knowing, and never complained about his presence in things. He was supposed to be there. He made the world move.”

I didn’t see that coming.

“It’s the rarest form of leadership I’d ever seen. Most operations officers and platoon leaders falsely believe that they perform this by their billets alone. False.”

I knew what he meant. Many times I’d run across a peer, or supervisor, convinced that the rank and billet bestowed them with the answers to the universe. Even if this never left their mouths, their actions spoke loud and clear.

“I caught him speaking to his company after a big operational briefing,” The Gunny said. “The atmosphere of their huddle was so electric Leonidas himself would have been inspired. I was tempted to stop, grab my war-gear, and join them in their march through Fallujah.”

Our cigars had burned halfway down, left alone against our clay ashtray.

“The CoG theory calls this a pressure point, or focal point for attack, which makes sense when you’re shuffling pawns around a large map and trying to remove enemy pieces off a board. But, how does that relate to us, or you, the new Gunny?”

I thought the question rhetorical, but the silence confirmed that he awaited an answer.

“Marines need a central point of focus to be effective,” I said. It was a solid answer.

“Bullshit!” The Gunny spit back at me. “That’s not a real answer. I want to know why, like why do you think Marines followed the Lion? Were devoted to him? Would charge the gates of hell without a second thought in their minds?”

The other Marines around the table sat as absent and oblivious as when the conversation started. I may as well have been sitting alone at the table with all the help I received.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe they felt safe with him.”

“Nope,” he said. “Like I said in the very beginning, it’s like staring into the f$@%king sun!” The expression contained more venom than the first time.

“The entire earth is run by it. Every living species on this planet depends on the warmth and light that flaming ball provides. Each planet in our solar system rotates around it like clockwork, and if for any reason one of them comes out of alignment, they’ll get flung to the far reaches of space never to be seen again. THIS was the gift of The Lion.”

I got it. I finally caught the message after deciphering his riddle. In organizational management, the Gunny, direct supervisor, or senior manager, can provide a guiding vision everyone can get behind, something people can believe in, a higher meaning to their efforts.

“Respect your boundaries because there are larger stars around you, supernovas, and an entire galaxy, but you are the life of your solar system. Do it right and you’ll nurture life. F*&@ it up, and you’ll turn your unit into a pit where everything goes to die.”

“A black hole,” I answered.

“Yep, and the Lion is my example of perfection.”

That night’s lesson forever changed my impression of effective leadership. I haven’t heard anything more profound since. Tyrants can lead with fear and coercion. Persuasive leaders can lead with creative forms of manipulations. But pure believers lead with conviction. It’s the strongest force in the universe. It’s gravity.

To be the Gunny I wanted to be, I had to find my conviction. What were the things I believed in? Not the shallow, general ideologies, but the most passionate of beliefs; the things I’d fight the devil for and win. Once I knew that, I could learn and progress, one step at a time.

What are your convictions? Have you included those in your leadership style? If so, does it beam out of you like the sun, staring those around in the face daily with your presence, or is it too shallow to shine through? If it doesn’t shine, why not?

The warning label at the bottom is that convictions can be dangerous. Not everyone needs a sermon every minute of every hour and there’s potential for context to go astray. When we remember that too much can repel people, everything in moderation, a little genuine vision goes along way.

Major Zembiec provided an eternal, universal lesson: If desired, there’s a lion in all of us.

Semper Fidelis!

*Major Douglas A. Zembiec was known as the Lion of Fallujah and author Bing West described his heroism in the book No True Glory. Major Zembiec was killed in action on May 11, 2007. For more information about him and his impact on those who knew him, read here:

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