Leadership 101: Lesson #1

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not about you

(Throughout my career in the military and now in the ministry I have been blessed to work with some amazing leaders. After reflecting on what they have taught me I have written a short series called Leadership 101.  The aim of this series is to share a few simple short lessons on leadership traits and principles.)

Lesson #1: It’s Not About You

I remember the day I was promoted to Captain a friend and mentor who pinned the bars on my collar looked me in the eyes and simply said, “Remember, today is not about you.”

This was not the first time I had ever heard this lesson. It was engrained in my brain from the first day I attended boot camp and I was continually reminded of it by the personal examples of the many Marines I served with. The classic manifestation of this is that in the Marines, leaders eat last. (I wrote about that here). That tradition set the leadership tone for each unit I served with.

While learning and preparing for leadership roles is an inward exercise requiring self-reflection and personal discipline, the actual practice of quality leadership is entirely an outward exchange. This change in perspectives is often the biggest challenge for leaders. As Jack Welch, former CEO of GE once said, “The day you become a leader, it becomes about them. Your job is to walk around with a can of water in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other hand. Think of your team as seeds and try to build a garden. It’s about building these people, not about the gardener.”

But when I truly reflect on this lesson, I am reminded of Marine First Lieutenant Nathan Krissoff. On 9 December 2006, Nate was killed in an IED attack while supporting 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in al-Amariyah, Iraq. At his memorial service his parents shared the last letter they received from him about a month before:

nate“…My success will be gauged by the responsibility to lead my Marines and accomplish the mission, not by any other metric. I’m lucky to be deploying with such a phenomenal, savvy group of guys. I choose this and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not about me.

Love you guys, Nate”

Nate chose a path that was hard for him and for his family, on behalf of the rest of us. His family members, while suffering the unimaginable pain caused by Nate’s death, doubled down on national service. His brother, Austin, accepted a commission as a Marine officer just days after Nate was killed. Their father, orthopedic surgeon Bill Krissoff, was inspired by Nate’s service to the extent that he sought and received an age-waiver from President George W. Bush to join the Naval Medical Corps at the age of 62. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in honor of his son.

Leadership Lesson #1: It’s not about you…..

A Terrorist Attack and Trees

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Thirty-two years have passed since the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II took the lives of 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. At about 6:20 in the morning on October 23, 1983, a yellow Mercedes truck charged through the barbed-wire fence around the American compound in Beirut and plowed past two guard stations. It drove straight into the barracks and exploded.


Eyewitnesses said that the force of the blast caused the entire building to float up above the ground for a moment before it pancaked down in a cloud of pulverized concrete and human remains. That day was the largest single-day loss of life of Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. It was also the deadliest attack on Americans prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Americans were shocked at the devastation, but at the time few grasped the significance of the deadly bombing. It marked the emergence of a deadly new form of terrorism never seen on this scale.

Almost all of the 241 deceased service members were from Camp Lejeune, NC.  241 dads, husbands, and friends from one town gone in an instant…the impact was devastating to the small military town of Jacksonville, NC.

Beirut_Memorial_1Today, near the entrance to Camp Johnson, a subsidiary base of the Camp Lejeune complex, a memorial wall is nestled among the Carolina pines. The Beirut Memorial Wall, completed on Oct. 23, 1986, bears a list of those Americans who died in Lebanon. Only four words are inscribed on the Wall: “They Came in Peace.”

The Marines lost at Beirut are also remembered in another way. Soon after the attack, a middle school class in Jacksonville decided to raise money for a memorial for the Marines. The money they raised was used to purchase 241 trees.


As you drive down Highway 24 (Lejeune Blvd) into the entrance of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, you may not notice the center lane lined with 241 Bradford Pear Trees, one for each man lost.

What many don’t know is that on the other side of the world there is a matching set of trees. In 1992, the director of the Haifa, Israel USO coordinated the creation of a memorial park that included 241 olive trees.  The trees lead to an overpass on Mount Carmel looking toward Beirut.

Col. Charles Dallachie, who was a survivor of the Beirut Bombing once wrote, “For Marines, great victories, great defeats and great sacrifices are never forgotten, but are remembered with battle streamers attached to unit colors. Unfortunately, there are no battle streamers to remember the ultimate sacrifice made in 1983 by Marines, sailors and soldiers in Beirut, Lebanon.”

He is correct, for the Marines lost at Beirut there are no battle streamers..there are only trees.

Leadership Minute: Leaders Eat Last

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“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.”

During my career in the Marine Corps, I had the privilege to serve a few tours in the training and education community. The purpose of our job was to screen, train, and evaluate prospective and newly commissioned Marine Officers. While on one of these tours, our command had a group of college educators from the nation’s top universities visit us. Like many other groups before them, the purpose of their visit was to find out what made the Marine Corps’ version of leadership so unique and effective.

After providing a few classes on Marine Corps’ History, Core Values, and Basic Leadership, we would then take them to a “field evolution” to observe training. To put the final touches on Marine leadership, we would typically conclude the day by allowing them to observe the most high speed, intense training event of all……chow time.


See when you are with Marines gathering to eat, you will notice that the most junior are served first and the most senior are served last. When you witness this act, you will also note that no order is given. Marines just do it.

At the heart of this very simple action is the Marine Corps’ approach to leadership. Marine leaders are expected to eat last because the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of leadership comes at the expense of self-interest.

Out of all the leadership training, books, seminars, blogs, etc… available to us today, perhaps the simplest and most easily-actionable idea is to simply take the initiative to take better care of the people on our team.

I learned a lot on leadership from my career in the Marines – one lesson I’ll never forget….Leaders eat last.

The Purple Heart and the Gospel

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“In love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

On this day in 1782, General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, created the “Badge for Military Merit,” a decoration consisting of a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk, edged with a narrow binding of silver, with the word Merit stitched across the face.  As a testimony to the award’s honor, Washington only awarded the medal to three soldiers.

512px-Purple_Heart_caseThe decoration was largely forgotten until 1927, when General Charles P. Summerall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, unsuccessfully encouraged Congress to reinstate the award. Four years later, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, took up the cause, hoping to reinstate the medal in time for the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. On February 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th birthday, the U.S. War Department announced the creation of the “Order of the Purple Heart.”

The Order of the Purple Heart, considered the oldest American military decoration for military merit, is now awarded to members of our armed forces who have been killed or wounded in action against an enemy.  I have numerous friends who wear this medal.  All their medals and awards tell stories, however this one has a physical and mental cost that they continue to pay.  These men are truly warriors.

If life awarded purple hearts we would undoubtedly all have one, most of us probably many. We have all suffered wounds from self-inflicted actions and wounds as the result of others in our life. Similar to treatments and therapy for physical wounds, thankfully there is a healing answer to the wounds we all carry…the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the heart of this good news is a narrative of creation, brokenness, and reconciliation. Simply put, it is a story of redemption. The great thing about redemption is that although our wounds and scars are earthly, they are not eternal.


Talking With My Kids About Terrorism

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Thursday was a mix of emotions for many, my family included.  Earlier in the morning, a dear friend of mine, returned to his family after a lengthy deployment. His unit was gone over 7 months. Similar to the other Marines he was deployed with, he missed birthdays, school parties, anniversaries, and holidays. His wife and two kids simply missed him. On this day, their countdown was finally over. A husband came home to his wife. A daddy came home to his kids. The joy of reunions are indescribable to those who have not experienced them. This was a great day for hundreds of Marines and their families.

usmc mourning

Then a little after 11am news broke that a young man named Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez sprayed an Armed Forces Recruiting Center with gunfire before driving seven miles away and killing four Marines at a Navy Reserve Center. Although the investigation continues, there are no answers that will truly satisfy our desire to know “why?”

Within a few hours on Thursday, a number of families were reunited with their Marine while four other families, through an act of terrorism, had the fabric of their lives destroyed.  The contrast in emotions was overwhelming.

My boys had questions about both events.  As I spoke with my children over the next two days I wanted to ensure they understood four things:

#1: There is evil in this world.  This cannot be ignored.  We can refuse to watch the news or read the articles but that will not make it go away.  In fact, one of the great fallacies of our modern life is the assumption that we have the right to live in peace and security. The plain truth is Jesus never promised us safety in this world…quite the contrary.

#2: Our response to this evil is not simple to explain or understand.  There is no one right way to face evil. God may call us to fight and conquer like Joshua, submit with hope like Jeremiah, or preach like Jonah.  But, even in light of these examples, we must remember that the One we are told to emulate is Jesus…His love and His sacrifice.

#3: I reminded my boys that strong people always stand up for victims .  That’s why we have a military, local police, first responders, etc… All of these men and women are willing to sacrifice to allow us to sleep peacefully in our bed each night. They sacrifice their personal comfort, their freedoms, and many even their lives, to protect and defend us.  However the burden to protect and serve others does not fall  solely on their shoulders….we must also do our part to protect those who may be weak.  Regardless of our response, to overcome this evil, service and sacrifice is required.

#4: Perhaps most importantly I remind them of who wins in the end. “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” – Revelation 20:10.

16 Years of Marriage

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Sixteen years ago today, Liz and I stood at the altar and made a commitment to each other for the rest of our lives.

wedding pic









Here is a brief snapshot of our blessed life together since that day:


2 boys…who are very much boys


2 dogs

0 cats (this number will remain the same)

A dozen or so lizards…maybe more…maybe less…don’t ask

moving truck


9 inter-state moves


12 houses



medal pic


Too many training exercises, military operations, and deployments to count…




Laughs…many more


On the day I left for bootcamp in 1996, Liz handed me a small leather bound Bible.  She told me she had underlined one verse that spoke from her heart. I spent the next 2 hours on the plane looking for her message.  I found it in the Book of Ruth.







3 years of long distance dating and 16 years of marriage and she has never wavered from those words.

To the girl of my dreams, my bride of 16 years; I hope you know:

You still fascinate and inspire me.

You still influence me for the better.

You’re still the object of my desire.

Thank you for another wonderful day of marriage.

Courage Under Fire

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July 1st 1863….

152 years ago today, the largest military conflict in North American history began when Union and Confederate forces collided at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The epic battle lasted three days and resulted in a retreat to Virginia by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Throughout my military career, and even still today, I am an avid consumer of military history. When it comes to the Battle at Gettysburg I have continually been awed by the decisions and actions of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. I have read Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Killer Angels” and watched Jeff Daniels remarkably play Chamberlain in the movie “Gettysburg.” However it was not until I had the privilege of taking a group of my Marines to the actual battlefield that I truly understood this tragic conflict.

gettysburgTogether we climbed the slope of Little Round top and walked the path of Pickett’s Charge. We studied the defensive positions on Cemetery Hill and continually discussed the decision making of opposing Generals Lee and Meade. From human factors to combined arms, we immersed ourselves in the significance of this three day battle.

During a moment of reflection on the hallowed ground of Little Round Top, I paused to think about the decisions Chamberlain had to make. Against all odds, he stubbornly and courageously rallied his forces. Many historians claim his actions saved the day and possibly turned the tide of the Civil War. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation simply stated: “For daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on Big Round Top.”

It has been five years since I was last at Gettysburg. I no longer view Chamberlain’s actions through the lens of a fighter leader. I now view his actions through the lens of a father leader. The battlefield I must now protect and hold is called my home. At stake is the hearts and minds of my wife and children.

The world will continually tell my wife and children lies about their identity.

They will be continually be presented with expectations that drown their worth.

They will continually be attacked….

But like Chamberlain I will not back down. I will continue to love, lead and serve well. I will continue to point them to the Father who created us for His glory.

I have always been amazed at how one man can change the course of a battle. Husbands and Fathers….more than ever before, I believe it is our duty to now do so.

Will you join me?

My Grandmother and a Delta Force Commander

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In his best-selling book, The Mission, the Men, and Me, Pete Blaber, a former Delta Force Commander, describes his 3M thought process and priorities when confronted with a different or complex situation.

He describes the first (M) as the mission.  This is your organization’s purpose for existing. It should guide everyone’s actions, decisions, and convictions.

The second (M) is the men.  These are the individuals in your organization who will bear upon their shoulders the responsibility of accomplishing the unit’s mission.  You must lead them but you must also listen to them.  More importantly, as Blaber makes clear, the most important way you can take care of your people is by having the moral courage to do what is right by them.

The last (M) is me.  The final (M) comes last for a reason.  A true leader will always put his/her organization’s mission and people before their own well-being or advancement.  As Blaber states, “you have to take care of yourself, BUT only after you have taken care of the mission and the men.”

Although Blaber’s leadership priorities are founded and practiced in a military environment, I believe these principles can also be applied to leadership outside of the military as well.  In fact, I witnessed this style of leadership long before I ever joined the military…..from my Grandmother.

papa and ggA blog post would not do justice to the life of selfless service my Grandmother has demonstrated.  Under the roof of her home, she has raised 4 daughters, multiple grandchildren, and currently even a great-grandchild.  After a stroke took the mind and part of the body of my Grandfather, I watched as she cared for him with the same love and commitment as newlyweds.

What do my Grandmother and a Delta Force Commander have in common? A leadership style based upon the shared experiences of sacrifice.  A life of putting the goals of the organization or family first.

What about you?  If one was to assess the priorities of your leadership would it truly be:

  • The mission
  • The men
  • Then me

We All Have Super Powers: Part Three

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This is the last in a series of three posts on the different types of super powers we all have.

I previously provided my thoughts on the power of our words and the power of our example. However this super power may be the most influential:

Super Power #3:  The Power of Your Legacy

What is the best funeral you have ever been to?

Crazy question huh?  I thought about this question a few weeks ago while listening to a sermon by our Missions Pastor, Omar Garcia (

Unfortunately I have been to a decent amount of funerals and military memorial services.  Although each of these services involve mourning, there are some that are profoundly celebratory.  What makes these services different than the others?  It’s the legacy left behind.

Birth of a Legacy: During a long nighttime stakeout in the spring of 1980, U.S. Customs Agent Tommy Austin tells Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Ron Cox his problem.

chrisHis wife’s friend has a small son named Chris who is probably going to die of leukemia.   The seven-year-old boy dreams of becoming a police officer.  Running into bureaucratic hesitation at Customs, Austin asks Cox if maybe DPS can do something.

Together they enlist the help of others who hear about Chris’ story. They arrange for Chris to spend a day as an honorary DPS Officer. He rides on a police motor cycle and patrol car and even flies in a DPS helicopter. Four days later, the young boy passes away.

As Cox and Austin leave the hospital that sad day, they discuss in awe how so many people stepped up to grant this young boy his final wish. They wonder if they could do the same for other kids with terminal illnesses. From their desire to serve others the Make-A-Wish Foundation was born. Today this foundation grants a wish to a sick child every 38 minutes. For these men, their legacy of service will inspire others for generations.

For better or for worse, we will all leave a legacy.  This legacy will be much more than the words in our obituary. It will be defined by the impact we have on the lives of others. Our Creator has handed us a portfolio of valuable gifts. Do we use them for self-fulfillment or self-sacrifice?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us to seek first His kingdom.  What do you seek first?  The answer to this question will determine your legacy.




The Myth Around Memorial Day

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memorial day


(In this post the term Marine can be used to describe any service member in our Armed Forces).

There is a myth about Memorial Day. This myth is known by all who have ever served. The myth is that those who sacrificed did so for their country. I think of friends that have lost life, limb, and eyesight in service to their country. Undoubtedly they all volunteered to serve their country. But not one of them died for their country….they died for their fellow Marine.

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing General John Kelley tell the story of two Marines.  Two Marines from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer, than if they were born of the same woman. On this day they were in a city called Ramadi standing watch together with a group of Iraqi Police. Together they were protecting the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines and over 100 Iraqi police.

During their watch a large blue truck turned down the alley way and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically.

During the follow on investigation, six seconds of video tape footage emerged. The recording shows a number of Iraqi police, scattering like the normal and rational men they were—some running right past the Marines. The recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tear in to the body of the one who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers.  The two Marines never stepped back. They never started to step aside. They never shifted their weight. With their feet spread shoulder width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could.

The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God.

Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their country, their flag, or the politics involved in their current deployment.

Six seconds. More than enough time for two very brave young men to think about their brothers…to do their duty.

Marines serve their country but they die for their brothers.

For even more stories detailing this kind of unselfish sacrificial bravery I recommend “They Were Heroes” by David Devany.