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A New Year’s Initium

Many people are hopeful about the new year considering it bright and full of possibilities.

Yet even now New Years Resolutions are being made and broken quicker than it takes to read this sentence. My understanding is only 12% of resolutions are actually successfully realized. This is no doubt because of a lack of consistent action on our part. Good “possibilities” only materialize due to timely action.

Which reminds me of a leadership trait I heard about once: Initiative.

Initiative is defined as taking action even though you haven’t been given orders. It is the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do. Meeting new and unexpected situations with prompt action. Includes using resourcefulness to get something done without the normal material methods being available.

Many times we learn best from those who show us how NOT to do things. My finest instruction on initiative was taught to me by someone we will refer to as Sgt G. He probably couldn’t even spell initiative let alone exercise any of it.

As a young Marine freshly graduated from School Of Infantry, I arrived to the fleet excited to finally be in the “real” Marine Corps. Our Sgt back in SOI was none other than the Cyborg himself Sgt Brad Kasal. I suppose it isn’t fair to force other sergeants to measure up to the likes of the Cyborg but as a young Marine he was my standard. But Sgt G was proof positive one did not actually have to perform at all to be promoted. He merely managed to stay out of trouble.

Sgt G was my squad leader and while prepping for my first field op my team leader, a burly Corporal, specifically instructed us NOT to follow Sgt G’s example while in the field: “He is going to show his ASS! You do what I do.”

I remember not comprehending the idea a Marine Sgt could be anything less than a superior breed of human, perhaps even a hybrid of human and awesome. However, the Cpl’s words were prophetic and on a night patrol we wandered around on the same hill for hours tripping over boulders in the dark because Sgt G couldn’t navigate his way back to the bivouac site. We ended up running in to another patrol and following them back.

Sgt G’s number one catch phrase was: “Somebody better crap me a [fill in appropriate missing equipment here]!” He said this nearly on a daily basis. Sgt G had an accountability issue and it was up to us and our magic colons to produce whatever the item was.

One time, we were in formation with our rifles when a bayonet went missing. The platoon was standing at parade rest and I was holding my bayonet in my left hand behind my back.

“Someone better $#!& me a bayonet!” came Sgt G’s battle cry from up on our third deck squad bay.

Immediately I began grunting as if I had a real growler on deck and sighed in relief as I dropped my bayonet between my feet with a loud clank. This initiated a round of muffled laughter and sniggering cementing my position as top smart aleck in the platoon. It also prompted one of the other Cpls to pull Sgt G aside.

“You know the Marines can’t actually crap gear, right?”

Sgt G’s shortcomings proficiency wise notwithstanding, it was his decided lack of decision making I will remember most.

It would seem Sgt G never had an original thought in his head. At company formation each plt sgt would stand in front of his platoon and pass the word before the Company Commander came out. We always noticed if Sgt G were passing any info it would sound word for word exactly what came out of the mouth of the plt sgt to our immediate left as he was addressing his own platoon. If Sgt G were passing any word we started facing half left toward the other plt sgt as he would always say it first and more clearly than Sgt G ever did. It dawned on us he was simply regurgitating everything the other plt sgt was saying. Some might argue it sounded the same because they were both passing info given to them by Company HQ. But it was more than that. If someone else didn’t say it first, it did not come out of Sgt G’s mouth. Any questions about word passed was inevitably met with: “Nobody said anything about that. No one passed that.”

We were taught by one of the saltier corporals how to set up our tactical gear for the field. Magazines on our left so we could reach them easier for reloading. First aid kit on the right of butt pack so everyone could find it etc. As soon as Sgt G saw this he immediately exploded: “Nobody said we could do that! Everyone’s gear should be like mine!” In retrospect I get the concept of uniformity but unfortunately his kit was set up for a parade and not for war. Our collective sigh generated enough energy to turn a windmill.

Sitting around idle is the bane of everyone in the military. “Hurry up and wait” is a familiar term to anyone associated with our line of work. Standing around waiting for something is an inevitability. In one instance while waiting for trucks to pick us up from a training area we begged Sgt G for us to do something. Since we were just waiting on our packs we asked if we could do bayonet drills, weapons cleaning, PT, fire team patrols, you name it. The response: “Nobody said we could do that. Nobody passed that.” So we sat idle and pissed.

I remember thinking: “You’re a SERGEANT in the Marine Corps! Make a decision! Take some action!” But my mental telepathy went unheeded.

Oddly enough it was this decided lack of initiative which prompted me to reenlist the first time. I figured if I was a sergeant I wouldn’t be afraid to make a decision and at least my small part of the Marine Corps would be the way it should be, action oriented.

In the fleet as a young sergeant, junior Marines would approach me after I had announced what we were going to do for the day: “Sgt, are you sure we can do that? What will the Gunny say?”

“If they don’t like it then they shouldn’t have left me in charge,” was my general response. That and, “I’m sure I’ll get chewed out and told not to do that anymore.” This led to one of my own original quotes: “In the absence of any other authority, do not be afraid to make a decision.”

This of course also requires you to adhere to the Leadership Principle: Accept responsibility for your actions and the actions of your subordinates. As well as: Make sound and timely decisions. Yeah, that taking initiative gig comes with a lot of baggage sometimes. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

It is said idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Usually this in reference to young people not being kept busy and getting themselves into mischief. For our purpose here I submit that idle hands are due to our lack of initiative. Standing around with your hands in your pockets (one of my pet peeves) results in evil deeds because no positive action is taking place.

A bucket of water will become undrinkable with filth and parasites it is just left sitting. It takes someone dumping it out and filling it with fresh water to be any good. No one gets saved from a burning building by folks standing around and watching it burn. It takes someone with a little valor to initiate a rescue. Good things will only become possible if we seize the initiative and start making something happen.

The root of the word initiative comes from the Latin initium or ‘beginning’. Notice it does not come from any words meaning ‘the end’ or ‘success’. Positive results happen because of a process of consistent, prompt action. I tell Marines all the time just because we train MCMAP does not mean we become ninjas overnight.

So if your new years initium is to get in shape, quit smoking, read more, etc, it requires a beginning of walking out the door to the gym, throwing that first cigarette away, picking up that book, then doing those things again the next day. Most importantly it requires us to not be afraid of the new thing and not being comfortable in our failure and lack of action.

New Years Initium, an apt phrase for the Exemplar.

One thought on “A New Year’s Initium

Paul L. Quandt

Oh my! I could write a reply longer than your post, but I will spare you and any unlucky person who might stumble over it, the agony.

Instead I shall just say: Roger that, over.



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