Be CuriousPosted on September 14,2022
Enhancing leadership through curiosity
by Maj Andrew D. Messenger
Maj Messenger is an Air Command and Control Officer currently serving as the Direct Air Support Center Division Head at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One. He is an Expeditionary Warfare School graduate and a Weapons and Tactics Instructor.
2021 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: Second Place
There is a great scene from the hit series Ted Lasso. It begins with a challenge at the oft frequented local Richmond pub. Ted sticks his neck out to “stick it” to the ex-husband of the current club owner, who is, shall we say, a bit of a jerk. The challenge is a game of darts, and the match is all but lost when Ted begins a seemingly nonsensical rant about his childhood. The details of this scene will resonate with Gazette readers who also enjoy watching the mustachioed American wade his way through the nuances of life across the pond. For those unfamiliar, the lines that Ted—played by actor Jason Sudeikis—delivers with impeccable timing are below:
Guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why—it used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman, it was painted on the wall, and it said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” I like that. (Throws triple 20). So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of the sudden it hits me—all them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out, so they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me—who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious they would have asked questions. Questions like, “Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?” (Throws triple 20). To which I would have answered, “Yes sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from aged 10 until I was 16 when he passed away. Barbecue sauce. (Throws triple bullseye to win).”1
Please excuse the long quote—justice is not as sweet without context. If you have a pulse and a soul maybe you got goosebumps reading that. I sure did while watching it unfold. In this day and age, most things enter and exit our brains at hyper speed. It is only when the emotional sides of our brains are lit up that events form lasting and powerful memories. For me, this scene was one of them. There is something about the underdog taking down a bully and serving justice that is so rewarding to watch. A strong argument to be made as to the reason for this—especially in Marine circles—is that we all want to be the hero. The hero is a leader that exhibits strength in dire situations. Now, Ted was just playing darts, but that scene is a microcosm of life in the Marine Corps as a leader. Since we are all leaders in the Marine Corps, the lessons espoused from this scene span across the ranks.
Gen John A. Lejeune captured it best stating,
The young American responds quickly and readily to the exhibition of qualities of leadership on the part of his officers. Some of these qualities are industry, energy, initiative, determination, enthusiasm, firmness, kindness, justness, self-control, unselfishness, honor, and courage.2
Perhaps this quote was the impetus behind the leadership traits. The traits are laudable, but at the end of the day, the most important thing about being a leader is getting others to follow you. It makes sense to Marines. In the chaos of battle, there needs to be a voice that rises to the top and compels men and women to act and act decisively. How do you do that? Be curious.
I doubt there are many Marines that would question the sentiment that first and foremost the Marine Corps is a people organization. We do more with less and put the onus of innovation and mission accomplishment on the talented men and women that wear the cloth. It is a special thing to wear U.S. Marines on your chest and something we all take pride in—in a unique way from the other Services. I remember an instance at Officer Candidate School when I saw two sergeant instructors working out in a random field with old rusty weights. I was equal parts proud to be a part of the Corps (with a full respect for the fact that Chesty himself probably pumped with those weights) while terrified of the future and what I had gotten myself into. This instance and others like it, like marching at the cyclic rate across the bridge to Bobo chow hall, form the bedrock of what it means to be a Marine. Shame they took that bridge down, but I am sure they have found other ways to make Officer Candidate School the best-worst experience ever.
On a balmy morning at Camp Barrett in Quantico, I had missed a belt loop while dressing for formation at The Basic School. Out of nowhere, I felt my belt loop getting tugged at. I looked over my shoulder to see The Basic School staff platoon commander (SPC) appear out of thin air. We locked eyes, nothing was said other than maybe an “aye sir,” and life went on. My SPC could have ignored it or chewed me out, but instead, he chose to gently let me know that I was better than that and he expected more. I’ll be damned if I’ve ever missed a belt loop since. I hate that I think of my SPC every time I route my MCMAP belt through my trousers, but I guess there are worse things. The point is, that my SPC was a great leader, and I have often reflected on certain situations and wondered how he would handle them. Obviously, an SPC should be a great leader given their influence on the officer population of the Corps.
With the small size of the Marine Corps, every one of us that wears the uniform has just as much of an influence, whether it is obvious or not. This influence manifests in a myriad of ways. It can be through actions (how you carry yourself) or words (what you say or fail to say). Maybe it is an intangible touch on a Marine’s shoulder to ask them how things are going at home or a kneecap discussion about life goals. Whatever the form, what you say and do at any rank and in any leadership capacity matters.
Okay, be curious, not judgmental. How do we as leaders in the Marine Corps interpret that? I full-heartedly believe that if every leader in the Marine Corps could carry this with them and internalize it, we would have better retention and less toxic leadership. The impact that we all have on each other with our actions and words is immeasurable. For our time in uniform, sure, but in life as well. It does not matter if they were a peer, subordinate, or senior, when people have said things to me that fired up my amygdala, I remembered. Luckily for me, most of it has been positive, but I doubt every Marine is so lucky. Some of the tidbits include: good leaders question everything, sweep out the sheds, lead from the middle, make other leaders, bloom where you are planted, there is no left sock, seek initiative, be a good dude, I am proud of you, we need you, good presentation. I will spare the negative statements, but those stick with me as well, as I am sure the readers can attest. I will say, any time I have wanted to get out of the Marine Corps it has been because of the actions or words of leaders I thought (and hoped) were better.
As luck or divine intervention would have it, as this article was in draft form (the last day of the contest), a LTC Dietzman dropped an unrivaled parallel in my lap. At the time, I was attending the Maritime Staff Planner’s Course at Naval Base Point Loma. He was speaking about adult learning. It was a primer for the course to get the students in the right frame of mind. In his class, he discussed the Buddhist concept of Shoshin. It goes like this, “Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind.’ It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.”3 This concept resonated with me in a dramatic way. Most of us have been exposed to the idea of cognitive bias. If we believe something to be true or false, we are likely to look at a problem through that lens. Likewise, if we as leaders fail to see the uniqueness in every single Marine, we may fall into the trap that everyone is exactly as they appear on the surface and thinks just like us. But if we are curious, we can remove the veil and see things for what they really are. I will use myself as an example.
I will let you (and any of my future Marines I may be privileged to lead in the future that read this article) in on a secret: I am my harshest critic. The space between my ears comes up with some terrible things at times, completely opposite from some of the wonderful things people have told me throughout my life. My internal dialogue sometimes sounds like this: why did I say that? Everyone else is way smarter than me. I’m in over my head. I need to be a better father and husband. I wish I wasn’t wearing this shirt! You get the idea. I torment myself. It is not just my dialogue, I judge my daily interactions with people and how I perform during certain events, like a presentation for work for example. It is never good enough for me even if people tell me I did a good job. I do not know why I feel this way, but I also do not think it is unique to me. If you have ever been in a class where the instructor is pulling teeth to get student participation, it is either because the class is boring, or it is thought-provoking and people are afraid to put themselves out there—for fear of being judged. I participate in those classes and do just fine, on the surface, but on the inside, I question everything. For something as small as a class introduction, I have to pull my heart out of my throat and take a few deep breaths before it is my turn. My thought is that I feel this way because the stakes are high as a service member in the Marine Corps. We deal in people’s lives, the very same people that will answer the call and be expected to perform at a high level in combat. The man or woman to our left and right. Failure is not an option for any of us from private to general, but we all falter at times.
I care deeply for my Marines, my job, and my performance. I never want to be looked at as someone that is not carrying their weight. But I had a moment recently where my loyalty to my profession faltered—if only just to me. I had been dealing with family issues with my sister, my second daughter was born, and I suffered a back injury requiring an ER visit. When it rains, it pours. I did not want to feel the way I did, but I wondered if Marine Corps life was for me anymore. As I ascended the stairs to the office all of it went away—sort of. We in the Marine Corps have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand. Things started to shape up as time healed the initial whiplash that took place from the injury and my daughter settled into a more manageable routine, but I wondered if my colleagues noticed the fatigue on my face. The fatigue of life, and then I began to wonder how many Marines walk their duty station halls with family issues on their mind or trauma from past experiences, and I realized something important. We are all doing our best to deal with the complexities of life while also juggling permanent change of station orders, parenthood, being a son or daughter, a sibling, or a friend. It is hard. It has taken a few pages to get here, but finally, we have arrived at the point of this article. You never know what people have going on in their lives, find out, after all—we are a people business. Uphold the standard, sustain the transformation, but be curious, not judgmental.
1. Andy Nesbitt, “Ted Lasso’s 11 funniest and Most Inspirational Lines from Season 1,” USA Today, July 23, 2021, https://amp.usa today.com/amp/117650198.
2. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCRP 6-11D, Sustaining the Transformation, (Washington, DC: June 1999).
3. Wikimedia Staff, “Shoshin,” Wikipedia, n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin.