Responsibility and FaultPosted on September 14,2022
The weight of leadership
by LtCol Brian J. Wilson
LtCol Wilson is an Infantry Officer with combat tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently serving as a Planner at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
2021 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: Honorable Mention
“The sort of words a man says is the sort he hears in return.” 1
In the chilly desert spring of 2006, a young rifle platoon commander spent the better part of three days planning his unit’s first vehicle-mounted patrol through Ramadi, Iraq—the sprawling capital of the Anbar province and the nation’s hotbed of a raging insurgency. He checked and rechecked intelligence reports and conducted a detailed map and imagery study. He attended debriefs of relevant previous patrols and performed physical reconnoiter by riding along with adjacent units transiting the general area to be patrolled. He attempted to do all the preparatory actions he had perfected during training in the hills of Quantico, VA, the blackwater swamps of eastern North Carolina, and the wind-whipped high desert of Twentynine Palms, CA. Yet, after all the orders had been issued and the pre-combat inspections long completed, four body bags held the remains of men he led while another clung to life in the back of a dust-covered helicopter racing east to a regional trauma center. Responsibility for their injuries would be the young officer’s to bear for the rest of his days. He moved on, carrying the questions, the confusion, and, of most consequence, the fault.
The Marine Corps defines leadership as, “the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enables a person to inspire and to control a group of people successfully.”2 Marine leadership education primarily focuses on the application of effective principles and techniques. Emphasis is placed on the organization’s leadership philosophy and structural design to a lesser extent. However, the lasting negative implications of leading on the battlefield are rarely addressed. Subsequently, bound by conflated definitions and an illogical model of cause and effect, Marine leaders often unjustly bear the burden of fault. When the smoke clears, many of the Corps’ leaders are ill-prepared to march forward under the weight of leadership in battle.
Understanding and reframing the topic of fault centers on the concepts of authority and responsibility. Authority is the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.3 Responsibility is the liability to be called to answer, account for, or be legally reviewed.4 Early on, Marine leaders learn that authority must be delegated while responsibility absolutely cannot be. The basis for that lesson is rooted in Department of the Navy regulations, which explains that “the commanding officer may … delegate authority to subordinates … such delegation of authority shall in no way relieve the commanding officer of continued responsibility for the safety, well-being and efficiency of the entire command.”5 The regulation continues by explaining that, “The responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her command is absolute,” and “The authority of the commanding officer is commensurate with his or her responsibility.”6 The regulation also explains that the title of commander applies to all those serving as officers-in-charge of units or standing duty as direct representatives of a commanding officer. Even in its regulatory-based accuracy, the notion of transferal of authority (but not responsibility) has challenging by-products in a real-world application.
What Is Said Versus What Is Meant
The authority, and chiefly the responsibility, of commanders is inextricably linked to accountability, both in the success and failure of a unit. Accountability is when a person is subject to giving an account or being answerable.7 As students in The Basic School, Marine officers are inundated by the adage that a platoon commander is responsible for everything the platoon does or fails to do. MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, provides the institutional underpinning for this ubiquitous sentiment by boldly professing, “How Marines perform will depend on the kind of leadership they have, by the example and courage demonstrated by their leader.”8 The publication further emphasizes the notion saying, “A unit led by an able and aggressive leader who commands respect because he set the example and demonstrated courage and confidence will perform any task asked of them.”9
Conversely, the document makes little to no references to possible inverse outcomes in unit performance. Based on that key omission, one could conclude that poorly performing Marines or unit failure is exclusively indicative of some leader deficiency. That is often the exact conclusion reached by Marine leaders reacting to failures occurring under their charge. Their deduction could be correct, as a direct correlation between failure and their performance or competence may exist. On the contrary, it is likely that in many situations no correlation exists. Without qualification, the ideas represented by definitive and ideal concepts and statements such as those in Leading Marines, create rigid rules that leave little room for necessary exceptions to account for reality.
Beyond the omission of alternate and negative outcomes in performance, or the specific association of leadership on those events, the topic is void of a major reality. Leaders, while wielding significant influence, only control certain elements of a multilayered cause-and-effect equation, which governs outcomes. The equation consists of endless cycles of preparation, circumstances, actions, reactions, and chance. Of primary significance for leaders on a battlefield, as former Marine General and Secretary of Defense, James Mattis often reminded his forces, “the enemy gets a vote”10 by deciding key elements of engagements, which significantly influence the outcome. Not only does the enemy get a vote but so too do the myriad of other influences that impact the outcomes such as weather, and emotional, psychological, and physical health. Presently, Marine leadership models view cause-and-effect interactions as linear calculations, where a leader’s input sequentially drives outcomes. The equation is:
A + B + C = D
• A: The subordinate or unit being led
• B: The task or mission
• C: The leader’s influence
• D: The desired outcome, objective, or end state
The equation lies at odds with a leader’s true sphere of influence and the factors that affect it. Leaders have considerable responsibility for preparation, mitigation, and appropriate reactions. However, “war is hell,” and even leadership executed perfectly rarely produces perfect outcomes. On a battlefield, imperfect outcomes frequently translate into young men and women murdered by a determined and oftentimes simply lucky enemy. It is incorrect to view war as governed by individual actions or decisions at a single place or in time. MCDP 1, Warfighting, communicates an appropriate message on the realities of combat, explaining that war is a series of non-monolithic interactions between countless independent yet interrelated decisions and subsequent actions simultaneously.11
“Subordinate leaders at the lowest levels enforce load discipline to ensure that Soldiers do not voluntarily carry excess weight.”
—Army Techniques Publication 3-21.18, Foot Marches
What Has Been Forgotten
A juxtaposition of the words responsible and fault reveal a key distinction in definitions:
• Responsible: liable to be called to account for.12
• Fault: responsibility for wrongdoing or failure.13
Defining fault by using the word wrongdoing creates with it a distinct connotation. The failure of a Marine or unit cannot always be proceeded by the wrongdoing of a leader. Yet, Marine leaders are conditioned to operate in extremis, without regard for this underemphasized fact. Accordingly, many Marine leaders link overall responsibility with unjustified fault. Context of the chaotically dynamic and often violent situations in which Marine leaders carry out their duties is obstructed when the word wrongdoings is not fully considered.
A more realistic formula must be used to accurately educate the Corps’ leaders on navigating complex scenarios. In the simplified and idealistic equation of A + B + C = D, the values of A (the subordinate or unit being led) and B (the task or mission) are constants, with little impacting the values once they are set in the formula. The value of D (the desired outcome) ties directly to the inputs of C (the input of the leader) more than all others. If the formula does not result in the value of D equaling the desired outcome of B (the task or mission), the equation fails based on the input of C: the leader. The problem with this representation lies in the gross oversimplification of the factors present in a wartime Marine leader’s cause-and-effect scenario. A more realistic equation would include a minimum of three other factors, such as:
- E: The enemy’s “vote.”
- W: Environmental and human factors such as weather, climate, hunger, and fatigue.
- X: Black swan events: events that are radically rare, have an extreme impact, and are seemingly predictable in retrospect, though they were not.14
The addition of these factors adjusts the equation to:
A (E + W)X + B (E + W)X + C (E + W)X = D
The sum of the enemy’s vote and the environmental factors magnifies exponentially by any black swan events and then multiplies each of the original factors in the model. X (the black swan) will not always be present, but one cannot discount the probability of its impact should it be, as it can serve as a devastating spoiler. The challenge in the updated equation centers on the leader having little capacity to control or influence the values of factors E, W, or X. Additionally, there is a limited ability for the leader to predict the occurrence or intensity of those inputs—specifically the black swans. Further still, the leader is restricted in his or her ability to proactively mitigate or react to those new factors. Simultaneously, those factors have a considerable direct influence on the values of A, B, C, and most importantly but indirectly, D—the outcome. It is unreasonable to place sole responsibility for a negative outcome on the leader.
What This Is Not
Most Marines universally receive the suggestion of removing a leader’s responsibility for failure as blasphemous. That reality is rooted in the incorrect interrelation of burden and responsibility. Viewed through a traditional lens, this argument could be perceived as an attempt to relieve leaders from blame. It is not. This is not a conversation about blame, but one focused solely on the appropriate application of responsibility. The goal is not to remove all fault, as doing so is impossible. Humans are imperfect, thus, leaders will always harbor fault centered on those imperfections, even if no one else knows of the shortcomings. The goal should be to develop leaders who are able to execute the correct appropriation of fault by educating them on what fault is and where it lies. Specifically, Marine leaders must improve the ability to identify how fault relates to responsibility, both directly and indirectly.
“For the rest of my life—each time I look in the mirror I will be acutely reminded of my shortcomings, and a piece of my heart will chip away, for in the shadows of my eyes I will see their faces, staring back at me—for the rest of my life.”15
—B.P. McCoy, The Passion of Command
What Matters and What Can Be Done
When forced, I have attempted to explain my truth by telling people my hands are covered in the blood of those five Marines from Ramadi, but I am the only person who can see the red dripping from my palms. I was their platoon commander and am wholly responsible for all they did and failed to do, and what happened to them. Fifteen years passed before a conversation planted a seed that forced me to reconsider the myriad of factors that occurred deadly morning. Though I should and do bear complete responsibility for the deaths of four men and the serious injury of a fifth, much of the fault that has burdened me for most of my adult life is perhaps not mine alone. The equation was not simple. The enemy exercised his vote by choosing the time, location, and mechanisms of engagement as he launched a complex ambush. The rarity of rain in the harsh, dry desert added the predictable but impactful environmental factor of weather. The illusive and anomalist black swan came from concrete interference with electromagnetic waves and erroneously and disproportionally distorted satellite images.16
I have spent a decade and a half holding a rightful responsibility that is mine forever. Nothing will or should change that. Conversely, for the first time, I am contemplating whether the fault I have borne has been appropriate in magnitude and scope. Writing this truth evokes a real fear that I will be looked upon as a man simply seeking absolution. I am not. My hope is that by questioning the level of fault I have held and perhaps coming to a deeply emotional and somewhat paradoxical conclusion, I might persuade others to challenge accepted leadership approaches. Doing so can prevent them from loading their packs with unnecessary emotional and psychological weight.
I often reflect on the simple and obligatory annual exchanges I have with the sole survivor of the enemy’s attack that faithful day in the spring of 2006. Each time, in some form or fashion, I tell him, “I love you, I’m glad you made it, and thank you for not hating me” on his “alive day”—April 2nd. In turn, I have always received something that resembles reassurance that it was not my fault. Perhaps, these words are simply me finally processing all the reassurances of arguably the most credible person in this matter after fifteen years.
Frankly, a career anchored to armed conflict has conditioned me in ways that have become who I am and will likely be forever. Accordingly, in writing this, as Homer wrote, I am speaking “the sort of words” I wish to hear, while accepting my ears may never capture their full context. I am, however, hopeful the Corps’ future leaders can be different. I am optimistic that future generations of warrior leaders are routed away from the path too many like me have walked. Tomorrow’s Marine leaders must be fully armed with an understanding of responsibility and fault and capable of differentiating their definitions and cataloging them appropriately. I pray that when they stand as old Marines, reminiscing on losses incurred in youth, they have carried the correct load on all the mental and emotional hikes in between. The burden of leadership is rightfully a heavy one. A poorly designed formula for load calculation only adds unnecessary weight to an already substantial pack. Doing so increases the probability of a figurative buckled knee as the catalyst to catastrophic failure.
1. Homer, The Illiad (New York: Viking Adult, 1991).
2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Manual w/CH 1-3, (Washington, DC: March 1980).
3. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Authority,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority.
4. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Responsible,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/responsible.
5. Department of the Navy, United States Navy Regulations w/CH 1, (Washington, DC: September 1990).
7. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Accountability,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability.
8. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: November 2002).
10. Jon B. Alterman, “The Enemy Gets a Vote,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 16, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/enemy-gets-vote.
11. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: June 1997).
13. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Fault,” https://www.merriam-webster.com.
14. Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York, NY: Random House, 2007).
15. B.P. McCoy, The Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership, (Quantico, VA: The Marine Corps Association, 2007).
16. It rained in Ramadi on April 2, 2006, for one of the only times during the seven-month deployment. Consequently, falling rain obscured vision and standing rainwater provided concealment for IEDs on the roadways. Additionally, the protective qualities of the Modified IED Counter Electronic Device being used to protect the patrol from radio-controlled IEDs were degraded/lost when the vehicle carrying the device rounded a corner and the signal was absorbed/deflected by the concrete building façade. Consequently, the last vehicle in the patrol was unprotected and was struck by an IED placed in a rain-covered manhole, killing four of the five occupants. Lastly, distortion of imagery based on the angle in which a satellite took photographs presented an alley as a road on printed versions of the imagery. That misrepresentation led to the patrol having to deviate from the primary planned route.