On Initiative

Some thoughts for the new year.

A friend said to me recently she felt hopeful about the new year and it seemed bright and full of possibilities.

Yet even now New Years Resolutions are being made and broken quicker than it takes to read this sentence. I have been told only 12% of resolution are actually successfully realized. This is 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.

The Marine Corps defines initiative as taking action even though you haven’t been given orders. Meeting new and unexpected situations with prompt action. It 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 spell initiative let alone exercise any of it.

As a young Marine freshly graduated from the 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 Kasal whom I have spoken of before here. 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 not get NJP’d.

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 sergeant could be anything less than a superior breed of human, perhaps even a hybrid of human and awesome. However, the corporal’s words were prophetic and on a night patrol we wandered around on the same hill for hours tripping over lava dogs because Sgt G couldn’t navigate his way back to the bivouac site. We ended up running into 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.

We were in formation with our rifles once 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, America’s Wiseass 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 corporals 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 if 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 782 gear for the field. Magazines on our left so we could reach them easier for reloading. First aid kit on the right of our 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 782 gear 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 off.

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 so-and-so 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.” Besides, if you made it through boot camp and can’t handle an ass chewing you need to find another line of work.

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 is in reference to young people not being kept busy and getting themselves into mischief. For our purpose here I submit idle hands are due to a 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 if 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 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 content in our failure and lack of action.

New Years Initium, an apt phrase for the Camp of the Praetorians.

Semper Fidelis,
America’s 1stSgt

/ / / /


  1. Top,
    When you crapped the M9 bayonet, I think you should have been awarded the “Combat Comic Medal.” (I have one with oak clusters).
    I am writing a book on leadership…for both military and law enforcement.
    For the most part, from what I have seen, the Marines have better NCOs. The Army NCOs are improving a hell of a lot…and in police work, the quality of Sergeants varies alot.

    When I have been put in charge of a mission, which I have been so many times…people never complained later at how we got things done. I’m not perfect and I’m still learning.

  2. It was my experience that all the best smart arses in the junior snuffy ranks turned out to be the best Marines.

    An old warrant officer once told me that there’s only two kinds of Marines. Smart arses and dumb arses. Everyone else was a half arse and the Corps didn’t accept that sort.

    Amen on the initiative thing.

    Happy New Years and Semper Fi.
    Ad Triarios Redisse!

  3. Great post 🙂

    I am so tempted to email this over to a few of my indecisive and hesitant “leaders”, but that wouldn’t be particularly politic.

    As far as resolutions go, i save them for my birthday in May, as it’s much easier to start something in the Spring.

  4. “If they don’t like it then they shouldn’t have left me in charge,”
    “In the absence of any other authority, do not be afraid to make a decision.”

    I’ll be sticking these to my computer-screen. It’s not going to be an New Years Resolution but rather an daily reminder not to be too afraid of making mistakes. (Seriously, I need this.)

    On the Sgt G thing:
    I believe it “was” also due to a lack of thoughtfulness. Not knowing – or even caring – what to do is usually the reason for such a deficiency in decision making.

    On New Years Resolutions:
    Most people fail because they never thoroughly think and/or plan the steps they need to take in order to succeed. So they fail because of not knowing what they’re doing. Than they may quit because of failing.
    That’s the reason why I don’t like to have a NYR. I prefer to go like “Try->Error->Lesson->Retry-until-success” instead. Regardless whether it takes a year or not. It prevents me from saying “I’ve failed this time, maybe I try again next year.

    The bayonet thing:
    Sheer brilliancy!!! XD

    PS: Marines + Magical Colons = giving me the worst possible ideas ever. But I’m not ashame of it. 😛 😀

  5. CI Roller, I never once received an award for my sense of humor. Ass chewings, frequently, awards never. My current CO is a former Cleveland cop. He noted one day there are very few dirty cops but plenty of lazy ones.

    Stark! Thanks, awwwwwwww yeeeeeeeaah!

    Grimmy, smart asses and dumb asses. I may have to use that.

    Magoo, as a citizen not being politic is your duty. Initiative is on time all year round!

    Barrett, iron sharpens iron brother.

  6. First Sergeant,

    I’ve actually had this same lamentation, but about Army officers. There are no standards, no initiative and a severe lack of leadership.

    No one wants to get blamed for anything, so they never do anything because they’re so afraid of when things will go on. It’s a lack of spine. It makes me fucking crazy.

    It’s right up there with the lack of physical standards that’s growing like an epidemic in the Army. This is a fantastic post! Please keep it up.

  7. Riley, thanks! My father related a story to me once about counseling a Marine who didn’t want to reenlist. When asked why the Marine said:”There just aren’t enough guys like you in the Corps.” My father’s response: “Then why don’t you stay in and be one?” So if no one is leading, that makes YOU the leader.

    Levant! I can’t believe I completely ignored your comment. I am honored you will be posting some America’s 1stSgt originals on your screen. I expect royalties. In Sgt G’s case I suspect a lack of confidence and brains. Not sure if I am comfortable with your final thought *shiver* but I have been known to ‘crap’ equipment from time to time.

  8. “If they don’t like it then they shouldn’t have left me in charge,”
    This needs to be a T-shirt…and i want one.
    PS I have a new brownie recipe…

  9. We used to have a term for the Sgt G’s of the world.

    We called ’em “Rocks”. Rocks, as in brains so dense you’d shatter them if you tried to pound a thought into them.

    On the initiative thing…

    Various commands had various different ideas on how to value initiative in their snuffies.

    One command I was attached to made a point of evaluating young Marines on what they took a pass on doing. The word was, if you see something needs doing, you best get about doing it because sure as **** someone’s watching and taking notes.

    That stuck with me. Now, every time I see something that needs doing but is being ignored, or unnoticed by everyone else, I get that feeling between my shoulder blades like someone’s scoping me out.

  10. Leslie, are trying to barter brownies for t-shirts?

    Grimmy, we still call them rocks. The most common form this takes is picking a stone up off the ground, handing it to the brain surgeon in question mentioning he must have dropped his ID card.

    Saker, I would not be surprised if he was STILL a squad leader. Of course, if my Sgt G is still in the military there is no justice in the world.

  11. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a t-shirt, however, I have been infected with an insidious disease: one of the symptoms is throwing brownies of various kinds at military personnel…

  12. “”In the absence of any other authority, do not be afraid to make a decision.”

    I think this has to apply to oneself. I see way too many people waiting for something to happen in their lives, when in fact, if they’d take the initiative they could change course and start in a new direction.

    Did someone here say Brownies? Where?

  13. Anyone who wants to join me in throwing brownies, email me and I’ll send you the new, improved brownie recipe –
    cnc co 7 @ gmail. com
    (remove the spaces)
    I would copy your post and place it on our time clock, but I fear it would be wasted, as my co-workers are sadly lacking anything resembling initiative.

  14. Kanani, this seems to be a symptom of our modern age. My first reaction to the story of New York snowed in and people complaining about streets being cleared was: Go buy a shovel and dig yourself out! It’s just like parents who want to sue McDonald’s because their kids are fat. Really Mom? Have you ever thought of telling your kids: “No fries! Eat your vegetables.” That personal responsibility piece seems too heavy a burden for some to bear.

    Leslie, your brownie initiative is both apt and on time. 🙂

  15. I saw this the day it was posted and meant to read it then but could not. Not because I lack initiative, but because Navy personnel around these parts have decided it’s their job to produce many tiny humans and, well, it’s my job to be there while they do it. Having read it a few days ago, I intended to leave glowing commentary but now all my beleaguered brain can come up with is “yep,” “exactly,” “spot on,” and maybe a “yeeeaaaahhh boyeeee.” Which is understandable when I am giddy with fatigue. So, in a nut shell (although I’m fairly well past “nut shell” stage); awesome post.

  16. Okay…just to clarify: not a sex therapist. I’m a labor and delivery nurse. I re-read my comment and it could be taken amiss….jeez. Time for bed.

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