“Bother to Connect…”

One of the defining moments of George C. Marshall’s military career came in 1917 when he stood up to General John J. Pershing’s criticisms of his 1st Division comrades, explaining to him “We’ve had a very hard time. We’ve worked very, very hard. The men have had no advantages of any kind and they don’t expect any.” In his later interviews with Forrest Pogue, Marshall said “General [William] Sibert was very regretful I had done this, and some of my bosom friends came up to me and said, of course, I was finished and I’d be fired right off.” However, “Instead of ruining me,” Marshall said, General Pershing “sent for me quite frequently,” and “you could say what you pleased as long as it was straight, constructive criticism. . . . I never saw another commander that I could do that with.”

Major Ryan W. Pallas referenced this trait of both Marshall and Pershing in his advice to the recent graduates of Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

“Bother To Connect…” by Major Ryan W. Pallas

Source: The Field Grade Leader

When asked by a peer and fellow field grade officer, Major Josh Powers, to discuss my thoughts that would best prepare the recent graduates of Command and Staff as they transition back to the operating forces, many themes and ideas came to mind. One idea stood alone…

In July of 2017, Captain Edwin Powers wrote in his essay published by the Marine Corps Gazette, “Fatherhood as Leadership”, that his own father lived by the phrase, “Bother To Connect.” The idea was explained by Powers as being able to answer the question, “Did I bother as much as I could have in reaching out to help family members, co-workers…And did I connect with others through a smile, a kind word of empathy, or a close look into their eyes, in a way that communicates our connection?” 

I reflected on how challenging that simple idea has now become. The world as we know it has found itself in a unique and challenging environment where social distancing limitations have personal and professional impacts. How can one lead when there are physical limitations we all must abide by? The simple act of reporting to a new unit and checking-in seems infinitely harder—how will new field grade officers succeed? 

As we strive as leaders “to connect” to peers, subordinates, and seniors, men and women much like myself will look to all of you for the solution. That’s right—you’re the solution. Senior leaders will look to you to guide them with new ideas challenging existing frameworks validating techniques, tactics, and procedures that may have yet to be developed. The last year of schooling, either by resident or distance education, has developed a level of critical thought many will welcome and leverage to achieve success. General Marshall, a shining example of challenging the status quo, appreciated non-conformists, “preferring those who, like Pershing and himself, were unafraid to express dissent and open to criticism without taking offense.”  

Officers leaving the schoolhouse will be expected to do just that—find new and unique methods to achieve mission success in the spirit of the commander’s intent. It will require each and every one of you to connect to your soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsman, and Marines.  It will require a closely-knit team, with distinct physical barriers, many of us have never encountered in our lives. How will new field grade officers build relationships working remotely? How will leaders pass important information or find efficiencies while maximizing the output of the workers on hand? How will leaders build and foster esprit de corps?  I, unfortunately, do not have a simple answer for you.  

I am hopeful that the answer lies in not just a single individual, but the collective intellectual capacity yielded by the recent graduates.  This problem is too complex to solve alone, and it will require leveraging the unique skillsets many of you have developed over the course of your career. An idea of a peer may require a simple input or slight modification, whereas another idea may require the collective input and effort of every individual on the staff to build it from the ground up.  The talents and ideas many of you have will become center-stage, not only solving current problems, but reaching far into the future and setting the stage for the next two, five, or ten years. 

I’m sure many were reading expecting an answer or set of guidelines that could be applied for success. I can only apologize and imagine with the current circumstances governing our daily interactions, the rule book may have to be thrown out. To start, this takes an intimate knowledge of the rule book in order to successfully deviate from. The lessons we learn from the past will ultimately serve us well in future roles, but it takes the courage, intellect, and determination to create a new rule book for the environment we currently find ourselves in. The road will likely be full of criticisms, feedback, and failures. We will one day find ourselves with current events in the rear-view referencing it in the future as a time that challenged conventional thinking to solve a problem many of us have never encountered, or perhaps historical reflection can once again play a part in solving current challenges (The U.S. military fought a world war and pandemic in the early 1900s). 

So why is, “Bother To Connect” the advice I choose to leave with the recent graduates? Because no matter what challenges lay ahead, it will take the trust and confidence of those we are entrusted to lead, the confidence of those we are led by, and the confidence of those we stand on equal footing with as peers, to succeed. Without a true connection, even if it only professional, no team can find success or survive times of turmoil.  “Bother To Connect” a simple phrase with severe impacts. I know the answer is out there, and it will take the ingenuity and creativity of the new graduates to find it. 

Major Ryan W. Pallas is a Marine Corps CH-53E pilot and has completed tours at Miramar, California, Yuma, Arizona, and Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.  He can be followed on Twitter at @rwpallas.