The Best of the Best: Successful Marine Corps Leaders
A few months ago I submitted an article for a writing contest that Leatherneck Magazine was having. I was not selected as a winner (otherwise you would be reading this on their platform), but I still wanted to share it with you. We were supposed to write about either a historical Marine Corps event, a current event, or a Marine who embodied leadership abilities that we looked up to.
I chose to deviate, and write about the leadership traits I admire most, and showcase some of the Marine Corps leaders I have had that embodied these individual traits. I didn’t want this article to go to waste and these Marines absolutely deserve to have this article published.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart to each and every one of you, and the many other incredible leaders I have known throughout my life.
Throughout the last eleven years or so, I have reported to more Marine Corps leaders than I can count. In the Marine Corps, there is always somebody placed in a leadership position above you, along with leaders in the subordinate billets. Some of these leaders have been incredible role models, whose character traits I took note of and try to emulate. Others have exemplified traits I do not wish to ever portray myself.
You will note that I referred to leaders even in subordinate billets. This is something that separates the Marine Corps from many other organizations. We believe leadership exists at every level, and we train all Marines to become better leaders. Our Battalion Commanders have three Company Commanders under their charge. Company Commanders have three Platoon Commanders leading under their charge. Platoon Commanders have Squad leaders, who have fire team leaders, who have three Marines ready to fill the billet of Fire Team Leader at a moment’s notice.
This leadership pyramid ensures that every Marine has both the opportunity and responsibility to grow into their leadership potential.
Having been surrounded by the leadership of some of the greatest leaders of our times for more than a decade, I have had a lot of opportunities to evaluate what makes a good leader…and what does not.
Sergeant Buzek, Kyle
The first true Marine Corps leader who stuck out to me was Sergeant (Sgt), Buzek. He was in the Military Police (MP) and had spent his career working as a field MP. He had completed five deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in his short career and was definitely combat-hardened.
The first thing that made Sgt Buzek stand out as a great leader was the amount of knowledge he had at the tactical level. Through his many combat tours, he had done everything from ground-level detainee handling to flying around with generals and dignitaries on a personal security detachment. I am convinced there wasn’t a situation we could throw at Sgt Buzek that would have made him falter.
Throughout our entire deployment in 2010, Sgt Buzek had an answer for every roadblock in our path.
Next, I recognized the amount of confidence he had. No matter the situation, I never saw Sgt Buzek doubt himself. I recall a situation when a burning truck was left on the road in front of me. Sgt Buzek told me to use my mine-roller to push it out of the way. Then we could go around the vehicle in order to get out of the “kill zone” in which we were sitting. We were exposed. A canal on either side of the road, named “route Elephant”, sitting in the open as easy targets.
Our convoy commander wanted to wait for support from the forward operating base (FOB) we had recently departed, but it wouldn’t arrive for over 45 minutes. I knew in my heart that Sgt Buzek was making the right decision, and luckily he didn’t back down until the convoy commander agreed.
The final thing that stood out to me about Sgt Buzek was the amount of inspiration he provided us. He wasn’t easy on us at all, and his expectations were clear (and high). But he inspired each of us to improve daily. Nobody and I mean nobody wanted to disappoint Sgt Buzek. This was evident in the amount of time we spent practicing rock-drills, memorizing 9-lines, and improving our physical fitness after the workday ended.
In the decade since this deployment, I have never served with a better platoon. I attribute a large amount of that to the leadership and camaraderie Sgt Buzek inspired in each and every one of us.
First Sergeant Angulo, Joel
The next leader that stands out to me is First Sergeant Angulo, who was my Senior Drill Instructor as a Staff Sergeant (SSgt).
First Sergeant Angulo was a shining example of exactly what it means to be a Marine from the first day I laid eyes on him. I remember a day in the first few weeks of recruit training when one of the drill instructors forgot to bring me food from the chow hall after my wisdom teeth had been removed. Then SSgt Angulo pulled me into his berthing and gave me a Spaghetti MRE. He sat me down, talked to me about my family and how boot camp was going, and allowed me to enjoy my first MRE with him.
I know he was just trying to cover his drill instructor’s rear for forgetting to get me food, but I never forgot the way he did it.
Fast forward nine years, and he checks into my unit as I’m executing PCA orders. I am a newly promoted SSgt, and he is a seasoned Gunnery Sergeant. We had the opportunity to hang out a few times at unit functions. He is just as motivating as ever and was promoted to First Sergeant not much later. First Sergeant Angulo is extremely motivated, and you can tell he just loves being a Marine. He is a great leader because you want to be on his team and perform at your highest level.
Sergeant Major Wells, Charles
I have worked for many good Sergeants Major (SgtMaj). They share a lot of similar qualities, but the things that make SgtMaj Wells stand out are his innovative mentality and how much he genuinely cares.
SgtMaj Wells took over the base I worked on in 2018 and immediately started to implement modernized communication strategies, clothing policies, and base-wide standards. There are a night and day difference from before he became the base SgtMaj, and I love what he did. Not only did he find innovative ways to communicate with residents of the base, but he listened and then took immediate action to fix problems.
My favorite memory of this is when the base voiced concerns about the number of abandoned cars taking up parking spaces around the installation. SgtMaj Wells decided that every time an abandoned car was spotted, someone would run the registration and find out to which unit the previous owner belonged. Then he would have a forklift pick up the vehicle and set it in the parking lot of that unit…who was now very incentivized to properly dispose of the vehicle. I will never forget the first time I saw SgtMaj Wells escorting a forklift down the main street of the base carrying an abandoned vehicle!
Major Cragholm, Michael
The first officer on my list of great leaders is Major Cragholm. Major Cragholm and I go way back but didn’t officially work together until 2017. I first met him at recruit training where he was the Company Commander in charge of my training company. A few years later, we operated out of the same FOB in Afghanistan, and afterward, he was even the Company Inspector-Instructor for a rifle company in my hometown.
When I finally got to work directly for Major Cragholm, the thing that stood out to me the most was the size of his heart. Here is a combat-hardened, Purple Heart recipient infantry officer who genuinely cares for every Marine under his charge. I am convinced this man cared more for our wellbeing sometimes than we did, and I would follow him anywhere.
Colonel Styskal, Michael
The Commanding Officer at the last Regiment I worked in was incredible. Colonel Styskal knew enough about every MOS to be dangerous. He always knew the right questions to ask in order to formulate a plan. He is extremely calculating and one of the most thorough planners I have ever met. Even more impressive is his ability to make a decision with minimal information and without hesitation. He makes decisions quickly and executes immediately.
Colonel Styskal knows his Marines well and has no problem balancing critical feedback with humor and positive feedback. I would gladly work for Colonel Styskal again. There is no doubt in my mind that he will be an excellent general one day!
The Best Marine Corps Leaders I Have Had Shared These Traits
The examples above are just a handful of great Marine Corps leaders with whom I have worked. When it is all boiled down, these are some of the traits the best leaders have in common.
They inspire action.
A great leader will inspire you to be the best version of yourself. They will succeed because everyone under their charge sees to it. Nobody wants to let these leaders down.
They are knowledgeable.
All great leaders must be experts in their field. They don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room, but they need to understand the lingo.
They give the mission, or “the why,” but not the how.
These leaders give you their desired end state and then let you accomplish the mission. They don’t tell you how to accomplish it.
They are decisive.
Above all, these leaders make decisions. Being able to make tough decisions in a timely manner is one of the most critical leadership capabilities.
They trust their subordinates.
Trust is the backbone of any successful organization. If a leader trusts me to accomplish the mission, I will. If it becomes evident that a leader doesn’t trust me, it really hinders our work environment.
The Worst Marine Corps Leaders I Have Had Shared These Traits
Not all leaders are created equal. I have experienced some poor leadership in my life but do not wish to share specific examples or names. In general, these are the traits that I attribute the most to the unsuccessful leaders.
They are timid.
Of all the traits of a poor leader, being scared to take action is the worst. There is nothing worse than an indecisive leader, or one who is too scared to take action. A leader who operates in constant fear of what their boss might think of their decisions is not a leader at all. This “leader” is terrible to work for because they hinder progress more than enable it. Nobody likes an indecisive leader.
A leader who insists on telling you how to do everything and micro-managing might as well do it themselves. A leader who micromanages is a leader who doesn’t trust his or her Marines. What’s worse, a leader who micromanages curbs ingenuity because subordinates will stop problem-solving if their leader is going to dictate how they solve the problem regardless.
Fake the Funk
Unfortunately, these leaders exist. This is the leader who never got in trouble and stayed under the radar enough to never be recommended poorly for promotion or retention. These leaders can be grossly incompetent. Yet they are still placed in a leadership role because of their rank, regardless of their competency. The worst part about these leaders is that they will inevitably hinder mission accomplishment and are almost always opposed to progress because “this is how we’ve always done it.”
There you have it: the best and worst leadership traits I have seen in my 11+ years of working among the greatest war-fighting organization this planet has ever seen. Throughout your lifetime you will inevitably develop your own list of characteristics that great leaders portray. The most important thing is focusing on improving a little bit every day, and put these leadership qualities to work!
There are leaders, and then there are great leaders. You will find this to be true in all walks of life. My advice to you, absorb as much as possible from the leaders you look up to. Emulate those leadership traits in your life. Leadership isn’t a natural ability, it takes practice. Volunteer for leadership roles, and give them 110 percent of your energy!
Semper Fi, Marines!