MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- The Marine expeditionary unit represents everything the Marine Corps offers.
The Marines that comprise the MEU are the first responders to crisis around the world. Its success is carried out by young Marines dedicated to maintaining a force in readiness. However, this would not be possible without exceptional senior leadership.
Throughout the past 19 years, Maj. Peter D. Nelson has experienced the Marine Corps as both enlisted and officer. This experience has allowed the 37-year-old from Hilham, Tenn., to mold his leadership skills into a style that enlisted Marines understand and respect. He continues to leave his mark on the Corps as the mobility officer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. In this interview he shares how he makes an impact on the MEU and what it takes to stand out as a leader in a service comprised of the best of the best.
Q: How essential is a mobility officer to the MEU’s mission?
A: The mobility officer coordinates all transportation. That includes ship, truck, airplanes or even donkey. If it moves personnel or equipment, my job is to coordinate that for the MEU. If I’m not doing my job, the MEU doesn’t move, which would really hinder our mission capability if we can’t get to the fight. It includes coordinating with the ships to get us on there in the manner that meets the commander’s scheme of maneuver ashore, which can get difficult because we don’t always know which mission we’re going to do next. So we have to posture ourselves to be able to do any mission with what’s available closest to the exits of the ship. That takes a lot of coordination between us, the [operations officer] and the [commanding officer].
Q: With so much going on, how do you manage to be successful?
A: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it throughout the rest of my career; I have not gotten to where I’m at on my own. I attribute the success of what I do to the actions of those Marines who work for me. I’m not the one out there chaining vehicles down, taking manifests or herding Marines. I’m out there with them, but I’m not the one physically doing it. I’m making the decisions and setting the guidance, but they’re the ones actually doing the hard work of it all.
Q: What does it take to be a good leader in the Marine Corps?
A: First, you need to learn how to follow. A leader has to be someone who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. People confuse being a leader and being a boss. There’s a big difference. To begin with though, you need to gain the respect of the people you’re going to lead, and that comes through actions not words. You have to be confident. The decisions you make are what will earn you the respect of your subordinates.
Q: You mention there’s a difference between being a leader and a boss. Can you tell us more about the distinction between the two?
A: A boss is someone who sits behind and doesn’t lead from the front. A boss says, “Hey, I need you to do this and this.” A leader says, “Hey we need to go do this and this.” A boss is normally someone who leads from a chair, where a leader is out there with them.
Q: Do you feel like you were always a leader?
A: No. I feel like I was a very poor leader growing up in the Marine Corps. As a corporal, I had one Marine work underneath me. It took me a long time to find my leadership style. I always catered my style to that one individual. It wasn’t until I was a warrant officer that I learned to be a leader for all instead of just one person. I was a little sarcastic coming into the Marine Corps, I’m still sarcastic, but eventually the blinders came off and I had a lot of good leaders that I’ve based my style off of.
Q: As a leader what do you expect from your Marines?
A: First and foremost I expect professionalism. Secondly, I expect expertise in their job field. If there’s a failure in either one of those on their behalf, than that is my fault. I haven’t set the example for them or trained them up to give them the skills or knowledge for them to do their job.
Q: How do you approach training a new Marine reporting in to you?
A: It depends, if they’re a brand new private from the school house I let the [noncommissioned officers] handle that. I take a step back, oversee, and put my input if need be. If we get a Marine in from another unit, I get to know their situation. Are they married, where are you moving from? Do they have everything they need so they’re not dealing with personal issues? Once they’re settled, that’s when I ask them what they did at their last unit. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Then we train them up. Sharing what I know. The only way this machine of the Marine Corps continues to go along is if the guys that have done it before share what they’ve learned.
Q: With so much happening in the MEU, does it take a special kind of leader to be a part it?
A: I wouldn’t say it takes a special kind of leader. It takes a special kind of team. It’s not one individual’s efforts that make it. I learned long ago that there is nothing I can do or not do that will stop this train from rolling down the tracks. My job is to make it run smoother.
Q: Being a mustang, you’ve had the privilege of experiencing both the enlisted and officer side of leadership. What’s the difference?
A: It was about a year ago when we had this reawakening of the NCOs. The sergeant major and the [commanding officer] got all the leaders together to discuss how we can relate to these new guys. A lot of it is how we’re brought up in the Marine Corps. What I noticed coming up both tracks, from junior to [SNCO] and warrant officer, is that enlisted and officers are brought up differently in the Marine Corps. When we go through boot camp, we’re taught that our loyalty belongs to the man to the left and to the right of you. And then it’s to your fire team, and then squad, and then platoon, and so on. So our loyalties go from the bottom up. As an officer, we’re taught that our loyalties lie from the top down. First to our nation, our institution, then to our unit, so our loyalties go down. I will tell you it’s not a bad thing. It’s just different and you need both. Another thing is expectations associated with your rank. I’ll argue with anyone who says otherwise, my expectations of how a corporal would act are different from how I would expect say a captain or lieutenant colonel. All in all though, I don’t think one side is tougher, they’re just different.
Q: Was the transition from enlisted to officer difficult for you?
A: It was fairly difficult. The biggest difficulty I had transitioning from enlisted to officer was to step back and let the [noncommissioned officers] and the [staff noncommissioned officers] run things and take charge. What I didn’t learn for about four or five years after being an officer is that stepping in doesn’t help anybody. The best way for a Marine to learn is failure.
Q: Are you different from officers who aren’t prior enlisted?
A: There’s a stigma that a lot of restricted officers have that I really wish we would get rid of. You are an officer, period. Your expectations are the same as an individual who went to college, [Officer Candidate School] and [The Basic School]. My expectations from the commanding officer are the same as any other [officer] in the command. The only difference is that technical expertise. I am a [subject matter expert] in what I do. That’s why the Marine Corps has restricted officers that specialize in what they do.
Q: What’s one of the hardest challenges a leader faces?
A: Leading your peers. The best way to do that is to set your expectations up from the beginning. That way when you get rolling, they know what the expectations are and there are no surprises. I think the second hardest thing is gaining that respect as a new leader to a new unit. Being a leader is not easy and it should never be easy because of the responsibility that comes with it. The mothers and fathers of America have entrusted us with their sons and daughters. That in itself carries so much weight with it. You’re responsible for these Marines actions; you are responsible for them and to them. Being a Marine is not a nine to five job, you are responsible for them 24/7.