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 at the MEU.
Throughout the past 24 years, Lt. Col. John R. O’Neal has been on numerous operations and deployments including six Marine Expeditionary Unit deployments. This experience has allowed the 46 year old from Southfield, Michigan, to establish his style of leadership that has led to a successful career and has influenced countless Marines. In this interview O’Neal, commanding officer, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, shares how he makes an impact on the MEU and what it takes to refine your style of leadership.
Q: Are you a natural born leader, or was it a trait you developed over time?
A: It’s definitely a trait that was developed over time. I don’t think there is such a thing as a natural born leader. There are people who have attributes that enable good leadership; people that have a good speaking voice, a degree of confidence, a sense of humor and the intellect that allows them to see the bigger picture. Those are all attributes that help leaders, but leadership is something is learned. I don’t think anyone one is born a leader. I was not born a leader. It’s something I’ve learned over time.
Q: Was there a definitive moment of self-realization were you saw yourself as a leader?
A: I don’t recall a single moment where I felt this mantle of leadership. It was learned over time. It started with sports and Boy Scouts. Taking leadership billets in Boy Scouts and moving up through that, which is similar to the Marine Corps in leadership responsibilities. The same with sports, moving up and becoming team captain and positions like that. It was a gradual progression. As a second lieutenant, you’re given the tools to lead, the Marine Corps puts a little polish on what you’ve got and you go out. Throughout a career, you develop as a leader. You learn new techniques; you build confidence, knowledge, and a sense of how to lead. Everybody has their own style, and developing that style, a style that works for you, that accomplishes the mission, that’s something that is developed over time.
You watch other leaders; you’re counseled by your peers, seniors and your subordinates as well. Over time you develop better skills as a leader. This command is full of leaders at one level or another. The old Marine Corp saying, ‘If there are any two Marines together, one of them is in charge,’ that breeds a sense of leadership at the lowest level, and it develops as you go through the ranks ultimately up to sergeant major or general. Every time you advance, or come across a new challenge, you’re exercising those attributes of leadership at the appropriate level and preparing to rise to the next level. You are constantly honing those skills.
Q: What is your style of leadership?
A: I have been watched and mentored by some truly phenomenal leaders and I’ve developed my own style. I tend to be a supporter and enabler. I look at the men and women that I’m charged to lead. I look to how I can support them and how I can enable their success and give them the resources they need to accomplish the mission. I provide broad guidance and enable success in a calm deliberate manner that reassures the people I’m charged to lead. Trust in their abilities and hold them accountable.
Q: What does it take to be a great leader?
A: One: you need to have the opportunity. Two: you need to be committed to the people in the mission. Whether it’s leading a soccer team, a Boy Scout troop, or a MEU; you have to understand that mission and be committed to the mission and to the people. If you’re not, than there is no way you can lead. It’s not simply running at the front of the formation, that’s not leadership. It’s providing the guidance and enabling what’s going to happen, and be committed to the people you are going to lead. If you’re not committed, they’re just not going to follow.
Q: In addition to commitment, what else do you demand from yourself?
A: You have to be a student and be willing to learn. You have to be a student of the human condition. You need to understand your people; what motivates them, issues they’re dealing with, and how to enable their success.
Q: It seems like being a leader takes a lot out of someone, what’s been the hardest thing for you as a leader?
A: It certainly takes more effort, but there’s a reward that goes with it. Yes it takes more effort, but there is a greater reward that comes from leading. Accomplishing the mission, helping the people you lead get better at what they do and hopefully be better people at the same time. I don’t think it takes something out of you, because you get something back.
Whenever you’re going to a new command, and this holds true if you’re going to a new sports team, Boy Scout troop, or whatever organization, there is a balance between what you give and what you get. Ideally, it’s a perfect balance. I’m giving of myself and I’m getting back something in return. I’m passing on wisdom, guidance, knowledge, but I’m also learning at the same time. So at the end of that relationship, I’m better for having been there, and the organization is better because I was there.
Q: What’s been the most rewarding about being
A: The satisfaction of being a leader is knowing I contributed to the success of the team, and hopefully the success of the individual. That’s part of what a leader gets back; it’s that satisfaction that their efforts made a difference in the mission and the people.
Q: What kind of legacy are you hoping to leave with the 15th MEU?
A: The 15th MEU institutionally has such a strong legacy of leadership. To contribute in some small way to that legacy is what I hope for. We have accomplished every mission we’ve been assigned while I’ve been here as [executive officer] and [commanding officer]. We’ve raised the bar and exceeded expectations on numerous occasions. That reinforces an institutional reputation the 15th MEU already has.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve left your mark on the 15th MEU?
A: I think I’ve left the positive mark here overall. On the margins, driving the little things that could be affected. Continuing to develop [standard operating procedures], driving to improve the exercise that we do with our foreign partners to gain more training. I’ve done that to the best of my ability. I don’t think that I or we could have done it better.
Q: As you prepare to continue your career with another unit, are there any words of wisdom you’d like to leave to the Marines?
A: My words to the Marines are thank you for what you do, thank you for being a part of that team, thank you for believing in the team, me and the mission. Continue to do that and chase excellence. Don’t ever give up and every member of the team is important.