My first major firefight occurred on April 6, 2004. At the time, the infantry platoon I led was garrisoned in a city called Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province that became epicenter of the insurgency that blossomed across Iraq in 2004. On the morning of April 6, thousands of insurgents attacked and isolated one of our sister platoons. Barricaded inside of three separate houses, Marines fought their enemies at point-blank range, even trading grenades with them from opposite sides of the same wall. The casualties began mounting.
My men and I launched into the city to relieve our comrades and soon ran into withering fire. From that point on, we fought house by house and block by block. Machine guns tore up the walls all around us. RPGs exploded above and below us. Once we had rescued our trapped and wounded comrades, we joined the rest of our battalion and fought for the remainder of the day, clearing the city of the thousands of attackers. Shortly before nightfall, we made it back into the base, filthy, covered with dirt, gunpowder and, in some cases, blood.
Back inside the base, I saw Joe Mahardy, my best radio operator, leaning up against the wall with his gear off, smoking a cigarette. Joe was all of nineteen years old, and he looked it—standing a skinny six-feet-tall. I stopped and asked him how he was doing. It was, after all, our first day-long firefight.
Joe thought for a minute. “I’m fine, sir.”
Then he said something that amazed me. “Hey sir, do you think we fought well today? I mean, do you think that all the Marines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa would have been proud of us? Did we live up to them, sir? Did we do our part?”
I didn’t know what to say. By all rights, Joe should have been worried about only one thing: what tomorrow would hold—would he fight again, would he return to base and if he did would he still have all of his limbs? But Mahardy wasn’t worried about these things. Instead, he wondered only one thing: had he kept the faith with the men who preceded him? Had he upheld the honor of the United States Marine Corps? Had he accomplished his mission?
What is it that makes a nineteen-year-old more concerned with his service than his life? Why was Nelson Mandela able to spend more than a decade in prison and then emerge to plead to his nation to forgive those who had put him there? Why was Mohandas Gandhi able to steadfastly refuse the call to violence in the face of increasingly violent oppression? Why did Mother Teresa, Austrian by birth, pour out her life in the slums of Calcutta? How do the most respected people, and the most respected leaders, endure hardship, pain, and even the prospect of certain death and still persevere?
I believe that they can do these things because all truly great leaders know their overarching mission in life with the same clarity with which Joe Mahardy knew his mission in combat. They have a cause and they commit to it regardless of the consequences. But how do they develop worthy missions? What helps them find what really matters and then stick to it?
To answer these questions, it is worth starting with a clear understanding of what we mean by mission. Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the word in several ways:
A ministry commissioned by a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work
A body of persons sent to perform a service or carry on an activity
A specific task with which a person or group is charged
A pre-established and often self-imposed objective or purpose
A calling or vocation
Running through all of these disparate definitions is the idea of service – to a faith, to a country, to an organization, or to a higher calling or profession. A mission, then, must be something outside of and greater than ourselves, something that demands that we give of ourselves, that we sacrifice. A mission cannot be centered on increasing our own comfort or happiness (though those two may be byproducts if we are lucky.) Mother Teresa described her mission as a call within a call: “I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them…to be God’s Love in action to the poorest of the poor.” Consistent sacrifices give us the first sign that we have committed ourselves to service, and thus to mission.
But sacrifice alone does not a mission make. Adolph Hitler, after all, endured a year in prison in support of National Socialism. A true mission must also conform with ethics, with generally accepted right and wrong. No matter how noble the ends, they never justify the means if the means abandon morality. For this reason, we respect Ghandi and revile Lenin. Indeed, Churchill once made the following, “His goal: to save the world. His method: to blow it up.” A good mission must be noble in theory AND ethical in execution.
Next, a worthwhile mission must be actionable. It must be something that can reasonably be put into practice so that others can hold a leader accountable to achieve results that can at least be observed, if not precisely measured. If a mission is not actionable, if it is so pie-in-the sky that it could never possibly be achieved, then a leader is essentially off of the hook. They are free to claim whatever they would like, knowing full well that they will never be asked to match deeds with words.
So, a worthy mission must have a goal outside of ourselves, must conform with ethics in execution, and must be actionable in the observable world. But these principles are just a starting point. Great leaders embrace them to begin, but great leaders sustain missions beyond the beginning by reflecting on the fact that man is mortal and that our time on earth is limited. They know that day is irrelevant and no action is insignificant and that mortality re-defines success. Nothing accumulated in this life can be carried over into the next; no one will write our bank account balance on our tombstones. Instead, they will write things like: “Loving father. Beloved daughter. Faithful friend.” Internalizing our own mortality helps us stay true to our defined missions by helping us focus on the things that really matter.
And not every mission must be overarching. In our lives, we will have different missions across the span of our activities. In the working world, our mission could be to build a business founded on integrity, with positive contributions that will live on long after we are gone. At home, our mission could be to teach values to the next generation, to model righteousness and virtue. In our communities, our mission could be something as simple as getting to know our neighbors or being generous with our time when our friends are in need. Our lives have different seasons and contexts, and our missions may vary across each.
I believe that if we take the time to define our missions, we can achieve remarkable and worthwhile results in life. Worthy missions help us lead well by giving us an ending point for our journey, a guiding force for our actions, and a foundation upon which to build. Beginning a leadership journey with the end in mind allows a us to plan our course with the same deliberation with which we plan anything else important in life—how we get in shape, how we do our work, how we raise our children, and so on. And once we have a destination and directions, others can actually follow us. If we have a true north that does not change with time and circumstance, then others feel confident that they have made the right choice to follow us.
A clear mission also helps us serve our teams and those around us, and service is no easy thing—it has to be practiced if it is to be maintained. If we have a mission to which we submit ourselves, then we are constantly practicing service, which makes it much easier for us to do it consistently. What is more, a good mission also allows a leader to push through adversity. Too often we judge the worth of a course of action by the difficulty we encounter pursuing it. The job is worth doing until the job gets hard, at which point in time we often switch jobs. But the worth of our cause cannot be determined by the price we pay to achieve it. If a leader has identified what they think is truly worthy, they are far less likely to deviate from their true north when life’s headwinds blow hard.
Finally, a clear, well-known, and well-defined mission allows a leader to guard against complacency and amorality, for a well-known mission brings accountability into our lives. If we tell others our cause, it helps them hold us to it. They can point us to our own stated standard and simply ask us to follow it.
Whether we know it or not, we are all pursuing missions. One of my commanders, a Navy SEAL and a sniper, summed up this reality perfectly: “Show me a man’s checkbook and show me his calendar, and I will tell you his mission.”
If we hope to live life well, then we must take the time to understand the missions that we are currently pursuing AND to define those missions that we would like to pursue. To help us craft our own missions it is worth asking three questions:
1) Where am I currently spending the majority of my time and energy?
2) What do I sacrifice for now?
3) What do I want written on my tombstone?
Donovan Campbell’s *blog is based on lessons learned in three combat tours with the United States Marines, lessons he found applicable in the business world, and life in general. Donovan’s second Iraq tour is chronicled in the NYT best-seller, Joker One. Newsweek named Joker One a top war book of the decade.*
Donovan’s new book, The Leader’s Code is scheduled to launch on April 9, 2013, and highlights six character attributes. Donovan believes character is the basis for leadership, and we agree. To learn more about Donovan and his book, visit www.theleaderscode.com. For assistance with strategy and leadership initiatives, please contact us.