Leadership: Achieving Lifechanging Success from Within 1 Walk the Walk: The Lost Art of Leadership THE BLACK-AND-WHITE TELEVISION SAT on top of a tall, black oak table just inside the front door and to the right. The one-story house had brown, faux brick siding and a porch that wrapped around the front. In the shadow of the Great Depression, my grandfather paid $800, a fortune at the time, for house No. 9 on Helm Street in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the early 1930s. He was tagged with a thirty-year mortgage and monthly payments of three dollars.
I was born on February 24, 1952, and until I was five years old, Helm Street was a dirt road. Our plumbing was outdoors. The kitchen sink was simply a bucket where dishes were washed. The icebox was just that: a box where we put the ice from the ice house around the corner. The living room couldn’t have been more appropriately named because that’s where we lived.
Every day started in that room. It was the last stop before everyone left for school. My mother stood near the door, checked our hair, and made sure we had lunch money, our books, and all our homework. It was like a military inspection. We’d fall in, go through guard mount, and march out the door in an order determined by age, oldest to youngest. And every night ended there with us all in front of the boulder-like, twenty-four-inch Zenith television in its black-framed box.
But in 1969, that room and the television were my connection to a world beyond my imagination and to my only brother who had left home the year before. Named after our grandfather, Sherman was eighteen months older and just a grade ahead of me in school. Our lives had been intertwined to a degree unusual for even the closest of siblings. We were the men of a house dominated by women, a mother and grandmother, followed by two older sisters, ten of us children in all, and not even a photograph of a father.
Our family raised a large amount of the food we ate, my siblings and I hauling hundred-pound bags of feed to the backyard where we kept all the animals—a cow, chickens, rabbits, geese, and goats. By the time we kids were in middle school, there wasn’t a teacher anywhere who could tell us more about the cycle of life in animals or the mating processes and patterns of rabbits. We helped our grandmother, Ida, grow most of the vegetables we ate, and we executed the commands of our mother, Miss Rosa, around the house.
By the time Sherman, who was then seventeen, told me he was going to drop out of our high school following his junior year, the dark clouds of a culture in transition had started to slowly edge into Hot Springs.
A gambling and entertainment mecca that rivaled Las Vegas just a decade earlier, Hot Springs was changing. Two groups with different agendas but a common cause—Baptists and gambling operatives from Nevada—worked hard to close down the casinos that had effectively kept Hot Springs in a time warp. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed all African-Americans the right to enter theaters from the main street and go through the front doors of restaurants to order food, the racial and political tension rising from the streets of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles were of a nature and intensity beyond anything we experienced in our home town.
Still, it was amid both the pain of assassination—first Dr. Martin Luther King’s on April 4, 1968, then Robert Kennedy’s on June 5, 1968—and the political turmoil in Chicago that Sherman chose a road that forever took him out of Hot Springs and into a conflicted and rapidly changing world.
He had been a cornerback on the last football team at Langston, the city’s all-black high school. That fall, 1968, Langston and Hot Springs High, where former president Bill Clinton attended, were to be integrated at a new facility outside of town. The new school would be called Hot Springs High School. Langston would cease to exist, becoming instead a middle school.
“I’m not going to that school,” Sherman said. “I’m not doing that. I grew up at Langston High. I’m done with school.”
I looked at my brother. The words didn’t match the person I had known all my life. How could anyone just stop going to school?
“How can you not go to school?” I asked. “How could that thought even enter your mind?”
In those days, you could drop out of high school and join the United States Marine Corps. That’s exactly what Sherman did in the summer before his senior year.
On August 21, 1968, a Marine became the first African-American soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A day later, as street clashes between demonstrators and police brought chaos to the Democratic National Convention, I started going to school with white people for the first time, and my brother prepared for war.
For all the changes I was going through, Sherman’s transformation would be of a whole other magnitude.
When Sherman returned home from basic training four months later, he had muscles in places I had never seen muscles before. He had become a daredevil, fearless. But I still couldn’t understand anything about why he chose the path he did. Why would he want to leave something so good, the life we had together as brothers in a family that had defined our entire lives?
I remember going to school one day when my brother was home on leave, and a kid telling me Sherman had been in a fight at a club the night before.
“Man, he hit this guy with one punch,” said the boy, “and that guy went straight down to the floor.”
When Sherman left for Vietnam, I struggled to process that reality. Not even integration had as much impact on me as my brother going off to war all the way on the other side of the world. I thought about him all the time. I wrote him letters. I told him about my car, my girlfriend, what was happening at school and around town. Every night I prayed he’d be safe.
I understand now what parents and loved ones go through when their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives are in harm’s way.
I was a seventeen-year-old kid looking up into the heavens and praying for the good Lord to watch over my brother. Every night I made sure I was home with a seat in front of that television in our living room to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. It was as if I needed to see that Vietnam footage to make sense of the path my brother had chosen.
I remember thinking back then, Isn’t the military for men? Don’t you have to be a grown man to be a soldier? My brother was a boy, just like me. Men looked like those fathers down the street heading off to the Reynold’s Aluminum plant with their lunch boxes. Even with all those new muscles, to me, Sherman was still just a boy.
I’d swear that I caught a glimpse of him in the background of one of those Dan Rather reports, or in the film clip that went with the day’s war story.
I know now that I never did see him.
Later on, when he came home briefly after thirteen months in Vietnam with a Purple Heart for having been wounded and other combat commendations on his chest, I knew he was no longer a boy. And to one degree or another, neither was I.
I remember when we first found out from the Marines that he had been wounded. There were no computers, cell phones, or phone cards at the time as a way for him to get in touch. We had no idea if he would make it back home, and if he did, how or when he would arrive.
When we finally got word that summer, I went to pick him up at the Little Rock bus terminal. I remember being proud to drive him around, though I still couldn’t understand how he could tell grown men what to do. He had left as a private first class and now he was a corporal. He came home from the war with amazing stories of places and people, life and death. And he was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and all kinds of music that was as new and foreign to me as the war itself.
I still had no desire to follow Sherman into the military, much less the Marine Corps. But as my own graduation neared, I also knew I couldn’t stay at home if I was going to grow into the man I wanted to become. I didn’t know exactly what that looked like at the time, but I knew it didn’t look anything like Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The Marine Corps recruiter pulled me over one day as I sat on the fence trying to decide what to do. I’ll put in my time, I thought. Then I’ll head off to college.
“You’ll never make it in the Marines,” Sherman told me when he found out my intentions.
But I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps anyway and arrived at the recruit depot in San Diego on August 27, 1970. It was two months after U.S. ground forces were pulled out of Cambodia, almost three weeks to the day before Jimi Hendrix died of a barbiturates overdose in London, and a little more than a month before Janis Joplin was found dead of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles.
In October, President Richard Nixon announced that as many as 40,000 troops were to be sent home from Vietnam. I had been given orders to be part of a Christmas replacement. We had gone through the battalion staging process, which was the last phase of training before the flight to Southeast Asia.
By December, the world was continuing to twist and turn. The United Nations General Assembly voted to support the isolation of South Africa over apartheid. Later, the north tower of the World Trade Center would become the tallest building in the world.
Then, as I prepared for Vietnam, my orders changed to Hawaii. Apparently so many Marines had been lost to drugs and other problems in Hawaii that we were diverted there to fill in.
I arrived as a PFC—private first class—one automatic promotion above private. Suddenly it was as if my training was over. I was made part of a unit, and I would perform every minute of every day for the next two years. This was the “spit and polish” Marine Corps everyone knows from the movies.
At the time the nation was still at war.
So were the officers in Hawaii.
No breaks, excuses, not even an inch of latitude were allowed. Perfection was the only standard. Anything else was failure.
It didn’t take me long to appreciate the benefits of the Marine Corps’ rigid structure. All you had to do was follow orders exactly as they were delivered. No freelancing, no second-guessing.
Sherman and I had grown up in a house run exactly the same way by two exceptionally strong women. My mother, Miss Rosa, operated as the drill sergeant while my grandmother, Ida, was the four-star general in charge. I became a very good Marine because the role was very clear to me.
What I didn’t know was that Sherman had found his way to Hawaii as well. After Vietnam, my brother was stationed at Quantico, the Marine base in Virginia. When the Marine Corps asked him to reenlist, Sherman had the ability to choose his next duty station. As a decorated combat veteran, he took orders to Hawaii.
As I was processing in after arriving in Oahu, the first sergeant asked me if I had any relatives in the Marines Corps.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I have a brother.”
“What’s his name?”
Sherman’s first name never even crossed my mind. After nearly six months of mind-shaping training, I had truly become a Marine.
THE MARINE CORPS WORKS its people hard physically, but even harder mentally. No way can a person go through a complete cycle of recruit training and have the same civilian mind-set he or she had the first day they walked off the bus. We are taught to think like Marines, and among other things that means nothing is impossible. If you are tired at three miles, then you are conditioned to believe that you have five more miles in you.
I had been taught how to reach down into places inside me and find whatever I needed—even when I knew there was nothing else to get. There were times when I could hear the voice of my grandmother, a woman who could outwork any man on his best day, saying, “When you think it’s good, make it better. When it seems impossible, make it a possibility.”
The next thing I knew, my brother walked down the stairs. He was the duty NCO, which means he was responsible for the daily operation of the command in the absence of the commanding officer. Noncommissioned officers come from the ranks of enlisted Marines, whereas commissioned officers come from a college Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, Officer Candidate School, and the Naval Academy.
I hadn’t seen him in a long while. And yet, there he was. This was the same guy who used to sleep in bed with me, the same guy who used to eat my food, wear my clothes, and take my things to make me cry.
But this was the Marine Corps. His uniform was Marine perfect. He had spent more than a year fighting a war in jungles, and he had felt the sting of shrapnel entering his body. He had medals, experience, and rank. We might as well have been strangers.
“I’m glad you are here,” he said matter-of-factly.
Then I was immediately transferred to the Naval Communication Station fifty miles away in Wahiawa at the far end of Whitmore Village, down a road that ran through Dole pineapple fields. We belonged to the same command, but I very quickly found out that’s about all we still had in common.
When I finally figured out the phone system, the first call I made was to Sherman.
“Hey, how are you doing?” I said when my brother answered the phone.
“Who is this?”
“It’s me, Al.”
“Are you an NCO?”
“If you’re not an NCO, then I don’t talk to you.”
He hung up the phone.
In a little over those two years, my brother had been around the world. At that moment I wasn’t sure whether he had come back. But I thought, Okay, I’ll show him. If he’s good enough to be a sergeant, then so am I. It’s no big deal.
We were no longer throwing rocks at old wine bottles floating down the river in Hot Springs, trying to be the first to break one anymore, but I could get my arms around a little brotherly competition. From that day on I never turned back.
In some ways, neither did Sherman.
IN THE THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS from that day in Hawaii, I have been to every major country on earth and experienced leadership from every angle and approach. I have seen leaders with no fancy titles to generals, senators, cabinet members, even presidents who could have used some time at the knee of my grandmother. I have learned more about human nature in all its beautiful and twisted forms than I could have reasonably expected had I not followed Sherman into the Marine Corps.
I also learned that real leadership is a lost art.
This concept I’m referring to is that old-fashioned, fundamental, old-school leadership where those in charge walk the walk, talk the talk, and still have the confidence and integrity to lead from the heart.
Plenty of people in high places give orders and issue edicts designed to make their subordinates jump. I’ve seen it every day in the Marine Corps. And in business, politics, even academia, managers, officers, and professors still use the time-worn tool of fear to manipulate people into action or to prevent them from acting at all.
Everyone, from parents and coaches to religious “leaders” and military elites, frequently demand behavior that belies their own actions.
But real leaders, whether in the military, in a corporate or civic setting or taking care of a family, inspire people to perform. We are effective leaders when people we lead go that extra mile because it is the right thing to do, and they recognize as much.
There is an old saw that goes, “Ears don’t see.” Most people are motivated to action far more by what they see than what they hear. That’s why genuine leadership is hard to fake. As with anything else, a person can stand out in one of two ways: You can be a character. Or you can demonstrate character.
I am fortunate enough to have become familiar with the latter, first as a child growing up with two exceptionally strong women, then later as a staff noncommissioned officer to men such as Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Colonel Wesley Fox, Major Butch Morgan, and General James L. Jones, thirty-second Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and later supreme allied commander, Europe, and commander, United States European Command.
I grew up in a time and place that demanded old-fashioned leadership just to survive. Since then I have spent nearly four decades in an environment built on those qualities—honor, commitment, and integrity. A combination of unique life experiences has allowed my career to be like none before me.
Less than one percent of all enlisted Marines attain the status of sergeant major. Sergeants major work for and support the highest-ranking commanders in the Marine Corps, as part of the command structure.
As an enlisted Marine is promoted in rank, his pay grade moves up as well. For example, a private is a Marine pay grade classified as an E-1, or the lowest pay grade. The E designates the Marine as enlisted. The number 1, refers to the pay grade and is an administrative classification used primarily to standardize compensation across the military services.
At the E-8 level, the Marine Corps has two positions that represent different career paths. This means when an E-7 or gunnery sergeant is promoted to an E-8, he can go one of two ways.
If he becomes a master sergeant, then that Marine will work in the same job he has been trained to do until he retires. For example, if he is trained in aviation mechanics, that’s where he will work for the rest of his career.
If on the other hand he is selected to go the sergeant major route, then he will become a first sergeant. The path for a first sergeant leads up into the command structure of the Corps. It is the only route a Marine can take to become the Sergeant Major of the Marines Corps—the very top job for a noncommissioned officer. Only sixteen sergeants major have held that position in the history of the Marines.
By the time I became the fourteenth Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps in 1999, I had been through some of the most challenging leadership training in the military.
I had been on the drill field in San Diego as a senior drill instructor, completed Marine Security Guard School (Embassy School) at Quantico, been detachment (DET) commander at the United States embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, then afterward returned to become one of the African-American instructors at Embassy School, and worked at the University of Minnesota mentoring future officers. My last stop before heading to El Toro, California, as deputy of the Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy, was in Puerto Rico as a first sergeant working for Major Butch Morgan.
In very short order—June 1989—I went from deputy to sergeant major of the Staff NCO Academy. I was “frocked,” which meant I was made a sergeant major in name, stripe, and responsibility, but I wouldn’t be officially paid accordingly until that December.
I moved on to become Sergeant Major of Officer Candidates School (OCS) from May 1991 to June 1994 where I worked first for Colonel Fox and later for then Col. Pete Osmon. Both men embodied the core values of the Marines Corps.
Colonel Fox did two tours of duty in each of two wars, the Korean and Vietnam. He was wounded in Korea and again in Vietnam, the last time in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. More than 75 percent of Alpha Company died in a fierce battle that defined Colonel Fox’s career and resulted in a Congressional Medal of Honor awarded by President Richard Nixon.
Colonel Fox knew war, and he refused to bend the rules to accommodate anyone as commanding officer of OCS. He was known to be hard core and rigid; nonetheless I watched him walk down a mud trail into the woods near the Potomac River at the edge of the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, when a young candidate had broken under the stress of one of the most demanding programs in the Marine Corps. Colonel Fox didn’t send me, or any other Marine. He went into the woods himself to look for that young candidate.
Colonel Osmon, who went on to become a lieutenant general, brought his own brand of compassion to OCS. We had a terrible incident where one of the instructors, a seasoned and accomplished Marine, molested his stepdaughter. Instead of allowing his wife and her child to suffer through the additional pain and agony of being left alone and financially ruined, Colonel Osmon fought to ensure they were taken care of by the Marine Corps.
As sergeant major of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) (Special Operations Capable) and later as sergeant major of the 1st Marine Airborne Wing (MAW), both in Okinawa, Japan, from June 1994 to November 1996, I supported the command of one of the “seven jewels” of the Marine Corps.
The seven MEUs are positioned around the world ready to act at a moment’s notice. An MEU has every component of the Marine Corps—ground, air, sea, and combat services. It’s no secret where an MEU is located at any given moment, but what it is doing there is classified.
IN NOVEMBER 1995, I became sergeant major of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, which oversees all airborne activities in the Pacific from Hawaii to Japan.
After serving in that position for a year, I returned to Washington, D.C.
If less than one percent of all Marines become sergeants major, then only a fraction of one percent ever work for a general. I have worked for two. In November 1996, I became sergeant major to the first three-star female lieutenant general in Marine Corps history, Lt. General Carol Mutter. Lt. General Mutter was in charge of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the Marine Corps equivalent of human resources.
I assumed manpower would be my final stop and I wanted to leave my mark there, a legacy that would help all those Marines who came after me.
Working for Lt. General Mutter at Marine headquarters certainly had raised my profile, but I have never allowed any job to define my career, one way or another, not even the top job in the Marine Corps.
All Marines aspire to become the top sergeant major of the Marine Corps. I knew I had the qualifications to be considered for the position, but I was focused on trying to learn the eighty-plus programs at Manpower.
I remember Lt. General Mutter being asked about diversity and when was the Marine Corps going to have an African-American in the role of sergeant major.
“I don’t know,” Lt. General Mutter said. “But I know who would do a good job. The right person for the job is right here.”
On July 1, 1999, Lt. General Mutter’s comment seemed prescient. I left Manpower to become the fourteenth Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps under General Jones and the first African-American ever to hold that title.
A lot has been made of that last point, though not by me. Intellectually, I understand the historical nature of the fact. Only fifty-three years earlier, in 1946, the Marine Corps commandant at the time affirmed the institution’s post-war policy of racial separation. That was five years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which outlawed racial discrimination by any government agency, including the Marine Corps. And it wasn’t until 1983, when General Frank E. Petersen was promoted, that an African-American rose to the rank of three-star general.
Practically, however, I have never been sure why the color of my skin mattered. After all, as a leader I was there to focus on all Marines: white, black, Latino, every color of the rainbow. People from every kind of place and circumstance you can imagine. And some you can’t.
I was the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in the Marine Corps, and the one person in charge day-to-day, reporting directly to the commandant, General Jones. I was there to look out for every Marine, all 212,000 of them. Together with General Jones, we led the Marine Corps with a single purpose: to take care of the men and women whose lives had been entrusted to us.
When General Jones became the supreme allied commander at NATO in 2003, he asked me to join him in Brussels as senior noncommissioned officer for Allied Command Operations, a position that didn’t exist until General Jones created it. I became the first sergeant major of the Supreme Allied Command in June 2003 and held the position through July 17, 2006, traveling throughout the world, including multiple trips to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Initially, I was charged with creating a sergeants major/NCO program throughout the NATO command since none had existed prior. In some ways, the diversity I lent, and the diversity of the experiences that landed me in my role, made it possible for me to navigate multiple cultures and their mores more easily. Within six months, the entire program was introduced and in place, and a transformation had taken place within twenty-six countries.
Noncommissioned officers, who filled the newly created sergeant major positions, were no longer underutilized or deemed inferior to the officer ranks, even among countries with long and storied military histories.
SINCE LEAVING THE MILITARY in July 2006, I have dedicated myself to designing and implementing leadership programs with a personal emphasis both on children in New York and on the military, focused particularly on those at risk.
I am president and chief executive of The 4 DREW (Developing Responsible Educated Winners) Foundation, an organization I’ve recently started. It is dedicated to supporting children by providing a lifeline to education and life skills through leadership, mentoring, counseling, coaching, and training.
In addition to consulting and speaking engagements for national and multinational corporations and professional organizations, I’ve served on the 2007 Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq chaired by General Jones.
We presented an honest and blunt assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces’ capabilities to Congress in September of 2007. In short, the report stated that the forces, which included the army and police, could not “meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven,” or take over internal security from United States forces within twelve to eighteen months.
I continue to serve on a variety of government and military commissions, including those devoted to the study and prevention of sexual assault and domestic violence, suicide prevention in the military, veteran’s affairs, and the Young Marines program.
IN THE END, MY early leadership skills were formed inside that one-story house on Helm Street, at a dinner table surrounded by mismatched chairs, nine brothers and sisters, and my grandmother at the head.
We were taught everything from the Twenty-third Psalm to the Golden Rule at that table, but we understood what it all meant by seeing our mother and grandmother in action every day. They never hesitated to walk the walk.
Sergeant Major Alford L. McMichael enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1970 and served his country for more than thirty-six years. He was appointed the 14th sergeant major of the USMC on June 30, 1999. In 2003, he became the first sergeant major ever to serve as the sergeant major to the Allied Supreme Commander of NATO. Among his countless other accomplishments he has, most recently, been appointed to the American Veteran Steering Committee, where he is working to improve the quality of life for young veterans of the United States Armed Forces. He and his wife reside in northern Virginia.