Guns and Gear

Leadership 101: The “sharpening iron” of the family

Mike Piccione Editor, Guns & Gear
Font Size:

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

 Any organization – whether military, business or otherwise – must function as a team to be successful.

To be successful while simultaneously surviving all trials and tribulations hurled against it, the organization must function as a family; not a dysfunctional family mind you, but a family whose members are selfless, devoted, loving, unwaveringly-loyal yet unafraid to discipline one another, and committed to the family as a whole.

The truly gifted leader recognizes this, and demands it of his subordinate leaders.

“We will relate to one another as family”

This month, the senior leadership of the S.C. State Guard held a strategic planning conference in Camden, S.C. in which overall “mission” was discussed, solutions to challenges were proposed, commanders briefed – and were briefed by – attendees, and directives were issued.

For the record, the State Guard is the state defense force component of the broader S.C. Military Dept., which also encompasses the S.C. Army National Guard, the S.C. Air National Guard, and the Emergency Management Division.

It was a fascinating conference for a variety of reasons – not the least of which was the setting (the palatial home and sprawling law offices of international expedition-leader COL Thomas S. Mullikin, who also serves as the State Guard’s deputy commander) – but there also was proffered the sense of a new, emerging culture within the State Guard: The culture of family.

Sounds trite perhaps. But “family” is something that all truly great leaders have always embraced, though the idea of family is not always articulated.

During his opening remarks, Brig. Gen. Richard Eckstrom – the commanding general of the S.C. State Guard (and a retired U.S. Naval officer), who also serves as S.C. Comptroller General and chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force – discussed the importance of his own family; how every member of his family is vital to the whole. He then referred to the State Guard as a family, and he said matter-of-factly, “We [the State Guard] will relate to one another as family.”


When it was Mullikin’s time to speak, he reiterated the importance of Gen. Eckstrom’s vision by referencing a quotation attributed to the great Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh, who purportedly said, “A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.” The old strength-in-numbers adage, but ramping it up with the unbreakable bond of those numbers.

Which brings us to my own briefing wherein I opened with a discussion of the parallel between the evolution of the State Guard and the evolution of my own Marine Corps, which in the 19th century struggled mightily with the same issues it handily deals with today (i.e. few numbers of personnel, a tiny budget, limited resources, and competition from the bigger services for all three). How did the Marine Corps survive the early years and become one of the world’s preeminent military organizations in the 20th and 21st centuries (and what similar survival techniques might S.C.’s State Guard also employ)?

First, I said, the Marine Corps was “divinely blessed with generation-after-generation of superb leaders.” These leaders embraced the Corps’ uniqueness; instituted extremely demanding training; inspired a sense of esprit d’ corps among the rank-and-file; forced subordinate leaders to be creative and innovative; and – above all – embraced the notion that the entire Marine Corps was – and is – a family, and so one Marine must take care of the other.


I paraphrased the directive of U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, who in 1920 stated: “The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior, nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar. In fact, it should partake of THE NATURE OF THE RELATION BETWEEN FATHER AND SON, to the extent that officers, especially commanders, are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training of the men under their command who are serving the nation in the Marine Corps.”

Lejeune went on to say, “The recognition of this responsibility on the part of officers is vital to the well-being of the Marine Corps. It is especially so for the reason that so large a proportion of the men enlisting are under 21 years of age. These men are in the formative period of their lives and officers owe it to them, to their parents, and to the nation, that when discharged from the service they should be far better men physically, mentally, and morally than they were when they enlisted.”


“To accomplish this task successfully a constant effort must be made by all officers to fill each day with useful and interesting instructions and wholesome recreation for the men,” Lejeune continued. “This effort must be intelligent and not perfunctory, the object being not only to eliminate idleness, but to train and cultivate the bodies, the minds, and the spirit of our men.”

Once again we see three of our previously discussed “five mountains” – the body, the mind, intuition, emotional awareness, and the soul (or spirit) – which we gleaned from U.S. Navy SEAL (Ret.) Commander Mark Divine (


Divine tells us, “You must develop [oneself] in a ‘whole-person-integral’ manner, guided by spiritual principles and supported by strong intellectual, emotional, physical and awareness development.”

This development must be engendered by us as leaders (once we have mastered the mountains ourselves) into those we serve within the family/organization. But there’s more. As leaders we have to take care of our family. We must selflessly serve our family. We must put our family members ahead of ourselves. We must carry the load of the family member who is unable to carry his or her own load. We must discipline the family member – and sometimes that discipline may be less-than-pleasant – but we discipline to instruct, and we do so out of caring, compassion, and a desire to prepare and condition our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters; remembering the words of Solomon in Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Stay with us. There’s so much more, including a great deal more on leadership and the importance of leaders engendering a culture of family into an organization. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here []. If you have questions or suggestions, I’m at
W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is