Leadership 2b: My Teachers: 1 Drill Sergeant, Several Lawyers, 1 Caribbean Hotelier, and a Sailboat

U.S. Army and California National Guard 1971-1977

(Leadership lessons: a leader can motivate a team member in a variety of ways to accomplish more than they can imagine.  Leaders always put their team before themselves.)

When I started college in 1967 the war in Vietnam was raging, but I was not concerned because I had a college deferment and couldn’t imagine the war lasting four more years so I could afford to mock the idea.

Four years later the war was still going full steam and my student deferment was running out as graduation approached.

When I graduated from San Diego State in 1971 I was already in my third year working as a firefighter and my draft lottery number based on my birthday (April 18) was a disappointing 90, and since they were drafting up to 100, that meant I was going to end up in Uncle Sam’s South East Asian Green Machine if I didn’t do something pronto.

Credit: Historynet

Check the chart for your birthday to see if Uncle Sam was hoping to get his hands on you and send you on an all-expenses paid trip to Vietnam.

My older brother Bill, who was always tougher than me, had gone to Viet Nam to do his patriotic chore in 1968, came back crazy, suffered for 21 years with PTSD triggered by what our country had trained him to do in a war, and he eventually ended his suffering with a gunshot in a dark alley.  I think that the soldiers like him, the uncounted casualties, deserve a place on the wall somewhere. 

My brother Bill before it all went wrong.

Having learned from his example, I ended up sliding into the California National Guard to avoid his fate, and like my high school football career, I had a similarly undistinguished military career. I did nothing to advance our nation’s military readiness, but I am proud to have taken on the challenge to serve.

Level 1 Leadership: leading from a position of power

I reported for basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana in July of 1971.  The Louisiana swamps in July are a vacation destination to be avoided, but they are great for weight loss, I dropped 40 pounds in 8 weeks, thanks in no small part to my paralyzing fear of Drill Sergeant Roy Burchfield.  In addition to improving my physical fitness and teaching me a variety of ways to hurt perfect strangers, he taught me several valuable lessons about leadership.  In a later post we will label his initial leadership style as “Level One, leading from a position of power.”  Or, as Sergeant Burchfield expressed it in his thick Mississippi accent, “When I say jump, YOU JUMP, YOUNG HEROES, AND YOU HANG THERE IN THE AIR UNTIL I GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO COME DOWN! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”




I dislike this type of Level One leadership; I hate to have to follow someone just because I have to follow them. We saw this leadership style in the example of firefighters going through the motions of trimming the hedges on Wednesday just because the chore list said to.  I prefer Level Two Leadership, leading your team with their permission.  And the goal of this series of posts on leadership is to help you transition from Level 1 to Level 2 where your team wants to follow you.

I prefer the softer, gentler approach to leadership but Drill Sergeant Burchfield had no time to waste on niceties, he had eight weeks to teach the people in our platoon the basics of being a soldier as Step 1 in the Army’s assembly line which was in a hurry to ship them out to Vietnam.  In those first few weeks he didn’t care if we hated him, he was trying to teach us how to survive. But over the eight weeks in basic training I saw him transition from bossing us around,(Level 1) to building rapport and trust with us as he became an inspiring leader who lead us with our permission, (Level 2).

Level 2 Leadership, leading with the permission of the team members

Leadership requires sacrifice

Drill Sergeant Burchfield’s actions demonstrated to me how leadership requires sacrifice, captured in the military principle that “Leaders Eat Last,” and this is another recurring theme in how I lead.  Leadership is sometimes challenging because you must put the interests of your team ahead of your own. 

On those rare occasions when we got a hot meal out in the field, a mess truck would meet us in the middle of nowhere, set up servicing tables, and soldiers would line up to have their mess kits filled with lukewarm food. I noticed that Sergeant Burchfield always moved backwards down the line, stopping to check in with a few words with each soldier, before taking his place at the end of the line, ensuring that everyone on his team ate before he did.  One evening I noticed that they had run out of food before he got any and he appeared to just shrug it off and went to sit on a tree stump.  I pointed this out to my buddies, we looked at each other, got up, walked over, and each of us gave him some of our food.  That is the type of leader we should all strive to be, the kind that looks out for their team, and their team looks out for them.

Iowa Legal Services, Sioux City and Des Moines  1977 – 1979

(Leadership lessons: The importance of constant support and mentoring for new team members. Never assume your team members know everything you know. Never step on the enthusiasm of a team member who wants to try a new approach.)

I did two tours with Iowa Legal Services, the first two years, 78-80 were in the Sioux City and Des Moines offices where I was a staff attorney, representing poor people in a variety of cases: landlord/tenant, unemployment, utility charges disputes, and just about everything else that could go wrong when your low income keeps you living on the knife’s edge.  My first two bosses, Roger Foreman and Bill Hornbostel, were wonderfully patient, mentoring me as I bumbled through my first few cases.  During the first six months in Sioux City I was a lawyer for the American Indians at the Sioux City American Indian Center, representing them on the issues encountered by urban Indians, and I could not have survived without the guidance of the Legal Services lawyers. 

Don’t assume your team member knows everything you know.

My first court appearance in Sioux City as a legal services lawyer was an eviction hearing and I was representing the tenant.  When the landlord was on the witness stand he began testifying about what someone had told him that the tenant had told them and my supervising attorney, Roger Foreman, who had come along to watch me work my magic, just sat next to me with  a dumbfounded look on his face as I failed to object to hearsay on hearsay.  We lost the case, and as we exited the courthouse, his hands were shaking.  “Well that has to be the worst lawyering jobs I have ever seen! Why no hearsay objections?”

“Because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

He took a deep breath.  “Okay, okay, that’s alright, inexperience I can cure. I was afraid you were just stupid, and there is no cure for stupid.  In the future I won’t assume you know everything I know.”

Don’t get in the way of an enthusiastic team member because they bring a unique life experience to the job and you must take advantage of that.

Leadership is about inspiration, when the leader is inspired by the mission, they can communicate it to their team members.  But sometimes it is a team member who is inspired to take on a challenge, and if they are capable of doing it, while still meeting their other commitments, a good leader should let them try, and if they fail, you take it as a learning experience and move forward.

For a decade I lobbied to be allowed to develop a leadership program at my last job and I was always denied the opportunity to do so because “it’s not relevant to your job description.” Once I quit, I started writing these posts. I think we should always encourage our team members to take on new  challenges, as I was allowed to do when I wanted to start the first state-wide domestic violence program in Iowa in 1978.

In my first week as a Legal Services lawyer I did an intake interview with a potential client who presented a classic domestic violence case.  She had been married for several years, the abuse of her husband had escalated from verbal insults to pushing, and now to punching and choking.  I did some research and found that Iowa had passed a domestic violence protection act a year earlier, although I could not locate any cases which had been filed under the act.

Every Thursday we had staff meeting to decide which of the week’s intakes we could accept.  As I started my pitch to have my woman accepted as a domestic violence client everyone in the room started shaking their heads, with one lawyer giving me an exaggerated thumbs down.  Roger Foreman was the leader of the office and he often recounted what followed. 

“As lawyers we heard her facts and knew she was a reject because domestic violence cases turn into divorce cases and Iowa Legal Services did not do divorce cases because the only impact they had on Iowa’s poor community was to expand it by taking one middle class family and dividing it into two low income families.  But Bobby began arguing not as a lawyer, but as someone who had just finished eight years as a firefighter.  ‘There is a house on fire, this woman is trapped inside, I’m going in to try and bring her out, who’s going with me?’  And the next thing we knew, we were doing domestic violence cases.”

Maya Cove Yacht Club and Cottage 1979-1980

(Leadership lessons: The leader is the most important factor in creating an environment in which others can thrive.)

Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands

After I burned out the first time doing domestic violence cases I spend a year working for Harry Vandermolen, the proud owner of Maya Cove Yacht Club and Cottages on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It was a rundown semi-resort, semi-ruin which he wanted to fill with visitors whose presence he enjoyed.  He didn’t gave a damn what anyone thought, he was kind to me, and it was a beautiful, restful interlude in my social justice career.

My post about that year can be found here:  “BVI: A Year in the British Virgin Islands, #1 Finding Accommodations”  https://rebob1949.wordpress.com/2020/05/18/a-year-in-the-british-virgin-islands-1-finding-accommodations/

Iowa Legal Services, Ottumwa  1980-1982

(Leadership lessons: You don’t need a title to be a leader. Your first obligation as a leader is to create a circle of safety around your team so they can thrive, and an important part of that is mentoring them as appropriate for their level of confidence and competence.)

Jim Elliot and yours truly on our way to confront a motorcycle gang who had promised to keep our domestic violence client out of the courthouse.  You can read about it here: “Launching Domestic Violence Protection in the 70’s” https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/rebob1949.wordpress.com/167

When I returned from the Caribbean, I was offered the role of Staff Director of the Ottumwa, Iowa office of Iowa Legal Service.  As it turned out, I gave the title to Jim Elliot because he had been acting director and had a family, so he needed the money more than me, and we shared the responsibility for that office.  You are going to read many examples of how being the leader of that office shaped my leadership style, but in particular I will describe how I regularly met with each lawyer and paralegal to go over each of their cases and determine what was the next step to be taken. The purpose of these reviews was to keep my advocates calm by assuring them that they were on the right track with each case and that they were making progress. With a new advocate I met with them every week, as they became more capable, we would meet every two weeks, and when they started to shine, we met only once a month.  And to keep me calm and on track, Jim would review my cases once a month to keep me on.

Aboard the Iowa Waltz Sailboat 1982-1984 in Southern California and Baja California, Mexico

Our 24 foot Columbia Challenger, The Iowa Waltz, anchored at Catalina Island

(Leadership lessons: Learn to recognize the difference between “a situation,” and “an emergency.”  There will be an entire post about how a leader must restore order and calmness to a situation where there is neither. Because of my lack of sailing experience, Rebecka and I had the opportunity to respond to a variety of true emergencies.)

Rebecka and I had a rule on our boat, when someone shouted, “We have an emergency!” you drop what you’re doing and come help.  If you have a frying pan on the stove and get that emergency call, you stop cooking and go help, even if later you will come back to a mess of eggs all over the floor boards.  Emergency meant emergency.

Rebecka had spent some time on small boats in her youth, but as she practiced with our boat, I drove her crazy with emergency drills.  She would be happily steering the boat with one hand on the tiller in a gentle breeze of a beautiful day when I would throw a cushion over the side. “Man overboard! We have an emergency! What do you do?” and she would take us through the steps to return to that exact spot to recover the man (or cushion in this case.) 

Or on another relaxing day I might suddenly yell, “We have an emergency! The rigging just broke! What do you do?” and Rebecka would give me a look of exasperated impatience, “Head the boat into the wind.  How long do these drills go on?  Because if this goes on much longer and you are the man overboard, I may just keep sailing!”

I was not deterred, repetitive training was a way of life in the fire department because where there was a real, heart stopping emergency, your rational thought deserts you and you have to rely on habitual practice. 

A few months later, when we were cruising down in Mexico, we were sailing out of Turtle Bay in Baja California in a light breeze and I could see by the rough water ahead that we were going to encounter a strong wind.  As we rounded the headland the wind hit us, the boat heeled over hard, and I was confused by an odd noise that sounded like rain hitting the deck.

“We have an emergency!” Rebecka called out.  “The rigging broke, I’m heading into the wind!” Which she promptly did and saved the mast from breaking.

Perhaps because I have had many experiences with actual life threatening emergencies, I insist that words matter, and problems in an office setting are rarely “an emergency.”  We usually encounter “a situation” or “an urgency” which may require some attention but does not require everyone to  freak out and drop everything to respond.  Falsely labeling something “an emergency” can distract our attention from what is truly important.  There will be a post about the importance of a leader properly prioritizing actions based on their true level of urgency to avoid allowing “the urgent” to crowd out what’s important.

You can read about our sailing adventure at, . Sailing #1, Short hops, long stops

Up next tomorrow: Leadership 2c: My teachers: A High School Principal, Scores of Volunteer Lawyers, and 126 Interns

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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