Commentary Search

Are you a Sam or a Courtney?

F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- Some discussions often start with the questions, "Are you a Sam on that issue or a Courtney?" or, "is that person acting like Sam or Courtney?" Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale are Army officers portrayed in Anton Myrer's novel "Once An Eagle." The stories of these two officers contain themes worth exploring: heroism, good versus evil, ethics and morality, corruption of power, career over family, devotion to country, and unchecked ambition. Charles Krulak, former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said this story "has more to teach about leadership...than a score of modern-day management texts. It is the primer that lays out, through the lives of its two main characters, lessons on how and how not to lead."

As a member of the military, our focus is often on what a military member does as opposed to what we actually are, or should be. Both officers are aggressive, educated and devote countless hours to studying their profession. Both serve in America's wars from World War I through Vietnam and are successful. Both officers rise to general officer rank and are given multiple command opportunities. However, the two officers differ in their approach to leadership.

In the novel, Sam Damon is a natural leader, excellent commander and successful soldier throughout his career. Sam is kind, caring and a selfless servant to the Army, his troops and the nation. He demands excellence from himself and spends countless hours honing his superior combat proficiency. Sam knows that intuition plays a huge role in the success of any commander and that intuition can be developed through the lifelong pursuit of military education which he accomplishes diligently during his off duty time. He is a demanding commander who sets high standards in training in order to achieve success and survival on the battlefield. Sam Damon's most valuable traits are providing vital information to his superiors and giving an honest assessment of every situation, even when it is not popular or could jeopardize his career goals. This is not to say that Sam has no concern for his army career. Rather, he purposely chooses the tougher road in his career by never avoiding the controversial issue, never taking advantage of his subordinates and never engaging in sycophantic behavior to achieve success. The bottom-line for Sam Damon is to always prepare himself and his subordinates for the next challenge, take care of his troops, and ensure his unit is at the pinnacle of combat capability. Courtney Massengale gains success through a different approach.

Courtney Massengale is a smart, charming and ambitious officer who studies his profession with the same drive and dedication as Sam Damon. He is poised, polished and a highly effective staff officer who worries about the political fallout from every issue and sees no need to disrupt the course of his career by taking a stand on an issue he can do nothing about. Courtney believes it's most important to present a positive or can-do image to his superiors rather than rock the boat. He is very careful to ensure he makes the right connections inside and outside the Army and to hold every position that ensures advancement. As a commander, Courtney takes care to ensure blame is never affixed to his organization, and if it is, to ensure he is not personally held responsible. The success of his organizations (and his organizations do succeed) is always attributed to his command ability and superior tactical skill. Often these accolades are a result of his personal public relations efforts. The bottom-line for Courtney Massengale is to always seek out the best opportunities to shine and to ensure that his decisions meet with approval from the majority of his superiors.

While some of these examples of Courtney's leadership are certainly negative, there are more subtle examples of his failures in moral courage to which many of us are also extremely susceptible. Often, our attention can be diverted away from our primary mission or the well-being of our troops. Institutional pressures unrelated to mission accomplishment often consume much of our time and wear down our ability to make honest decisions or provide honest feedback. How does one address those challenges?

Are you a Sam or a Courtney? The question still stands as a viable means of self-analysis or unit analysis. Is it possible to be all Sam or to be all Courtney, or is it possible that institutional or peer pressures force a combination of the two character types? Which approach is right for a young leader to emulate -- the personal leader, the institutional leader or both? Col. John Boyd effectively captured the concept of the difference between the selfless servant and the self-serving leader with one question he would ask all of his new officers. As Colonel Boyd stated, "One day, you will come to a fork in the road. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. Or you can go that way and you can do something -- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. Your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"

Can you be somebody and do something? Only each individual can answer these questions. Which brings us back to the original question: are you a Sam or a Courtney?