Breaching the Summit Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Military’s Best

  • Published

Breaching the Summit Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Military’s Best by Kenneth O. Preston, Michael P. Barrett, Rick D. West, James A. Roy, Denise M. Jelinski-Hall, and Charles W. “Skip” Bowen. Casemate Publishers, 2020, 278 pp.

Only 1 percent of the enlisted force in the US military are allowed to be an E-9. Reaching E-9 in one of the six branches of the uniformed military services is an imposing task. Breaching the Summit: Leadership Lessons from the US Military’s Best is a book about how six enlisted members reached the summit and what they took away from that experience. Any person who has served in the military remembers the E-9s with whom they served and the authority they exercised. 

The book was composed by former Sergeant Major of the Army, Kenneth Preston; Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Michael Barrett; Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Rick West; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, James Roy; the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the National Guard Bureau, Chief Master Sergeant Denise Jelinski-Hall; and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Charles “Skip” Bowen. They all served within the past 10 years, and their lessons learned are pertinent to the challenges currently facing the military. 

Each writer was a European-American, which may reflect the challenges people of color face in reaching the most senior ranks. One of the six writers was a female, Chief Master Sergeant Jelinski-Hall. One of the valuable insights Jelinski-Hall’s wrote was how she succeeded in “A Man’s World.” A strength of the book is it included a member of the reserve components, Jelinski-Hall. One of the lessons of 9/11 is the importance of the reserve components and the unique challenges citizen warriors face. In the book’s forward, we’re told the book was designed for junior service members, senior enlisted leaders, officers, family members, and anyone who wants to know more about the military (p. x).  

In Breaching the Summit, a biographical sketch is provided of each contributor along with an overview of their life focused on their military career. Issues such as values, character, learning from failure, and the importance of taking care of people were addressed by the authors. They also discussed leadership, what good leaders look like, and the importance of mentoring. Sergeant Major Barrett from the Marine Corps wrote this about mentoring, “Is there such a thing as a ‘self-made’ person? If there is, I haven’t met them yet. In my case, too many to count had a hand in getting me where I am today” (p. 53). Readers discover each contributor was keenly aware of the importance of their example to others. Similarly, they talked about the importance of leading from the front in sections with headings such as “Growing Leaders,” “Embrace Challenges and Take Risks,” and “Lead Boldly.” Their views on leadership would be helpful to every member of the military and any organization. One of the things they advise again and again is not to be afraid of failure as a person or as a leader but rather to embrace failure and learn from it (p. 193).     

Each author examined the challenges of transitioning to civilian life after a three-decade military career. The authors advised readers to start thinking about the transition process now. Many veterans have found the health care and disability services provided by the Veteran Affairs to be uneven. Only Jelinski-Hall addressed this concern.    

Understandably, the book’s primary focus was on the tactical and operational aspects of the military rather than the strategic domain. In one case, the Marine Corps sergeant major wrote that when the nation needs something to be done “or they aren’t exactly sure what needs to be done—they send in the Marines. They know the Marines always figure it out and carry the day” (p. 54). The sergeant major’s fervor and mission focus is extremely admirable as is the ability of the Marine Corps to get things done. However, from a strategic perspective, we need to carefully weigh which troops we need in a theater before we send them in so we can tailor the force accordingly and ensure we are sending the skill sets needed in complex, asymmetrical battlespaces where there might be civilians and unforeseen contingencies.        

A fascinating feature of the book is the faith stance of the writers. Each person alluded to the importance of their faith and how it sustained and guided them. Their faith also provided the foundation for the values they embraced. We live in a society that tends to avoid discussing one’s personal faith. This was not the case with Breaching the Summit. The leaders didn’t attempt to evangelize in their reading. Rather, they shared how each person’s faith enabled and empowered them. 

One of the valuable tools the book provided readers was a treasure chest full of inspiring quotes. A sampling of those quotes included these:

  • Albert Einstein: “Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value” (p. 12).
  • Ralph Nader: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders not more followers” (p. 23).  
  • Ronald Reagan: “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they’ve made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem” (p. 53).  
  • Theodore Roosevelt: “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything” (p. 195).
  • President Abraham Lincoln: “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be” (p. 197). 

The book is a welcome addition. It would be an invaluable read for anyone engaged in professional development. I wish I would have had the book when I started my career as an enlisted Soldier. It tells us how servant leaders reached the pinnacle of the military profession. A major strength of the US military is its noncommissioned officer corps, and that success is on full view in Breaching the Summit.       

Col Larry O. Toney, USA, Retired 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."