Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams, center, Marine Corps Staff director, speaks with second lieutenants after the National Naval Officers Association leadership lecture at the Clubs at Quantico on Oct. 3. Williams also works closely with his counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force. (Lance Cpl. Tabitha Bartley / Marine Corps)
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Rank-and-file Marines are intimately familiar with the Corps' leadership hierarchy. The commandant and assistant commandant, both four-star generals, sit at the top, supported by three-star deputy commandants who oversee the service's moving parts.
Lt. Gen. Willie Williams is director of the Marine Corps Staff at the Pentagon. The DMCS, which personnel there pronounce "dim-icks," is the service's de facto No. 3 general, serving as an assistant and adviser to the CMC and ACMC. He's an influential partner involved in all manner of decision-making and day-to-day operations at Headquarters Marine Corps.
For instance, when Gen. Joseph Dunford checks out to take command of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Williams will help assimilate the next ACMC, Lt. Gen. John Paxton. The DMCS works closely with his counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force, advocating the Corps' point of view on matters in which all services have a stake. And he's been involved in ongoing efforts to address diversity in the officer corps.
Williams met with Marine Corps Times in late October. Excerpts from the interview, edited for space and clarity:
Q: In your position, you have a tremendous amount of influence. How do you explain your role here?
A: This position was established to be what we would view as a chief of staff that helps to coordinate among the deputy commandants, and to advise and offer counsel to the commandant and assistant commandant. We also coordinate with the secretary of the Navy's office as well as the Department of Defense on issues that pertain to the Marine Corps. It's a hub of information flow that is destined for the commandant's or assistant commandant's desk, and we prepare the information in a way that allows them to make decisions on matters impacting the Corps as a whole.
The Marine Corps is organized throughout as a Marine air-ground task force. The logistics side of that is kind of the silent partner, but you can't do anything without it. So the way we're organized here at headquarters, you have the commandant who has an aviation background, the assistant commandant who has a ground background, and I'm a logistician. So you have the views of the entire MAGTF considered in all the decisions we make.
Q: You're an assistant and adviser to the CMC and ACMC. What types of matters do they consult you on?
A: My input sometimes is more geared toward the logistics or administrative running of the headquarters and the resources that are required. I was with the commandant just this morning, and we were working through everything from the Marine Corps Ball to his long-range schedule. We do that quite often.
Q: You'll soon have a new member of this executive leadership body. Talk about the role you'll play when a new ACMC arrives.
A: At least for now, the role will be one of making him current on the major issues in play. If you consider the individual who's been nominated, he has lots of time in the building. He knows a lot of the players, although that is one of the areas I can see myself helping him get his feet on the ground.
Q: How would you characterize your dealings with the senior leadership of other services? And how do you approach institutional differences?
A: We have strategic discussions of noncompetitive issues. We share and relay information to each other so we can advise our individual bosses on the collective thinking prior to them going to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Q: What's an example?
A: Let's take medical care for wounded warriors. How do you maintain adequate oversight? Each service has an individual interest, but collectively, because we're not in competition, we as service directors can discuss it from a strategic point of view.
Q: You're there looking to find consensus, but also to ensure the Marine Corps' needs and concerns are met.
A: Exactly, because we approach things differently. You've seen the commandant's planning guidance and know that we keep faith with our Marines, sailors and their families, and we look out for them in ways we think are appropriate. Not to say the other services are not, but that is one of the marks of the Marine Corps.
For example, when wounded warriors are coming in from theater, you could send them to any number of places throughout the medical community. We want them at Bethesda because the commandant and assistant commandant are going to go meet them and their families. That's their first entry point, and then when we determine what type of care is needed, they can be transferred closer to home station.
Q: What's an example of an issue where there hasn't been such immediate agreement, and how did you deal with that?
A: We never got to an agreement on it, but we had different views on religious accommodation. One of the things we all wanted to get to was, when we get a request for religious accommodation, at what level should it go to for approval? With the Marine Corps, the uniform is something we're very proud of and that we want consistency throughout with, so we're advocating for our manpower director to be the adjudicating authority for those requests because he looks at it from the standpoint of the Corps as a whole as opposed to someone at the battalion or even division level. We don't want to run the risk of having one division authorizing what another doesn't.
Q: What advice did your predecessor give you before taking this job?
A: His advice to me was about interaction with staffs. That wasn't something unfamiliar to me, but at this level you quickly come to the understanding that we're equals ó I'm a three-star; the deputy commandants are three-stars ó and so you have to be able to work with everyone and make sure you get the cooperation and coordination that's needed. What I took from that is I bring no ego to this position. You're the chief of the staff, but that doesn't come with Willie Williams saying I'm going to ride herd over three-stars. No. You work together. It's worked well. I really enjoy working with all the deputy commandants. No issues. And if I do, I know how to work with them and figure it out.
Q: That raises an interesting question. When there is disagreement, what's your approach to resolving differences with someone so senior in rank?
A: There are times when we agree to disagree, and that's the approach we take. Whether I agree or not, I take their input and when I package it with my recommendation, it goes forward with equal weight. Sometimes the ACMC won't let us get away with that, and he'll throw it back at us and say "you guys figure it out." A lot of it depends on the issue, but a lot of times you don't need to take a divided staff to the commandant.
Q: Improving diversity is a high priority for the commandant. As an African- American who has climbed the ranks, what do you see as the challenges as the Corps looks to improve on this front?
A: The diversity of our officer ranks is not where we'd like it to be. The challenge is post-accession. Early development and mentoring is where we lose those we bring in. Whether it's the way we train at The Basic School, the way we assign MOSs, the way we get them into the field, the challenges are the same for the majority as well as the minority; it's just that the impact of failure within the minority side is significant because of the numbers. So it behooves us to train and sensitize the leadership to the issues associated with that.
In the very near future we're looking at having a diversity summit. It's strategically important, when you look at where our country is going ó everything from birthrates to what the overall diversity of the population is. We're going to become a minority-majority nation in 20 or 30 years. If we want the Corps to be reflective of society as a whole, because that's where we draw our strength from, we need to improve.
Q: Is it a matter of providing minorities with the right opportunities?
A: That's a part of it. I don't think anyone's been denied an opportunity because of their race or gender. What happens, though, is that early on our minority population is less prone to be aware of those opportunities and what they need to take advantage of to move to the next level. That's where the mentoring comes in.
I knew absolutely nothing about the military. Zip. From my hometown in Alabama there was one individual who'd come back from time to time. I think he was a sergeant in the Army. So my first couple years in the Marine Corps, I was maybe a captain, and I can remember getting a letter from a family member and it was addressed to Sgt. Willie Williams. That's all they knew: He'd been promoted a couple times, so he must be a sergeant by now.
I was fortunate enough to have some mentors who locked on to me early in my career and got me going. That's shaped my thinking on a lot of this. The commandant is pushing for us to get this mentorship order out. We've got to institutionalize mentoring.
Q: Will this forthcoming mentorship order address diversity only?
A: It's going to be related to all aspects, but part of the intent is that all individuals regardless or race or gender are mentored appropriately to make them successful in their careers.
Q: Is there a timeline for when Marines might see this?
A: Definitely within four to six months.