FamilyLife Today®

The Leader’s Code

with Donovan Campbell | July 4, 2016
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What makes someone a leader? Former Marine Captain Donovan Campbell, who was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor during his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, talks about the necessity of servant leadership and the importance of a leader knowing his mission, on and off the field. At home, Donovan says, he has a sacred charge to mold his children into disciples of Christ as he teaches and models faith and virtue.

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  • About the Guest

  • What makes someone a leader? Former Marine Captain Donovan Campbell, who was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor during his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, talks about the necessity of servant leadership and the importance of a leader knowing his mission, on and off the field. At home, Donovan says, he has a sacred charge to mold his children into disciples of Christ as he teaches and models faith and virtue.

What makes someone a leader? Former Marine Captain Donovan Campbell, talks about the necessity of servant leadership and the importance of a leader knowing his mission, on and off the field.

The Leader’s Code

With Donovan Campbell
July 04, 2016
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Bob: As a young Marine, Donovan Campbell says he learned a lot of lessons about leadership. One of the lessons he learned, as a Marine, was the need for character / for integrity. Here’s Donovan Campbell.

Donovan: When I was at Harvard Business School, I had a great job lined up with PepsiCo. I was really excited to start that. And I got a telegram in the mail that said, basically: “Congratulations, Captain Campbell. You’ve been involuntarily recalled. You need to serve a third tour.”

I remember coming home. I had broken my leg, and I could barely run. I remember talking to my wife and I said, “I know I can get out of this because I can barely run; but when I signed those papers, I gave my word.”

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, July 4th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey; I’m Bob Lepine. Donovan Campbell joins us today to talk about lessons he learned on life, manhood, mission, and character—


—all while serving as a U.S. Marine. Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Let’s just be honest, right here at the start; okay? There are some guests, some topics, some subjects we’re going to discuss that you’re a little less jazzed about than others.

Dennis: Bob! Come on! Don’t tell our audience that.

Bob: We’re going to be talking about—

Dennis: You’re tipping; you’re tipping—

Bob: If we’re going to be talking about arts and crafts for your toddlers, you’re not going to really engage—[Laughter]

Dennis: And you don’t like the shows when we’ve talked to guests about hunting or fishing.

Bob: Hunting and fishing—I can pretty much take a nap because I know you’re going to be into that. [Laughter] Today’s program is one of those that you’re kind of fired up about.


Dennis: Well, you’re not?

Bob: Well, I am too; but I can smell the testosterone on you today.

Dennis: I pound the table about leadership because I think, as leadership goes in marriages and families, so goes the nation. We have a new friend, here in the studio—who—I’ve been reading his books now for how long, Donovan?—couple years / three years?

Donovan: Three years, yes—three years.

Dennis: Three years, and I’m really delighted to be able to introduce him to our audience. Donovan Campbell joins us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome.

Donovan: Thank you for having me, and thank you all for listening. I really appreciate it.

Dennis: I read your book, Joker One. I kept raving about it—first, to Barbara; and then, I kept hounding Bob. We swung and missed—weren’t able to get you out of Dallas/Fort Worth—the passport didn’t work to get into Arkansas out of Texas—and we finally worked through all the red tape to get you in.


You’ve written a new book called The Leader’s Code. I think what makes Donovan unique is he is a graduate of Princeton. He went to Harvard Business School. He has served in the Marines three combat deployments.

Donovan: Three; yes.

Dennis: He’s really a student, not only of the Bible, but also of leadership and really helping all of us non-military types better understand what’s taking place.

Bob: Your new book is called The Leader’s Code. Here, you’re taking what you’ve seen in Scripture, what you’ve experienced in Ramadi, and what you’re learning in the business world, and kind of putting it all in one package; right?

Donovan: That’s right. What I so love is having served in the Corps and watching the leadership principles that they apply there; and then, taking a step back and saying: “Wait a second! They’re just applying the leadership principles that Christ taught us.


They have found the truth—not through a study of the Scriptures—but through a study of what works because the truth is the truth—period. And it works—period.” I love that!

Dennis: You found out a lot about leadership in the Marine Corps.

Donovan: I learned a lot the hard way—let me assure you of that.

Dennis: Yes. I love the way your book starts. In fact, this book is built around several different characteristics of leadership: character, discipline, excellence, service, getting the job done. But your first chapter—this is why I started pounding the table with Bob—your first chapter begins with the theme of leadership called—

Donovan: Servant Leadership is the introduction and the first chapter is Mission—it’s all about mission.

Dennis: Knowing what your mission is—that’s important in the military because—

Donovan: Because the military is the one institution that we have, in America, charged with two things: saving lives and taking lives.


It is the one institution that explicitly tells the people who join it: “Your life is no longer about yourself. Your life is about something else. It’s bigger and it’s more important than your own happiness or your own comfort. If you have to sacrifice those two things, that is okay.”

It is the one institution that still does that; and if you’re going to ask people to do that, they have to know why. They have to know: “What is my mission? If you’re going to send me to a foreign nation and ask me to possibly die, it better be worth it.”

Bob: Mission statements are kind of big in business these days: “You ought to have a mission statement / you ought to know where you’re headed.” Do you understand your mission as a leader in the Campbell household?

Donovan: I try. I try. As you may know—with three daughters, sometimes, my mission can get obscured by the incessant clamoring of my children. [Laughter]


Dennis: You haven’t been through the teenage years yet.

Bob: Yes.

Donovan: That’s right; that’s right. So, I can’t complain. It’s a great point. I truly have no idea what’s in store. Christy and I really try to be intentional about this; and we try to say, “Look, our job, as Christians, is to be and make disciples.” So our children—we have a sacred charge to make our children disciples of Christ—and not just that—we have a sacred charge to make our children women—and now, that I’m having a boy—young men of character.

I will tell you that this last year was the first year my wife and I went through and wrote down the goals for each of our children, and the goals for ourselves for the year, and then what we’re going to do to achieve those goals. We tried to be intentional, but we were not nearly where we needed to be.

Dennis: You said something in your book about mission that I want to read to our audience, and I want you to comment on it.


You said, “Without an overarching, all-encompassing mission that focuses us away from ourselves, we have no compelling reason to serve anything other than ourselves.”

Donovan: That’s exactly right. The great irony is that the more we serve ourselves, the less likely we are to find ourselves and the less likely we are to find happiness, purpose, and meaning.

Dennis: I want you to share the story of that fire fight in Ramadi in 2004, where you came to that discovery.

Donovan: So, the thing about combat is—when you first go into it, you think to yourself: “Hmm. I’ll probably make it out of this alive. I’m really good at what I do. We’re all highly-trained. If I just train hard and work hard, we’re going to make it out.” Then, you go into combat. You realize that that’s not the case—you get blown off your feet by a rocket. Now, you start realizing, “Wait a second, it doesn’t matter how good I am, how talented I am, and how trained we are—


—we’re going to get wounded, and we very well may die.”

There was probably the first three or four months in combat that I really held on to the idea that I was just going to be good enough that I’d make it back. Then, there was a moment when I said: “You know what? It’s not about me making it back. I am essentially already dead.”

Now, I’m not focused on myself anymore. I don’t leave the base, every morning, thinking to myself, “How am I going to come back?” I leave the base every morning, now because I know it’s not about me anymore. I leave the base, now, thinking: “How can I get the job done? How can I take care of my Marines?” No longer is it, “How can I keep Donovan Campbell alive?” It’s, “How can I do what I was put here to do, and how can I take care of others as I do it?”

Bob: You know, on a conceptual level, what you’re talking about is easy for me to understand and go, “That’s the right focus.” On a practical level—when, all of a sudden, you’re in danger / when you’re in combat and bullets are flying—I would think there’d be some self-preservation instinct that would just kick in.


Donovan: Well, there is a self-preservation instinct that kicks in, but the shift is kind of two-fold. It’s on a philosophical level. I can, literally, remember a time when I said: “You know what? I’m probably just going to die, and that’s okay because I’m not here to live. I’m here to take care of my Marines. I’m here to accomplish the mission. That’s what you do as a leader. You don’t serve yourself—period. Okay; got it.” So that was the philosophical shift.

Then, there are the day-in / day-out tactical decisions; right? The first time, where I told myself, “I’m really proud to be a lieutenant,” was when we had an RPG attack on an Army convoy that was sitting right outside this anti-American mosque we had been asked to search in the middle of the day. So, my guys cordoned it off; another platoon was hitting the mosque.

This Army convoy pulls up. It’s stringing along the street. It’s about 50-feet wide. I’m looking at them; and I’m like: “You guys are going to get attacked. In fact, we’re all going to get attacked. I promise you, we’re all going to get attacked. We’re just sitting here in midday.


“That’s just what happens when you sit here in midday in Ramadi.” So I went up to them and said: “You guys should spread out a little bit. They’re going to hit us, blah, blah, blah.” They didn’t.

Sure enough, an RPG hit—blew up one of the tracks. People started scattering everywhere—machine gun fire started raining down. Everyone on the street, who was standing—all of a sudden, they vanished. They’re all taking cover, except two guys—it was me and one other guy. I look across the street. This other guy is standing up straight, and he is running as fast as he can to where the fire is coming from; and I’m doing the exact same thing.

We are both running, as fast as we can, to where the machine gun fire is coming from because we are both lieutenants. It is our job, while everyone else takes cover, to figure out what is happening so that we can make sure: one, we take effective action; and two, if there’s anyone wounded, we can save them. Our job is to stand up in the middle of fire and run at that fire so that we can take care of others, and we can accomplish the mission.


So, you have this philosophical shift—you have this day-in / day-out sort of tactical decisions you have to make, “Do I take cover, or do I run at the machine gun fire?” Sometimes, you do the first. Sometimes, you do the second; but typically, if you’re a leader, you have to do the second.

Dennis: I’m stunned by the image you’re creating; and yet, as I really listen to what Jesus said, He called us to deny ourselves—

Donovan: “Take up your cross and follow Me”; absolutely!

Dennis: —and to run toward the finish line, and toward enemy fire, and to represent Him—be on a mission. That’s really what you’re calling men and women to do in this book—in their marriages, in their families, at work, in their community.

Donovan: That’s exactly right. One of my favorite passages is Matthew 6:19 through 34, where Christ says: “Listen. You can’t serve two masters. You’re either going to love one or you’re going to hate the other; and you need to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”


But you have to seek that first. That’s your mission. You cannot serve another master—it’s just not possible! It’s hard to stay on mission / it’s not an easy thing, but I think you have to know what it is.

Bob: Donovan, the image I have in my head—of you running toward the fire—is an image of a teeth-gritted, “I’m going for it.” The quiver I hear in your voice, as you tell the story, is a different part of you.

Donovan: Oh, no. The reality is—when you’re standing up and you’re running, you’re like: “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! I’m probably going to get shot. Okay, well, just keep running.” I mean, it is not this sort of macho, terminator-istic guy that’s running around. It’s just a scared 24-year-old, who knows he has a responsibility.

The reason that all of my guys—these 18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-year-olds are able to do these amazing things—it isn’t because they are abnormal, just crazy human beings.


It’s because they’re normal human beings who are held to a really high standard. Then, they’re told, “You have a responsibility.” So yes, there is this—when you picture me—really picture a scared 24-year-old, thinking to himself: “I may get shot. Okay, but I’ve got to keep running!” That’s what you should picture.

Dennis: I think of that imagery, as well, in thinking about what’s taking place in marriages and families today—and how people, instead of running toward enemy fire, are bailing. They’re bailing out on their family. They’re bailing out on their marriage. They’re not protecting. They’re not on mission to protect their sons and daughters against, what you know is around the corner or even what’s happening today. That mission should direct what’s taking place—in a single man’s life, a single woman, a married couple, or a family.

Donovan: It has got to affect every facet of your life—from how you work at your job, to how you lead yourself, to how you treat your husband or how you treat your wife, and to how you raise your children.


If you don’t know why you’re doing all those things, then chances are you’re going to do a number of them poorly—I really think that that is true. I mean, if you don’t know what a commitment means and why God has created the institution—marriage is a sacred institution. He asked us to enter into it with the same commitment that Christ made to the church by dying for them / giving Himself up for them. If you don’t understand that, it’s really hard to stick through when times get tough. We’ve done three deployments, and I can assure you there have been tough times in our marriage.

Bob: I thought about marriage. I thought about the tombstone test—you talk about the tombstone test. That applies in marriage; doesn’t it?

Donovan: I think it does.

Bob: Explain what the tombstone test is for a listener.

Donovan: One of the ways is to ask yourself: “Okay, what should my mission be? What really matters? What’s really important?”—is to ask yourself: “As I’m being lowered into the ground, what do I want written on my tombstone?


“What would be one or two sentences that people want to remember—I want people to remember me for / I want to be known for? When I’m standing before God, I want to be able to say, ‘God, here is what I did for You.’” That is, I think, the tombstone test.

I’ve seen a lot of tombstones, and no one talks about someone’s bank account. I’ve never seen, written on a tombstone, “He made the number four quarters in a row.” What I have seen is, “Loving father / devoted husband.” So, I think it’s worth thinking: “If that’s what we want written on our tombstone, then how do I make sure that that can be written honestly / with integrity today? How do I direct my energy, my time, my effort, to make that a reality?”

Dennis: We, in recent months, have been talking a lot about courage, here on FamilyLife Today.


You just exemplified that in you being on a mission—protecting your men and running toward enemy fire. I have to ask you my favorite question—it’s this, Donovan: “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done in all your life?”

Donovan: Well, some people might argue that it was asking my wife to marry me because I was clearly out of my league—punching way above my weight class—no question about that! [Laughter] It took a lot of guts—a lot of guts for that one. Everyone who knows me would say: “Yes! That is very true.”

That’s a great question, and I think about that. One of the things the book talks about, and that we were taught in the Marines, that there are two different types of courage. There is physical courage, which risks life and limb; and then, there’s moral courage, which risks careers, lives, or livelihoods to speak the truth to power; right? So let me answer along both of those lines.

Physical courage: The day that we were asked to go—and we didn’t know it at the time—


—but we were asked to, essentially, go and spend eight to twelve hours fighting, house to house, in Ramadi. I had no idea that was going to happen, but the way it started was—I got shaken one morning / saying: “Hey, sir, sir, sir. The third platoon has been hit. They’ve got a couple wounded. They’re scattered throughout the city. You’re the QRF,”—Quick Reaction Force—“Go find them and pull them out.” “Okay; got it.” I had gone to bed at like four that morning because we were patrolling all night—so, we were really tired. We mounted up our vehicles, drove into the city—

Dennis: Okay; just stop for a second. How big is this city?

Donovan: A city of about 400,000 people. It’s more population-dense than Washington, DC, or New York City; but you can walk across it in about 45 minutes. So, it’s a ton of people packed into this really, really dense urban core. The buildings mostly are two- and three- and some five- and ten-story buildings—that are all packed really close together.

We drive to the southern end of the city, and all I can hear is gunfire.


We have no idea where third platoon is. We see this smoke rising up in the distance. We’re like, “Well, they’re probably in that area.” So, we all get off of our trucks because you can’t drive them through the city—they’re too big. We just start running at that gunfire and that smoke until we hit really fierce resistance. We, basically, get pinned down by machine guns; and we spend the day fighting, house to house.

At one point in time I had a grenade land about two feet in front of me. I thought: “Oh, I’m dead. That’s the end of it.” But it didn’t go off; and then, our guys threw grenades back toward them. The bad guys would throw grenades over one wall; we’d throw our own back over the same wall. That’s what we did all day-long—that’s what we did. Then, we did the same thing the next day. I would say, as it relates to physical courage, that day was probably the one that sticks out in my mind.

As it relates to moral courage—which I think may have been harder—it was when I got a telegram that said, “You have been involuntarily recalled.”


I was at Harvard Business School. It was my second year of business school. I had a great job lined up with PepsiCo—I was really excited to start that. And I got a telegram in the mail that said, basically: “Congratulations, Captain Campbell. You’ve been involuntarily recalled. You need to serve a third tour.”

What was so hard there was—I knew exactly what I was getting into. The second tour—I hadn’t fought that hard before / I hadn’t been in that type of combat—I didn’t know what I was getting into. But the third tour, I knew. I remember coming home. I had broken my leg, and I could barely run because I had just gotten my cast off and done all the rehab.

I remember talking to my wife / we were talking about it—I said: “I know I can get out of this because I can barely run; but when I signed those papers, I gave my word. I didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’ll go back if it’s convenient for me,’ or, ‘I’ll go back if you really, really need me and can prove it to me.’


“When I signed those papers, I said, ‘I’ll serve you for four years—and for four years, thereafter, if you need me back and you call me, I’ll show up.’”

So, they called; and I didn’t want to do it. I knew what I was getting into. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew I could get out of it, but my wife and I talked about it—she said: “You gave your word. You have to keep it. It’s just that simple.”

So, to do what was right, I went back. I spent another year away from my wife, and missed my oldest daughter’s second year of life, and went to Afghanistan. I only got blown up once there—so it wasn’t that bad of a tour, in all honesty.

Dennis: I have done this before in a similar interview—not exactly the same—but to the widow of a Seal Team Six member. “Thank you!” [Emotion in voice] You bring a face to war and the courage that’s demanded of a 24- or 25-year-old.

Donovan: Do you want to know who showed real courage that day? It was my wife because she knows exactly what it’s like to be the one who sits at home when the news is turned on—


—and all that she sees is “Ten Marines Dead in Ramadi.” She doesn’t know, for a week, if I’m alive or if I’m dead. She knows she’s about to be a single mom for a year; and she’s still telling her husband: “You gave your word. You have to go and do it. That’s what God would have you do. I will shoulder the load while you’re gone.” That is a brave woman, right there. I have a ton of respect for her. She showed way more courage in doing that than I did because it’s a lot harder to get left behind.

Dennis: Courage is doing your duty in the face of fear.

Donovan: It is overcoming fear. That is exactly right.

Bob: I hear that and I think so often about—I don’t know if it’s the second or the third verse in the song, America the Beautiful, where it says, “Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”


I think that applies to the wives, the spouses, the children of all who have served or are serving in harm’s way. Of course, this is a good opportunity today to think about that as we focus on our independence and the price that was paid that we might be free.

Let me also mention that we have copies of the book that Donovan has written called The Leader’s Code. It’s available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy from us, online, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY—online, the website is

Now, we have a 4th of July anniversary wish going out today to Tony and Jackie Ruckel, who live in Boliver, Missouri. Today, they celebrate their 30th anniversary. “Congratulations!” to the Ruckels on 30 years of marriage together.


Thanks for listening to FamilyLife Today.

We think anniversaries and marriages matter—especially in our culture today. Marriage and family may be the most important issue that we face, as a culture today—how we’re going to define it, how we’re going to live it out, how we’re going to honor it—that’s what we’re here for. FamilyLife Today exists to provide practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family.

We’re grateful for those of you who support this ministry so that all we do can happen. We appreciate our partnership with you. If you’re interested in making a donation to FamilyLife Today—and by the way, the middle of the summer is a great time to make a contribution because things are running low this time of year—you can go to our website,; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY—make an online donation—or donate by phone; or mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.


Tomorrow, we’re going to talk to a couple who is going to help us understand some of the very unique challenges that can be faced in a stepfamily, when your home and your ex-spouse’s home don’t share the same values. Ron Deal’s going to join us, along with Jerry and Kate Angelo. Hope you can be here for that as well.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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