I recently had heard through the military grapevine of the passing of a mentor and former boss, Chris Behnke, who had just retired from a lengthy military service. This no-nonsense Marine, a Staff Sergeant at the time I knew him, shaped the path of me as a young Corporal, and as I would later evolve into a software engineer, CTO, and Head of Engineering.
He taught me many pivotal leadership lessons but the one that’s most memorable was from the night of a simple chair, imparted by Staff Sergeant Behnke during the 2004-2005 Iraq deployment. It was on a night that I served as Tango Battery Corporal of the Guard, I was responsible for checking in on the Marines at each of their posts. Chris was the Staff on duty that eventful night which was chock full of interesting stories.
I won’t bore you with the details except to say that it was the same night that Staff Sergeant had me climb to the roof of the nearest building with my night vision scope attached to my rifle. Aiming my weapon at a bunch of Iraqi fighters who came up to our position in the dark for help with one of their injured soldiers, he told me to fire if they so much as lifted a weapon in his direction. Chris brought our Corpsman out that night to patch up their guy and in exchange they offered him and the other Marines some cocaine which he graciously laughed and declined.
But the chair remained the crux of the tale I want to tell today. Placed outside an FDC doors, the chair tempted Marines to relax against Behnke’s strict orders. Encountering the Staff Sergeant, he instructed me to remove the chair, ensuring the Marines’ alertness. Complying, I removed the chair, only to face the ire of the Marines who questioned the decision. I hastily redirected their complaints to Staff Sergeant Behnke, which proved to be a grave error.
Later that night Chris dashed towards me, embodying the fierce Drill Instructor spirit inside of him. He reprimanded me with full knife hands for undermining my own authority infront of the Marines by telling them that he had given the orders despite it being so. His emphasis was that the Marines needed to know that all of my orders must come from me and only me regardless of whether I agreed with them or not. This striking moment reshaped my understanding of authority and leadership, following me into my civilian career.
As time passed, I shared the chair story with engineering teams and junior leaders under me and at conferences I spoke with attendees across the country, demonstrating the impact Chris Behnke had on my own life. With his passing, I honor his memory and the lessons he bestowed upon us. The grief of losing a friend 20 years after that moment is immense, but his wisdom endures in the next generation of software engineering leaders I’ve trained and in my own children, who have heard the chair story time and again. Chris is survived by his wife and kids, I hope they know how many people his lessons helped.