Leadership Lessons from the US Marines

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I was sixteen years old when I decided that if I went to college right after high school, I’d probably party too much and study too little. My plan was to go into the armed forces, grow up a little, and make some money for college.

That’s how I found myself standing in the Marine Corps Recruiting Office. It wasn’t much of an office, just a tiny space, not nearly as fancy as the offices of the Army, Navy, and Air Force that I’d already visited. The entire space was almost filled by a man with razor-sharp creases in his shirt and the shortest haircut I’d ever seen.

He was looking down at his desk and writing on a form when I came in. I described in detail the educational, job training and assignment offers all the other services had made. Then I asked, “What will the Marine Corps offer me?”

The Marine looked up for a second, his expression serious. “Four years of hell. A haircut every week. And a rifle.” I chose the Marines.

I chose the Marines because it was a challenge. People like to be challenged. Give them something that stretches them and they’ll rise to the occasion. Treat them like they’re lazy and incompetent and that’s what you’ll get.

The US Marine Corps is the world’s largest elite fighting force. Marines do great things. But the Marine Corps isn’t great because it chooses the top candidates. The Marines pick from the same pool as the other services. Marines do great things because they’re Marines and great things are expected of them.

Challenge your people and they’ll do great things. That’s the first of many lessons I learned in the Marines. Here are some others.

I learned that people emulate their leaders. Sometimes that happens in funny ways.

When I was in language school, one of my classmates was a Gunnery Sergeant (we called him “Gunny”) who had been a Drill Instructor. He’d also been in the Korean War and a wound from that time caused him to walk with an odd gait where he swung his right leg out in a half circle with every step.

One night Gunny invited us over to his quarters for beer and home movies. They included movies of graduation ceremonies for the platoons that he’d trained.

There on the screen we saw them, marching in perfect unison. That was like every graduating platoon. But everybody he’d trained walked just like the Gunny did, ninety of them at a time swinging their right legs in a half circle.

If you’re a leader, your people will watch what you do. And they’ll follow your example. You do great work and so will they. You cut corners and so will they. Part of your job is to set a good example, one that you want your people to follow.

A good example is important, but it isn’t enough. You also have to tell people what you want. The way one older sergeant put it to me: “You either tell them, or they’ll guess and you just might get a bad surprise.” So part of your job is learning to give clear directions, but not too many of them.

The Marines believe in the “mission order.” A mission order is defined in Marine Doctrine as “an order to a unit to perform a mission without specifying how it is to be accomplished.” You tell them what you want done. Then you let them decide how to do it.

Of course that only works if you’ve got engaged people who know how to accomplish the mission. So another part of your job as a leader is to develop your people.

When I was preparing for my first promotion board I learned that Marine leaders are expected to do two jobs. They are expected to accomplish the mission. And they are expected to care for their people.

Caring for your people means keeping them safe. It means making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs. And it means helping them develop to become the best they can be.

You do some of that with formal training, but you do most if it with day to day contact, counsel, correction and encouragement. You do some of that with positive consequences that encourage people to continue good practices and try new things. And you do some with negative consequences that encourage people to abandon behavior you don’t want.

The leadership lessons I learned in the Marines have worked for me for over forty years now. They’ve worked for the Corps for over two hundred years. And they can work for you.

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