Fifty years ago yesterday I got up early and had breakfast with a high school buddy. Then I took the subway to Whitehall Street where I raised my hand and swore an oath “to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Shortly after the next midnight I was at Parris Island. I had joined the Marines. That wasn’t the original plan.
The original plan was that I would graduate from the Bronx High School of Science and, with over 900 of my classmates, head off to college. Between a state Regents Scholarship and athletic and academic scholarships, I could have funded my college education at a variety of places.
Then, one night at dinner, my parents talked about a cousin who had failed out of college, mostly because he never went to class. I realized that I could very easily do the same thing. I decided to enlist in the military, have some fun, and grow up a little before tackling college.
By the time I got to the Marine Corps recruiter, I was feeling pretty cocky. The Army and Navy and Air Force really wanted me. They’d let me pick what job I’d do or what duty station I’d be assigned to. I explained all this to the Marine recruiter who had creases in his shirt that could cut glass, shoes so polished you could shave in your reflection, and the shortest haircut I had ever seen on an adult.
“What will the Marine Corps offer me?” I asked
The Marine stared at me for what seemed like a very long time. Then he grunted, said, “Four years of hell, a haircut every week, and a rifle” and went back to writing on a form.
Naturally, I joined the Marines. People like to be challenged. That was the first leadership lesson I learned from the Marines and I’ve applied throughout the rest of my life. Here are some others.
The Marines introduced me to a culture of excellence. “OK” and “good enough” weren’t good enough. Once you’ve experienced excellence, you find that it’s addictive.
The Marines taught me that I could do things I never imaged were possible. Even more important, my Marine experience taught me that what most people think of as “stretched” is not even close to what’s possible.
My most important leadership lesson isn’t one about setting the standard in some grand, heroic way. It’s embodied in the idea that “Leaders eat last.” If you’re a leader part or your job, right along with accomplishing the mission, is caring for your people.
Boss’s Bottom Line
There’s no rule that says you have to join the Marines to learn those lessons. You can learn them in a lot of places. But the Marines taught them to me all in one place and early in my life.
I still come to attention when they play The Marines’ Hymn.