Everything I ever needed to know about leadership, I learned in the US Marine Corps.
Steve Gladis, Ph.D.
Like my two daughters, few children of their generation will ever serve in the military. And like many fathers of my generation, I want them to know what I learned as a young Marine officer who served for 3 years-including a tour in Vietnam. What I learned while in the Marines has helped me as a father, husband, and professional manager more than any degrees, courses, or training I've received since then.
The fundamentals of Marine Corps leadership can be found in its basic field manual entitled Leading Marines (FMFM 1-0) which contains both the US Marine Corps Core Values and Principles of Leadership. These values and principles will help anyone lead people at home, in business, industry or wherever they go. They are the best things I've ever learned when it comes to leading people.
At the core of being a leader are a set fundamental values. In Leading Marines, the US Marine Corps says that, "…the most important responsibility in our Corps is leading Marines." And at the epicenter of this leadership are the US Marine Corps Core Values: Honor, Courage, and Commitment.
* Honor: Simply put, leaders don't lie, cheat or steal. Honor is all about trust and integrity. It's a bedrock for any group of people because without it there is no trust or justice. And without trust everyone suspects the worst of a fellow team- or work-group member. I strongly believe that every organization should have an honor code that charges every person with monitoring the group to ensure that honor is never breached and, if it is, to root it out. A community of trust is essential to great organizations.
* Courage: Mental, moral, and physical courage distinguish leaders from the herd. To lead you must have mental toughness to make difficult decisions. Moral courage, like mental courage, means making tough calls when others around you might say, "But everyone's doing it; it must be OK." Finally, physical courage is placing yourself in harm's way for another…taking risks. And such protection works on all three levels: mental, moral and physical courage.
* Commitment: Leaders stick with the team. Loyalty is essential if you expect to succeed. Just like marriage or any institution, endurance and commitment of each other to the union is essential. If leaders jump ship every time a better looking deal comes along, imagine the chaos that results and the souls that are lost along the way. Now, loyalty need not be blind. Strong institutions must question underlying assumptions, but commitment must also be a bedrock value. In fact, the Marine Corps' motto is Semper Fidelis-always faithful.
Principles of Leadership
To be an effective leader, the Marines have provided a number of principles. Again, in their basic manual they say, "… if we expect Marines to lead and if we expect Marines to follow, we must provide the education of the heart and mind to win on the battlefield and in the barracks, in war and peace." These principles are drummed into every new officer at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. They too will be found in the Marine Corps basic field manual entitled Leading Marines.
* Set the example. Values are caught, not taught. This is the most important leadership principle I ever learned in the Corps: Lead by example. Don't tell your troops…show them. If you want them to work late on a project at the office, you'd better get there before them and leave after them if you want their respect. Don't tell them to abide by the rules while you violate them, or tell your kids not to drink or smoke if you do. Don't expect troops to dress, speak or write well, if you don't. You must earn the right to lead-and that's through example.
* Be technically and tactically proficient. As a leader, you must know how to do your job well. You must be competent to earn the respect of your troops. As a leader, you must also keep up with knowledge. You must become a lifelong learner to ensure that you are a knowledgeable leader. Our knowledge base is expanding exponentially, and leaders who get left behind fail their troops. Keep going to school, reading and soaking up new tools of technology wherever and whenever you can.
* Know yourself and seek self improvement. This means being honest with yourself. You can't be great at all things. Know where your strengths and weaknesses lie and work with them, share them and seek out complementary personalities when making decisions so that you strike a balance. Look for help where you're weak and help others who need your strengths. Leadership is about knowing and admitting you need help, as well as giving help freely. Learn from others and teach others.
* Know your Marines and look out for their welfare. Leadership is knowing about and caring for your troops. People are all different, and you need to learn their differences and work with them. Learn what motivates them, their strengths, and their weaknesses. People who work for you know whether you care about them based on how you treat them. Treat them the way you like to be treated…the simple golden rule.
* Keep your Marines informed. Communication ensures knowledge and both are key to a smooth functioning team. If people don't know what's going on, they invent rumors to fill the communication void. Often those rumors hurt rather than help organizations. Stop the cancer of rumors by letting your troops know what's going on. Send notes, post information on bulletin boards, e-mail…your ability to communicate quickly and well is widened today by technology.
* Ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished. Telling the troops to get something done does not ensure it ever will. First you have to articulate what you want done. That means knowing what you want. This sounds simpler than it is. Next, you must sell the importance of the task to your troops. Ordering or telling (in business) only goes so far. If people don't buy in with their hearts and minds, what you get is malicious obedience-doing what they're told and hoping for failure. Give troops a reasonable time to accomplish the task and then check on it. Complement when it gets done well or counsel until it does get done correctly.
* Train your Marines as a team. As a leader, you are a teacher. You must not only keep yourself current in your field, but you must train your troops as well. Train as a team on projects rooted in your business; you'll see demonstrable results. An old coach once told me, "You only do in a game what you did in practice." So practice-practice as a team. Nothing is better than a team tackling a common problem with Esprit de Corps… the spirit of the group. And, there's nothing like the feeling of a team reaching a tough goal together.
* Make sound and timely decisions. Sound decisions are born out of good information and counsel. Read, research, study before you decide-do your own homework. Look at what others have done-benchmarking. Read the research-don't reinvent the wheel. Next, try to make timely decisions. Sometimes you'll have little time and must rely on your instincts. But remember that if you put off a decision too long, you are still making a decision…not to decide.
* Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates. Delegate a task and get out of the way. Oversupervising troops annoys them and takes up too much of your time. Empower people by giving them rights and responsibilities. With every freedom we have, there is a corresponding responsibility. We have freedom of speech, but the responsibility not to slander another. When leading troops, give them the freedom to solve problems and the responsibility to live with the results.
* Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities. Know your troops' capabilities and work within that framework. Business has learned that to be successful, you must focus on what you do well, rather than trying to do everything. It's also called finding your market niche. You will never be able to be all things to all people; so don't try. Just do what you do-and do it well.
* Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions. No one ever became a leader by shying away from responsibility. The old saying, "never volunteer," should be: "Always volunteer-if you want to grow." To get to a new job, you have to show that you can handle it. That often means extending your responsibilities-stretching yourself. Volunteer to help out on projects and teams and I guarantee you'll be better off for the experience.
Dr. Steve Gladis, a former US Marine Corps officer (1968-1971), is on the faculty of the University of Virginia, serves as the Director of its Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, and is a former FBI Special Agent (1973-1996).