Like most veterans, I’m often asked about the leadership lessons I learned during my time in the military… about how my military experience can be applied to other situations… about how I translate what I learned on the battlefield to my role(s) in the boardroom.
I’ve thought a lot about those questions and, candidly, struggled with how best to answer them. Not because there aren’t any answers, but because there are so many answers! The lessons from my time as an officer in the Marine Corps are too many to count. Each individual mission (combat missions, humanitarian missions, rescue missions, supply missions, advisory missions, and training missions), each school (Officer Candidate School, The Basic School, Logistics School, etc.), and each role (candidate, student, officer, platoon commander, advisor, etc.) brought with it individual lessons that, when combined, are too numerous to list. They are lessons that, for the most part, are situational. That is, they can be applied in specific scenarios, in specific places, at specific times. It is not every day that they are applicable to the boardroom or C-Suite.
However, there is one item from my time as a Marine Corps officer that I reference on a daily basis. In fact, although I memorized it long ago, I still carry it in my wallet for easy reference (along with the poem “If” by Kipling, and the “Man in the Arena” quote from Roosevelt). Granted, it’s not a lesson as much as a foundation… a belief system… about leadership. It is, I believe, the greatest gift the Marine Corps gave me. And, therein lies the irony. This gift wasn’t actually for me! It was for those I had the honor and privilege of leading. It ensured that those for whom I was responsible had the type of leader they deserved. Which is why it is as applicable in the boardroom as it is on the battlefield: because no matter the situation or organization, our people deserve great leadership. That lesson… that gift… is the 11 Marine Corps Leadership Principles.
Below is the list of those principles and their Marine Corps definition/description. I have yet to find a situation outside of the military where the same principles aren’t directly applicable and beneficial. To prove my point, I’ve provided a “translated” definition below each principle; A definition that leaders of companies, nonprofit organizations, boards, and teams should be able to easily understand and apply.
- BE TECHNICALLY AND TACTICALLY PROFICIENT: Maintain a high level of competence in your Military Occupational Specialty. Your proficiency will earn the respect of your Marines.
Translation: Become an expert in the knowledge of your organization, its industry, and your job. Your employees and customers deserve it.
- KNOW YOURSELF AND SEEK SELF-IMPROVEMENT: Use the leadership traits to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. An accurate and clear understanding of yourself and a comprehension of group behavior will help you determine the best way to deal with any given situation.
Translation: Evaluate yourself and seek feedback. Learn to adapt your leadership style to the most effective leadership style for a given situation.
- KNOW YOUR MARINES AND LOOK OUT FOR THEIR WELFARE: You should know your Marines and how they react to different situations. This knowledge can save lives. Knowledge of your Marines’ personalities will enable you, as the leader, to decide how best to employ each Marine.
Translation: Get to know your people, and provide them with a safe environment. Knowing them will allow you to put them in the best position possible for organizational & personal success, even if that position is uncomfortable.
- KEEP YOUR MARINES INFORMED: Informed Marines perform better and, if knowledgeable of the situation, can carry on without your personal supervision. Providing information can inspire initiative.
Translation: Be transparent. Make every effort to share organizational information, rather than control it. Doing so will allow for flexibility, speed, and innovation.
- SET THE EXAMPLE: Set the standards for your Marines by personal example. The Marines in your unit all watch your appearance, attitude, physical fitness and personal example. If your personal standards are high, then you can rightfully demand the same of your Marines.
Translation: Lead by example. Period. There’s nothing more toxic to a team or organization than a leader’s hypocrisy.
- ENSURE THE TASK IS UNDERSTOOD, SUPERVISED AND ACCOMPLISHED: Before you can expect your Marines to perform, they need to know what is expected from them. Communicate your instructions in a clear, concise manner, and allow your Marines a chance to ask questions. Check progress periodically to confirm the assigned task is properly accomplished.
Translation: Provide clarity of direction, role/responsibility, and expectations at all levels of your team and organization. Create channels that allow your people to seek clarity where it is missing. Focus on the “why”, not the “how”. Inspect what you expect.
- TRAIN YOUR MARINES AS A TEAM: Train your Marines with a purpose and emphasize the essential elements of teamwork and realism. Teach your unit to train, play and operate as a team. Be sure that all Marines know their positions and responsibilities within the team framework.
Translation: Invest in professional development of entire teams, not just individuals. When possible, develop your people using scenarios & experiences, rather than just speeches or conferences.
- MAKE SOUND AND TIMELY DECISIONS: Rapidly estimate a situation and make a sound decision based on that estimation. There’s no room for reluctance to make a decision, revise it. Marines respect the leader who corrects mistakes immediately.
Translation: Evaluate effectively and efficiently, but have a bias-for-action and the willingness to adapt. Avoid “analysis paralysis”.
- DEVELOP A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY IN YOUR SUBORDINATES: Show your Marines you are interested in their welfare by giving them the opportunity for professional development. Assigning tasks and delegating authority promotes mutual confidence and respect between the leader and the team.
Translation: Build leaders, not followers, by investing in individual professional development. Doing so increases your people’s competency, which allows you to increase their autonomy. Autonomy allows decisions to be made by those closest to the information.
- EMPLOY YOUR UNIT IN ACCORDANCE WITH ITS CAPABILITIES: Successful completion of a task depends upon how well you know your unit’s capabilities. Seek out challenging tasks for your unit, but be sure your unit is prepared for and has the ability to successfully complete the mission.
Translation: Don’t stretch your team or organization beyond its operational or financial capabilities without ensuring they have the tools and preparation to be successful.
- SEEK RESPONSIBILITY AND TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS: Actively seek out challenging assignments for your professional development. Seeking responsibilities also means that you take the responsibility for your actions. You are responsible for all your unit does or fails to do. Stick by your convictions and be willing to accept justified and constructive criticism.
Translation: Hold yourself accountable for all that your team or organization does, or fails to do. Engage in healthy conflict. Seek and accept feedback.
Once you’ve read the list, I encourage you to give yourself and your organization an assessment on how your current leadership aligns with these principles. Even better, ask those you lead to give you that assessment. What do you think you’d learn about yourself, your team, and your organization from the answers? How would you, your people, and your organization improve from discussing the answers?
Lastly, let me clarify one thing. My goal is not to turn every person into a Marine, and every organization into the Marine Corps! Rather, my goal… my mission… is to help organizations and individuals reach new heights. These leadership principles are a tool to do that. They’re not the only tools, but they’re good tools. Perhaps you have other tools you use. If so, let me know! I’d love to add them to the tools I carry in my leadership “pack”. After all, as they say in the Marines, “Two is one, and one is none!”