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The Marines are Coming
by Rick Sidorowicz


The next "great wave" of leadership thought and high performance strategy is going to be founded on the unique principles of the US Marine Corps. Now that the incredible Jack Welch has passed the baton, leaving a legacy of monumental shareholder value creation based on the fundamentals of high performance, we have to catch a new wave - and there is no doubt that that wave will be based on the tried and true principles of life or death performance and leadership on the front lines - in other words - the elite of our military.

Several years ago I had the fortune of discovering a 'gem' of an article by David H. Freedman that asserted that the unique culture and operations of the U.S. Marine Corps had great relevance to business leadership. All philosphy and The Art of War aside, it appeared that there were great insights, and more importantly - excellent 'nuts and bolts' actionable initiatives that were directly appropriate to the business 'context' we are in today.

The article's caption provided clues ... "The U.S. Marines are trained to make split second decisions based on incomplete information, in life or death situations." Sounds like CEO and high powered front line stuff to me. And it gets better. "The U.S. Marines are looking for the few, the proud people who can scale walls, strike hard with lightning speed, and make life-or-death decisions in the heat of battle." I've used similar words to describe what I wanted and needed and it started to feel like there was something very important in there - fast reacting, lightning strike, proud, scaling walls - executing brilliantly. This was worth a deeper look.

But hold on a second. We're talking military, regimentation, rigor, obedience, orders, formality, tradition, authority, rigidity, compliance, structure - a lot of scary sounding tough 'stuff' in comparison to the 'softer' side of flexibility, adaptability, creativity and unleashing the talent of people. I may have a distorted perception of the 'rigors' of the military, but on the other hand I think the general perception is quite accurate. Traditional business organization structures and processes seemed to be patterned after the military. Traditional bureaucratic structures stifle creativity, operate by rank and privilege, and by oppression, insecurity and fear. Perhaps that's why I have a somewhat preconceived negative perception of anything military contributing to truly creative and inspiring leadership. But perhaps my general preconception is incomplete - I am very open to that being the case. Perhaps the traditional business models patterned themselves after what they perceived as military structures, but missed the point of the 'essence' and the 'elite' of military values and vision. 

I've believed that to create, to innovate and to adapt we need to flatten structures, eliminate hierarchy, become flexible, abandon tradition, unleash creativity and infuse passion and the 'wow' factor in everything we do. A creative approach exalts, empowers and inspires people. The approach values self directed action and individuals assuming full responsibility and accountability. The approach is one of trust and telling the truth. The approach values 'values.' Confident, self directed and inspired people taking action. How else can you effectively deal with the chaos we face in business and in life everyday - the pace, the confusion, the multiple competing demands and infinite challenges? 

Perhaps we have another major paradox in effect that takes a little 'head twisting' to comprehend and apply. What if all of the 'good stuff' noted above - exalts, empowers, inspired, self directed, full responsibility, accountability, trust, truth, values, confident people taking action - were the result of a formal, regimented, rigorous, traditional organization as in the Marines? What if two of the most fundamental beliefs of the Marines were the following:

  • War is chaos, confusion, and the unexpected;
  • Because of that difficult fact, the only way to succeed ... is to push the ability and authority for decision making down to the marines who are on the spot.

There obviously is a direct connection of the above beliefs and what they 'operationalize' to the challenges amidst the chaos we face in business today. So many of the unique leadership development principles and practices of the Marine Corps are directly relevant to the business 'battlefield,' especially in a context of chaos and rapid change.

In Firing Up the Front Line, J.R. Katzenbach and J.A. Santamaria report in Harvard Business Review (May/June 1999) "a team of analysts from McKinsey & Company and the Conference Board concluded that the Marine Corps outperformed all other organizations when it came to engaging the hearts and minds of the front line." 

So ... I am beginning to get this sense that even though we have come at leadership and high performance from different angles and approaches, we will get to the same place. And it is beginning to look like and feel like we have a powerful 'answer' - a model, a vision, a framework, a 'context' for the ultimate in leadership. It's starting to all come together as we speak.

Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh have authored a fascinating book revealing the leadership principles of the U.S. Marine Corps. Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way is a lively and practical 'manual' for business managers and executives to lead their department or enterprise to victory. The 'concept' of applying the leadership principles, values and vision of the Marine Corps to business is brilliant, and Carrison and Walsh's work at doing so is exceptional. Here are several comments which capture the importance of their work:

"For over two hundred years, the U.S. Marine Corps has excelled in accomplishing its mission regardless of how difficult. The Marines' unique culture and superior leadership capabilities that have led to success on the battlefield hold many useful lessons for any high performance organization. Carrison and Walsh have captured in their book the genius of this time proven system for the benefit of all who care to study it." - Frederick W. Smith, Chairman of the Board and CEO of FedEx, formerly Captain, USMC.

"If there was ever an organization with an abundance of leaders, at every level of the chain of command, it is the Marine Corps. If the Marine Corps were to be magically transformed into a business overnight, those of us in private enterprise would immediately be aware of the "new kid on the block." The dedication to mission - and the ability of its leaders to inspire those under their authority - would make the Marine Corps in the business world exactly what it is in the military world: a success out of all proportion to its size." - Vernon R. Loucks Jr. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Baxter International, Inc., formerly 1st Lieutenant, USMC.

As you get deeper into the values of the Marine Corps and how they bring them to life 'in the action' the relevance to business today will become extremely clear. There is no doubt that this is very powerful 'stuff' and Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh have captured the essence of how you can directly and immediately apply the principles to business. 

I have come at high performance from a non-military background and not so surprisingly have come to very similar conclusions about the fundamentals. I was absolutely inspired by Dan and Rod's outline of Leading to Victory - Ten Winning Strategies. Their highlights and recommendations ring so very true to the reality of leading high performing teams and executing a winning plan. 

So stay tuned for more about the principles of high performance, and how to create an elite culture of high performance that lasts. 


The Author


Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in Mission Ready in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2001 by Rick Sidorowicz. All rights reserved.

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