3 Leadership Principles From the Marine Corps
My father is an engineer with a master’s degree in thermodynamics. He’s retired now—from the Cummins engine company, where, among other things, he spent years working on the small diesel engines that you now see in Ram trucks. Dad used to regularly bemoan the senior managers at Cummins, who knew a great deal about financial planning, human resource managing, labor relations, procurement efficiency and more, but couldn’t tell a piston rod from a crankshaft.
They could not bring intellectual capacity to a discussion on where the core products should go next.
They could manage, but they could not lead.
To my father’s consternation, during the Vietnam War, I quit college and enlisted in the Marines. (Dad went ashore at Utah Beach Normandy on D-Day 1944 with the 172nd Engineer Combat Battalion. He hates war). But during the decade that I spent on active duty, I came to agree with him on many fronts, including the need for leaders to be domain experts.
Three Competing Philosophies of the U.S. Marine Corps:
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." The Marine Corps takes this even further. When it comes to expertise, Marines adhere to three competing philosophies.
1. Every Marine a Rifleman
Regardless of a Marine's area of specialty or focus, every enlisted Marine is first expected to be a competent combat rifleman, and every officer is expected to be a competent rifle platoon commander.
Unlike the other U.S. military services, all Marine recruits go through basic infantry training together, regardless of the specialties they will later be assigned; and every Marine Officer goes through the same basic infantry officer course.
When I first enlisted, I spent three months learning hand-to-hand combat and basic small-unit infantry skills and tactics next to future cooks, clerks, computer technicians, tankers, artillerymen, and infantrymen (I was destined to become a radio operator).
A few years later, when I was commissioned a second lieutenant, I spent an intense six months learning patrolling, small-unit tactics and the essentials of leading Marine infantry units in modern warfare along with future Marine pilots, lawyers, and finance officers (this time I was headed for the infantry).
Part of the rationale for this approach is that it develops a base-level of horizontal competence in all Marines. But to what end? It’s pretty rare that a finance officer, lawyer or pilot will be required to lead troops in ground combat. And there are far more efficient ways to teach them survival skills.
No, the more important reason is to build respect among all Marines about the fundamental mission of the Marine Corps and those who carry it out. As one instructor once put it: “There are two types of jobs in the Marines: either your job is to close with and destroy the enemy on the ground—or your job is to support that Marine on the ground closing with the enemy. There is no third job.” We’re all expected to learn the most fundamental aspects of fighting ground wars because that’s who we are and what we do.
That training does not make us ground combat experts any more than an MBA qualifies one to be a CEO.
But through this team ethos, Marines learn mutual respect and develop a level of trust that leads to an even higher level of performance.
2. Expertise Develops Over Time
All Marines are expected to build on their basic competence as an infantry Marine to become the best experts possible in their chosen or assigned fields. Pilots, intelligence analysts, aircraft repair technicians, infantry leaders—everyone needs to be an absolute master of his craft. This is what we sometimes call "vertical expertise" or “domain expertise." It has two important elements: detailed functional expertise within each area of responsibility (flying a particular aircraft, fighting in urban environments, or repairing a specific tank, etc.) and the expertise required to apply that expertise to war fighting in a particular combat environment (the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan, etc.).
When I got to an infantry unit as a young second lieutenant, I was not yet deemed to be an expert. That took years.
Business leaders and politicians used to have this same approach. Before Lee Iacocca became President of Ford (and later CEO of Chrysler), he obtained a degree in industrial engineering and spent a career as an engineer and then a marketing expert in the automotive industry. As a result, he could lead the development of cars such as the Ford Mustang, Lincoln Continental Mark III, Ford Escort, Mercury Cougar and Mercury Marquis. When Sam Nunn (a Coast Guard veteran and a Democrat) was the senior U.S. senator from Georgia, he served for 25 years as a member (and later chairman) of the Senate Armed Services committee. Over time, he developed unparalleled vertical expertise in national security, foreign policy and defense.
However, more recently, far too many business leaders, politicians and those on Wall Street seem to believe that being smart and successful (and sometimes rich) makes them immediately qualified to lead, advise or make policy on everything from banking to healthcare, national security to transportation, intelligence to international trade. I simply do not understand how generalist managers (or for that matter generalist investment bankers) can honestly believe that they can “expertly” lead (or advise) a consumer package goods manufacturer one day and an enterprise software company the next—followed, no doubt, by a dog food company, an auto parts wholesaler, and a fashion retailer. Nor do I see how a politician can claim expertise in housing one day, military preparedness the next, and international trade policies the day after. How can they really lead the team to new creative solutions without the requisite expertise? They can’t.
3. Teams Over Individuals
There was a third lesson that was drilled into me from the time I entered boot camp, throughout my officer training classes, and continuously in the field that is also crucial to both politics and business. It's that a leader respects and leverages others who are experts in their own domains. The expertise of individuals is multiplied exponentially when they are brought together onto a well-led, unified team of experts, moving forward with a common purpose.
The Bottom Line:
In my Wall Street business, I've tried hard to keep the Marine Corps approach to expertise in mind. I encourage those in my firm to combine their individual horizontal deal-making expertise with true vertical domain expertise in the areas that we serve, and then to multiply our effectiveness by coming together as teams that provide in-depth expert advice to our clients. They don’t need to be Marines. They just need to learn to apply Marine principles. Our goal is to win—to help our clients achieve their goals—and to do so with honor, commitment, discipline, and faithful service to their interests. We do it as a team of domain experts. That's the Marine Corps Way.
Ken Marlin is founder and managing partner of the award-winning investment bank Marlin & Associates and the author of The Marine Corps Way to Win On Wall Street (St. Martin’s Press).