The Art of Leadership: Lessons from a U.S. Marine

You know those few candid moments at the office when your internal dialogue can’t help but reiterate the thought, “My boss is a complete moron,” and that you could do their job far better? If your answer is yes, then why aren’t you leading? What is leadership? How do you define a leader? What if any is the process to become a leader? Is it an innate quality? The epitome of a leader is redoubtably someone who via intrusive introspection and revision, displays an external ability to lead others and themselves though the uncertainty of loss, interregnum and utter chaos calmly. The fundamental attributes of leadership that are hardest to master are the meanings of sacrifice, resilience, communication and compassion. All four of these items are essential for team cohesion and are reciprocated in their productivity.

"Relying on a great product is only half the battle."

More than embodying the cliche terms we’ve all heard before, today’s leader presently contends with attacks on freedom of speech being indistinguishable from political correctness i.e., censorship of opposing intelligent views and social media’s ability to disseminate factious rumors that could destroy a company’s image. The question is: How can anyone lead confidently? The Marines have a saying that goes: “Leaders eat last.” This means that the most junior ranking Marine gets food in a chow line first, followed by the most senior in order of succession. This is for a few reasons, chief among them to remind each leader in the chain from bottom to top the sacrifice needed to maintain the pace and health of their team in war, as well as keep them ever mindful of resources.

Sacrifice is one word you will be intimately familiar with as a leader. Sentry duty is a job that every Marine will do at some point or another, and posted nearly everywhere is, “Marine on duty has no friends,” because the billet of a duty officer, no matter the rank of the Marine on post, reflects the rank and authority of the commanding officer. Executive responsibility is impressed upon lower ranks in addition to the duty officer having temporary however significant authority over one’s peers on the wrong side of military rule in lieu of the commander’s presence. Often forming cliques, tribes or crews or what have you extending back to grade school, turn colleagues we tend to not want to make the hard decisions that impact the lives of our friends. Confrontation is an unbridled sacrifice that is seldom faced head on however is necessary to do in order to fully understand each facet of the issues at hand. Knowing yourself, what style of leadership you imbue and having the confidence to speak up for yourself and others establishes an azimuth to keep you on your true north.

To be honest, I don’t think there is any word I loathe and simultaneously adore more than resilience. Being in a combat area is often referred to as, “Being in the suck” (because there is no part of it that doesn’t suck) but I won’t lie to you, being resilient sucks too. After nearly every failure I have sustained in the boardroom, in personal endeavors and with every impossible decision made I would hear that word. There is no weapon more deadly or reassuring than knowing you can recover and thrive from experiences that would kill others. For example, I grew up in Flint, Michigan and before I was a freshman in high school I had been shot at, had a pistol to my head and engaged in a nearly fatal hand-to-hand combat.

On my 21st birthday, I was deployed to Al Anbar Province, Iraq, where nearly every day I was either shot at, sat atop bombs or handled some of the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. Had it not been for those traumatic experiences to draw upon I may never have discovered the resolve needed to lead Marines calmly in similar conditions at war. We have all been through tough times and learned valuable lessons from them, what is needed are new constructs for which to apply those lessons in daily life. In the military we call this an after action report. This consists of what happened, what you saw, what you learned about the opposition, and how you can improve, with the sole purpose being to intrusively explore every aspect of actions taken in the execution of the mission. Knowing why you failed provides you with a road map on how to fight to win. Resilience produces flux, flux breeds change, change prevents complacency and everyone who has ever deployed in a combat zone will tell you complacency kills! Being in the suck requires you to either sink to the lowest level of your training or succumb to the formidable pressure around you.

Team adversity in concert with communication failure brings out the absolute best and subsequently the absolute worse in people. A common leadership issue is that new and old leaders lead via micro management, which suffocates the creative process and any individual’s sense of personal accountability. When personal accountability is stripped from a teammate, they don’t feel like they are part of building something bigger than themselves. Recently, I worked for a major telecommunications company who could neither explain their high turnover ratio, why their sales margins were eroding, or why they were hemorrhaging money out of their annual budget. It came down to poor management with little to no end-user engagement. Senior managers were known to junior employees primarily by their titles, which made them less approachable and more intimidating, they even frequently fired key talent to cut costs with little to no communication. Having had little to no rapport with the lower level employees who engaged the consumer daily, the eventual consumer disconnect was inevitable. Relying on the product to do the job for you, assuming it’s a good product, is only half the battle.

"Admiration is a powerful motivator."

This is where attention to detail pays dividends. In the military this type of “Piss poor management,” of personnel is unacceptable by everyone’s standards. A boots-on-the-ground leader will unequivocally know more than a behind the desk quarterback. Consider the fact your average troop tells their immediate commanders the following: This was the problem, this is what we did to fix the problem, and here are the results of current working solutions. Now, consider how long it takes for any given actionable item to turn into a policy proposal, that proposal to be voted for and passed, then that policy implemented force wide. The conditions and subsequent strategies of war have now all changed on the ground before you ever see the change at the desk. Though bureaucratic checks and balance are necessary, the worse “leaders” are the ones who make blind policies about a segment in the company that they have not done recently and/or at least understand at a user level. To be a leader of the people you must know the people.

One of the philosophies I subscribed to is from The Art of War by Sun Tzu, “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” It’s very likely you would not tell you child bad advice or to engage in something that you yourself would not do, right? Well same goes for your staff. Companies are built and maintained on relationships much like the unconditional love and fidelity a child has for their parent, so too, must this be felt in some regard toward anyone in a position of leadership. Admiration is a powerful motivator and if you don’t believe me just reflect on a time when your parent or grandparents said, “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” This is the reason nearly every Marine ever under my charge is still a friend or calls me for life advice, and it is my proudest accomplishment as a leader. The hallmark of great company is hard rooted in how well the leader knows, values and treats the people on their team. Compassion is essential for one reason, it makes the people feel included. When people want to work with you versus having to work with you, positive innovations tend to automatically populate.

Build resilience by dissecting your victories and define then constructing methodologies to mentor, rouse and guide your team in the art of perseverance. Draw from what you know without being afraid to change along the way. Realize that individual faults will exist, however, understand that the team’s loss is yours and that the victories belong to the team members and individuals who contributed beyond measure. Praise in public, reprimand in private, this is how you communicate leadership through action. Finally, know that compassion is a strength if employed properly and if you lead with purpose. Creating a interactive community will not only teach you something new, it should humble you no matter the result. If you keep in mind that leading through fairness, firmness, dignity and compassion nothing is unattainable, the burden of leadership will seem a little less daunting. I will leave you with this, here are 5 rules I’ve followed from other leaders that have served me well:

1. Don’t react, do respond 2. Keep it simple stupid (KISS) 3. Be the last to speak and the first to listen. 4. Never pass up the opportunity to shut up 5. Never take on more than three task at a time.

Mr. Matt Owens is a proven solutions specialist having synthesized sound leadership skills, absolute quality assurance in all facets of system architecture, and outstanding commitment to practicing excellence in the basics. This leadership style was forged in the crucible of courage, having served in the elite United States Marine Corps. He is also an international keynote speaker and an advocate for the Travis Manion Foundation.