Are your Leadership Skills up to Marine Corps Standards?

Aug 18, 2016

Are your Leadership Skills up to Marine Corps Standards?

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Successful businesses don’t just happen. And, in spite of protestations to the contrary, they don’t owe their success to luck; businesses thrive as a result of strong leadership. Whether on Main Street or on Wall Street, those at the top lead by example – setting the standard; teaching their people how to persevere in the face of adversity; and how to win.

Fourteen years ago, I founded the international investment bank that I still lead. Before that I led two main street tech companies and spent time as a senior executive at two other large multi-nationals. But before all of that, I spent a decade on active duty as a United States Marine – and that’s where much of my leadership approach was formed.

In my latest book, The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles From Battlefield to Boardroom, I dive into 11 Marine Corps principles and practices that not only result in battlefield wins – but can help others lead successful businesses. Today, I’d like to share three particularly useful principles.

Philosophy One: Every Marine a Rifleman

All Marines are required to know how to execute the basic functions required for executing the Marine Corps’ primary mission: closing with and destroying the enemy in ground combat. It’s a philosophy we call “Every Marine a Rifleman.” When I first enlisted, I spent three months learning to fire small arms, hand-to-hand combat, land navigation, and a lot of other basic infantry skills. Beside me, learning the same, were future Marine Corps cooks, clerks, computer technicians, tankers, artillerymen – and infantrymen. (I was destined to become a combat radio operator.) A few years later, when I was commissioned a second lieutenant, I spent an intense six months learning patrolling, small unit tactics, field first aid, and the essentials of leading Marine infantry units in modern warfare. Beside me? Future Marine pilots, lawyers, and finance officers. (This time I was headed for the infantry.)

Part of the rationale for the Marine Corps’ approach is that it develops a base-level of what I call ‘horizontal’ competence in our core area of expertise among 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 who is closing with the enemy. There is no third job.”

Basic training does not make Marines ground combat experts any more than an MBA qualifies one to be a CEO. But, through this team ethos, Marines learn to develop a level of trust that leads to an even higher level of performance. It may not sound important to the finance expert trying to lead a company that manufactures diesel engines. But that leader will get a lot more respect from the troops if he or she knows the difference between a piston and a crankshaft, and even more if he or she has the basis for an opinion about what the company can and should do to improve those pistons and crankshafts.

Philosophy Two: Expertise Develops Over Time

All Marines build on their basic competence as infantry Marines to become the best experts possible in their chosen or assigned fields. It doesn’t happen fast. It takes time to develop what I call “vertical expertise” or “domain expertise.” In the Marine world, expertise 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 (developing horizontal expertise) and then as marketing expert in the automotive industry – building vertical competence on top of his horizontal expertise. As a result, he could lead the development and sales of cars such as the Ford Mustang and the Lincoln Continental Mark III. Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) built his expertise over a 25-year career. And he didn’t limit himself to being a generalist legislator. He built vertical expertise in national security, foreign policy and defense as a member (and later chairman) of the Senate Armed Services committee.

Far too many business leaders, politicians and far too many on Wall Street seem to believe that being smart, successful (and sometimes rich) combined with some level of horizontal competence makes them immediately qualified to lead, advise or make policy on everything from banking to health care to national security and transportation. How can they really lead us to new creative solutions that will work? They can’t.

Philosophy Three: Teams Beat Individuals

Marines know that no individual is perfect but that teams can come close to a collective perfection. They know that the expertise of individuals is multiplied exponentially when they are part of a well-led team moving forward with a common purpose. That team will defeat even the most determined adversaries, when those adversaries are lesser organized or poorly led.

In my 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 apply Marine principles. Our goal is to win of course – and for us that means to help our clients achieve their goals — while showing honor, commitment, discipline, and faithful service. Our aim is to do the right things, for the right reasons, every time. That’s the Marine Corps Way.

To learn more about the Marine Corps Way and how it can help lead you and your team to success in the business world, visit marlinllc.com/marine-corps-way. There you can read what other successful business people are saying about the book, download a free excerpt from the book, and even order it from one of retailers listed.

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