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Ken Marlin Featured as Guest Author in The CEO Magazine

June 07, 2016

To Win at Negotiating: Seize the High Ground

Guest Blogger | Leadership – Management | Tue, 06/07/2016 – 23:47

Ken Marlin, Author, The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom

In the early 1970s, I attended what the Marine Corps calls “The Basic School” or “TBS”.  That’s where newly minted Marine Corps officers learn how to lead men in ground combat.  I learned a lot at TBS as well as over the next decade that I served on active duty: war fighting leadership; field skills and more.  But TBS is also where I learned about one of the most important elements of successful negotiating.  It is a lesson that has never left me.

At that time, President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger was in Paris trying to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. Most of us thought Kissinger had all the negotiating leverage he needed.  Our military was more powerful than that of the North Vietnamese. We were killing them at a much faster rate than they were killing us; and we were bombing the North’s industrial capacity at an even more furious rate. Ours was a wealthy country that could afford to prosecute this war as long as necessary - theirs was poor and being drained of resources.  Further, Kissinger was pursuing rapprochement with the Soviet Union (principal backers of North Vietnam) as well as with its neighbor, China. Success could mean isolation for the North.   We ended the war in Korea with a truce and stalemate, why not this one?  It should have been win-win.  But, after two years of negotiating, there was little to show for the effort. Fifty thousand American lives had been lost—and something like a million Vietnamese killed and wounded.


About a month before I was commissioned as a second lieutenant, (and shortly before the Presidential election) the parties had looked as if they were about to reach agreement:  The North would withdraw its troops from the South and allow free elections; the US would withdraw most of its combat troops (not all); cease bombing the North; and ensure the peace.  Both sides would release prisoners of war. But, talks broke off. 

Soon Le found out the consequences.  The US began what was then called history’s most concentrated period of bombing: American planes flew nearly 12,000 sorties and dropped some 25,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam’s cities, industrial sites, and troops. (By comparison, during World War II, the Germans dropped about 100 tons of bombs on the UK during the “Blitz”; and later the US and British forces combined dropped about 3,900 tons of bombs on Dresden.) 

In took another month before Kissinger and Le came to a formal agreement.  It was a lot like the earlier agreement – but the US would withdraw all forces with a right to return.   Kissinger and Le were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; my TBS instructors viewed the deal as fatally flawed.  Le declined his Nobel —possibly because he knew what was to come.  Once the Americans withdrew, the North Vietnamese pounced and took over the entire country.  The US had no intention of returning.  The war was lost. 

The High Ground

Since I left the Marines, I’ve been a corporate executive, an entrepreneur, a tech company CEO, and for the past 20+ years, a deal maker.  While I’ve learned a lot of negotiating tactics, I have never lost sight of what my Marine Corps instructors called a fundamental weakness in Dr. Kissinger’s negotiating position.  While he may have had tactical advantages, Le had “the high ground”.

The high ground has two connotations in the Marine Corps. From a tactical perspective, it’s the better physical place from which to defend the low ground or to attack it. Mortars, artillery and more can all be used more effectively from the high ground.

Clearly, the high ground has a second, connotation too. As the author Josh Rushing described this in his book, Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World: “In the simple moral maxim the Marine Corps teaches: do the right thing, for the right reason. No exception exists that says: unless there's criticism or risk. Damn the consequences.”

Our instructors opined that, in Paris, Le Duc Tho held the high ground from multiple perspectives. First, he believed that he was doing the right thing for the right reasons.  He wanted to unify his country.  The North also saw the United States killing noncombatants and burning villages in places such as My Lai; using the chemical defoliant Agent Orange; and bombing Hanoi. The conviction that one holds the moral high ground is a powerful force.  We have seen countless examples of companies unwilling to capitulate – even in the face of extreme adversity – or attractive takeover offers - because they did not believe it was the right thing to do. 

Tactical strength does not guarantee winning.  While some Americans may have believed that the US held the military high ground, Le had had another strength: he had time.  The war was deeply unpopular in the US and Nixon had won election in part based on a promise to end US involvement.  The North had been fighting the colonialists (first the French and now the Americans) for more than twenty-five years—since 1946—and they were willing to continue fighting for another twenty-five years, if that’s what it took.  Meanwhile, America’s moral high ground was based largely on a desire to stop the march of communism across Southeast Asia; and promises made to a South Vietnamese government that was increasingly seen as corrupt; combined with Nixon’s desire to not be the first American president to lose a war since James Madison in 1812.   It was a losing hand.


To increase the odds of winning in combat and negotiations, it helps if you can leverage your tactical strengths with the certainty that you are doing the right things for the right reasons.  That’s the combination that lets you Seize the High Ground – and that’s how you win The Marine Corps Way.

About the Author

Ken Marlin is an American investment banker, international strategist, and author of The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom (St. Martin’s Press). Between 1970 and 1981, Ken Marlin rose from the enlisted ranks to become a Marine captain and infantry commander. Since then, he's been an entrepreneur, a tech company CEO, a senior corporate executive and, for the past twenty-plus years, an investment banker on Wall Street. Throughout all these endeavors, he has applied Marine Corps principles to leading successful businesses. Today as the founder and managing partner of the award-winning investment bank Marlin & Associates, he is a member of the Market Data Hall of Fame, twice named one of Institutional Investor's "Tech 50," and has appeared in publications ranging from Business Week, Fortune and Forbes to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Associated Press. He has appeared on CNBC, CBS MarketWatch, and Fox Business Channel. He lives in Manhattan.

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More on Ken's book, The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom

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