Military LeadershipFollowership

Training Leaders

In the 9 years I have spent in the Marine Corps, if there was anything I’ve learned that the military, and Marine Corps specifically, produces aside from a healthy installment of arrogance…err – confidence, are leaders.  We boast about making boys and girls into men and women and men and women into leaders of Marines.  The Basic School’s “Basic Officer’s Course” that all Marine Officers attend to start their military careers as leaders is touted as “The World’s Best Leadership Course”.  Recently I’ve come to question if we have really been teaching “leadership”…or is it something else?

I recently read an article that was published over 6 years ago by the incredibly insightful, and near genius author, Malcolm Gladwell.  I came across the article while reading his book, “What the Dog Saw” (Know that once I am finished, it is headed straight for the Recommended Reading List).  The story of “Million-Dollar Murray” told of one Murray Barr, a former Marine that was a homeless alcoholic to say the least and to make an incredible understatement.  This article inspired the article of mine that you are now reading.  The article is available for full reading, at no charge HERE.  There were a couple of specific mentions in the article that made me feel like, while there were additional influencing circumstances… Murray’s outstanding qualities were credited to the Marine Corps.  But the Marine Corps’ influence on him may have also been his demise.

Murray’s story is tragic, and while I can’t come close to doing Mr. Gladwell’s article justice by making a summary, I would like to call attention to one of the closing paragraph’s that struck home with me, and I will never forget:

“You know, when he was monitored by the system, he did fabulously.  He would be on house arrest and he would get a job and he would save money and he would go to work every day, and he wouldn’t drink.  He would do all the things he was supposed to do.  There are some people who can be very successful members of society if someone monitors them.  Murray needed someone to be in charge of him.”

What really struck me, is when I read this out-loud to my wife, herself a veteran Marine-reservist of six years, her immediate reply as if she were finishing the missing sentence from Gladwell’s article was, “…He was a Marine.”  It troubled me that her immediate response was so terribly correct… and I’ve spent the last week going over it in my head.

I’d like to borrow some insight from someone much smarter than me, Mr. John C. Maxwell.  He seems to know a little bit about Leadership (Yes, that is sarcasm).  I often compare the abilities of a “leader” to his “5 Levels of Leadership” model (for which he has composed one of my recommended reading books about).  You can see the five-levels in graphical form there for visual reference as I mention them.

I don’t believe we, as in the Marine Corps, build leaders that are truly “Pinnacle” Leaders… Leaders that can develop other leaders that then can also replicate the development of more, leader-producing-leaders.  I believe we train to Positional and Performance leadership, and fewer military leaders than we’d like to admit actually see the levels of Reproduction and even fewer to the level of a Pinnacle-Leader.  We just rarely develop leader-producing-leaders.  However, we do exceptionally well at developing leaders who can replicate accountability.  Military leadership is much better at establishing strict followers of, well, followership than developers of leadership.

The missing link is that being a “leader” is easy when in middle management, which every “leader” in the military is at, to some varying degree.  You have subordinates that you have to lead towards a common goal, consistently trying to achieve and set higher standards.  But in the military, as in many large businesses and structures, a leader with subordinates is also subordinate to somebody.  And that “leader” is kept on track, constantly reminded of their responsibilities and to whom they are accounted to.  Under this structure, it makes it a bit easier to give the illusion that an organization is producing leaders.  But I believe it is more accurate to say the organization is producing followers, exceptional followers, that can perform when given someone or something to be held accountable to or for.

The problem with Murray Barr, as is the case with many Marines, and veterans of other services, is that they are not only taught, but rigidly enforced and have engrained the willingness to perform to exceptional standards when they have someone to hold them ACCOUNTABLE to those standards.  But what happens to those that were never taught how to hold THEMSELVES accountable to their own standards?  What happens when a team, squad, or platoon leader isn’t there to remind them that certain behavior is expected of them?  One may argue that any job will provide a manager or boss that will tell you what you are accountable for.  This is correct and any good boss or manager should be clearly communicating to their employees what is expected of them.  The difference is, in the military, you aren’t just told what you will be held accountable for from 9-5, but every aspect of your life is the responsibility of your senior leaders.  They hold you accountable for everything from the smell of your breath to the cleanliness of your rifle.

Junior Military members that never make it into a seasoned, experienced, and truly Leadership-bearing, leadership role never learn leadership beyond BEING accountable to someone and actually understand the how, why, and need for HOLDING oneself and others accountable.  Junior leaders and junior members of the military never really learn to wholly understand the need for accountability and development for the sake of being able to make the right decision… or if I may quote myself, in order to, “Do what you’re supposed to do”.  This argument could be extrapolated into the problem with over regulating laws that take away the populations learning ability to decide what is right or wrong morally and ethically, versus “knowing” something is right or wrong because it is legal or illegal.  That is a debate for another place, and another blog.