I have always attributed who I am today, to what I learned in six years as a U. S. Marine.  Even though I couldn’t compete with the young women who join the Corps today, I am proud that I survived OCS (and survived is the operative word), and learned what it really means to be a leader. General Jim Mattis, USMC(Ret) was head of U.S. Central Command and awarded the 2014 Semper Fidelis award in February.  In his acceptance speech, he described being a Marine.

To think like men of action,
And to act like men of thought!
To live life with intensity,
And a passion for excellence.”

general-james-mattis1That is the Marine Corps.  That is what I learned as a young lieutenant, and what was confirmed as I progressed through to Captain.

“To think like men of action,
And to act like men of thought!”

I get frustrated when those who have not served think of the Marines as roughnecks out for a good fight but without a lot of brains behind the brawn.  And I have heard that description more than once.  I also bristle when people think that leadership in the Marine Corps is “command and control,” rather than participative.

Marines are some of the smartest people around because they do think.  And they are some of the most successful because they do act.  Leadership is not a role, it is an expectation, and Marines are taught both thinking and acting.  Even a Private without any formal leadership role is expected to lead others by demonstrating what it is to be a Marine.

Here are some things I learned about leadership as a Marine.

You are a leader 24×7.  If you wear the rank of leadership, you wear it 24×7.  By accepting the rank, you accept being a role model, and you can’t choose what you’re going to model, even when incognito in civilian clothes.  Your bearing, your presence all speak to the dignity and honor of the Corps and country.
You must earn the right to lead.  Bars on a collar tell your story, that someone thought enough of you to believe that you would be a good Marine, a good leader.  That goes only so far.  You earn respect and trust by showing that you know what you’re doing, you care about your people, and they will be well served to follow you.
Your role is bigger than you.  A leader is a representative of the organization, and as such has a tremendous impact on how the organization is perceived.  The 24×7 behavior of a leader reflects on the organization, and it is critically important that the reflection be positive.
You can delegate authority but you cannot delegate responsibility.  President Truman kept a sign on his desk while President, saying “the buck stops here.”  A leader cannot abdicate or blame others if a job within his scope is poorly executed.  He can only blame himself, because chances are the individual who made the error was missing something that would have made the execution successful, whether, knowledge, resources, equipment or support.
A leader has to know her people.  That doesn’t mean be friends, because a leader cannot make friends with their teams.  A leader’s judgment is compromised when protecting a friend gets in the way of the right decision.  But a leader must know the capabilities, interests and motivation of their team enough to care deeply that they succeed.

I have been in the profession of human resources for over 30 years, and cannot tell you the number of people I’ve interviewed whose reason for wanting to be a leader was extra pay, perks or a bigger office.  Leadership is an honor, because you have the privilege of helping others learn, grow and succeed.  That goes for leaders of Marines, and leaders of people.  If that is not the reason you want to be a leader, don’t go there.  We just don’t need any more non-leaders in leadership positions.

“To live life with intensity,
And a passion for excellence.”

What a wonderful mantra for those who understand what leadership is all about.


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Len Bernat

Carol – As you know, I too credit all my successes in life to the wonderful mentors who guided me in 20 years in our beloved Corps. Your article sums up what leadership is about. That being seen as a leader by others is a awesome responsibility that places a burden directly on your shoulders – to help your team grow and achieve successes they did not believe possible so that in the end, the organization is successful. Thank you for sharing your story and to you, your husband, and your son – Semper Fi!