When I got out of high school, I knew I needed to grow up some before I tackled college. Since I'd always been interested in the military, I started making the rounds of the services and talking to recruiters.
I talked with representatives of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Even then, in the days of the draft, they had plenty of things to offer me. The Marines were last on my list.
I walked into the small recruiting booth and saw an old guy (he was probably all of thirty-five) sitting at a desk. His hair was cut unbelievably short. The creases in his shirt were as sharp as a knife's edge.
He looked at me and I started talking. I told him all about the offers the other services had made. I gave him details. Finally, I asked, "What will the Marine Corps give me.?"
He turned back to his paperwork as he said, "Four years of hell, a haircut every week, and a rifle." Naturally, I joined the Marines.
It was a life-changing choice. I learned a lot about myself and how much I could do if I set my mind to it. I learned a lot about life in foreign lands and tough times. And I learned a lot about leadership.
I learned that a leader has two jobs, to accomplish the mission and care for the people. I remember one CO who looked like the ideal of the tough Marine officer. He told us what he expected from us, and his standards were high. So were our results.
But this same hard-charging Marine would drop by the homes of his young, married enlisted Marines from time to time. They were young and starting out. Most didn't have much money.
He'd tell them that he'd just picked up a great deal on some meat but didn't have enough room to store it all. "Perhaps," he'd ask, "you can help me out by taking some."
I learned that leaders take responsibility but give the team credit. Leadership is not about you as a leader. It is all about your team, your unit, and what you accomplish together.
I learned that you can build great teams from parts that aren't exceptional. The US Marines is the largest elite military unit in the world. Other elite units start by recruiting top performers.
The Marines take just about anyone who's smart enough and fit enough. Then boot camp and leadership expectations turn them into Marines, steeped in the belief that they can do extraordinary things.
A couple of years ago I went to Parris Island for the boot camp graduation of a friend's nephew. The officer in charge of the ceremony asked anyone who was in the bleachers and who'd served in the Marines to stand.
Then he addressed the assembled graduates. "These people set the standard for you," he said. "You owe it to them to live up to it."
I also learned that the most effective leadership is leadership by example. The most powerful leadership lessons I learned weren't from speeches. They came from watching Marine leaders at work.
In the Marines, I learned about leadership by watching and doing. That's the way most people learn it. I was lucky to learn from the best.
Books about Marines, Leadership and Business
Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way
by Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh
Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines
by David H. Freedman