How To Apply Marine Leadership Traits To Business

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The day before the first mission, Capt. Michael Gagnon briefs his Marines at Patrol Base Alcatraz, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, on the plan to construct a helicopter-landing zone for a special operations outpost in the Helmand River valley. Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., commands a team of roughly 20 men dubbed "Task Force Nomad." Over the next several weeks, the task force will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the Helmand River valley in southwestern Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Brian Adam Jones

Leadership is perhaps the most important concept Marines are taught during training. As with most things we learn, concepts are easily remembered with acronyms. JJDIDTIEBUCKLE (pronounced “JJ did tie buckle”), representing justice, judgement, dependability, integrity, decisiveness, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, and enthusiasm.


The concepts are more than just words, they must mean something to every leader in order that they truly be understood and carried in one's heart and mind throughout life. Marine Corps leadership principles are relevant both in the Marine Corps and civilian society, especially in the corporate world. The terms troops, Marines, and employees can be used interchangeably. After all, an organization is only as good as its people. Leadership is about people. In my experience both as a Marine Officer and corporate executive; here are what those principles mean to me:

Justice: Leaders must have a strong sense of justice. Without it, one cannot effectively lead. A leader's character must be impeccable, never wavering in the face of uncertainty. When a leader does not ensure an environment where justice is the rule, breakdowns in the behavior of troops will inevitably occur. Justice gives a leader the moral high ground to enforce discipline. Conversely, a CEO cannot expect his company to thrive, for his employees to give it their best if they do not feel that justice exists in their workplace.

What does this mean? This means talent and work ethic gets people promoted, nothing else. This means that employees are treated with justice, and employees feel safe and know they are judged according to the quality of their work and nothing else. Employees must trust that if legitimately wronged, they will be heard and justice will be rendered.

Judgement: Judgement is key for decision-makers both on the battlefield, and often times more so, off the field with personnel issues and in handing down discipline. It is important to always keep your mission and the welfare of your troops in mind as rudders to steer your conscience. Even when mistakes occur, and they will, you can at least know that you were thinking in the best interest of your troops. Your judgment is critical, you can cost your company money, its future, and cause countless harm.

Related: 17 things real leaders never say.

Yet just as in the Marine Corps, when the mission and the welfare of your troops mattered most, same goes in corporate America. What is the goal of your company, are your employees taken care of so that they are the most productive as they can be? If your judgment rests on the value of your company's mission and the care of your employees, the most of your decisions will be good ones.

Dependability: This means exactly what it says: Are you dependable as a leader? Marines want to trust that you will always be there for them. In combat situations, they must depend on your good judgment, that you will be proficient in your specialty --- this is an obvious answer. Just as importantly, they need to know you are dependable when the time comes to stand up to the chain of command when the situation calls for it. This is particularly true in the private sector where ideas and taking risks matter.

Integrity: A leader must have the moral authority to lead, govern, and discipline, the foundation of which is based on integrity. Lives and missions are entrusted to Marine leaders. Without integrity in leadership, troops will lose their own integrity. Worst of all, you will see yourself slipping deeper into a situation of moral failure, which is not a good place to be.

We sometimes wonder how what seems like an entire company goes down for fraud or other scandalous behavior. More often than not, it comes from the top down when it exists on a large scale. Just as in the Marine Corps, a corporate leader must set the example with integrity so that it sets the environment for the workplace.

Decisiveness: Better a decent plan executed now than a perfect plan executed tomorrow. The smartest leader is worthless if he cannot be decisive in his decision-making. The two words have similar roots. We have all seen leaders who are indecisive.

Decisions need to be made in the real world. Military leaders do not have the luxury of pondering a thought for too long. Waiting can get people hurt and allow the situation to get worse. Too often, poor leaders try to come up with a “perfect plan,” which is useless. “Perfectionists” are really just indecisive people who have the luxury not to act quickly.

Tact: You will get more bees with honey than with vinegar. I have learned that we can say almost anything if we use the appropriate amount of tact. As a matter of fact, this is an art form I’ve seen perfected by Marines.

How many staff non-commissioned officers have we seen tactfully and respectfully tell an officer they need to fix themselves, and rightfully so. It is always better to build someone up; using tact will do that. People will make mistakes, correct them, but no need to crush them if you plan to keep them around. Be careful how you speak to people. It’s important.

Initiative: You must always have a bias for action. Keep moving. Don’t wait around for someone to tell you what and how to do it. Assess the situation, the commander’s intent, and make a move.

This is critical to keeping the ball moving and is a trait civilian employers know military veterans bring to the table. Initiative not only works to solve the problem at hand, but more importantly, can prevent it from worsening or allowing other problems to manifest due to inaction.

Endurance: Physical endurance for Marine leaders is obvious. Physical fitness is key to enable endurance for the physical challenges of the job. But there is also emotional endurance, the mental will to keep going when you think you can’t. Your troops don’t want to see you weary or even thinking of slowing down.

I hate to see "leaders" weaken in their endurance. Keep in mind there are Americans who don’t have the luxury of letting up. They have children, jobs, and other daily responsibilities they must tend to. It doesn't end at the end of a mission, or after training. Some of the strongest people I’ve known were single mothers who simply couldn’t quit or slow down, no matter what. Think about that when you’re on your next 15-mile hike or think you've had enough.

Bearing: Marines expect their leaders to act like, well, Marines. Always maintain your bearing. You are always being observed. Never lose your cool. It’s important to always act as if you are in control. Maintaining your bearing is more than just keeping up appearances. It’s a reflection of your mental discipline and how much you control your mind and soul. If you break your bearing, you just showed that you couldn’t keep your mind and emotions in check. If you cannot do that during regular times, what will happen when you're faced with extreme stress or fear?

Unselfishness: Your Marines come first. Always remember that. Would you eat, sleep, or take any amenity before your own children? No you wouldn’t. At least you wouldn’t if you cared enough. Then why would you do it with your employees?

Everything thing you do should be with that lance corporal or corporate mission statement in mind. Never make a comfort-based decision. Think of others first, those who you are entrusted to care for and lead. As a corporate leader, ask yourself, are you thinking of quality of the product or service you offer? Are you hogging the profits at the expense of your employees who put in countless hours making the company successful?

Courage: Our first thought when we hear this word is courage in the face of danger. Yes, of course. Yet, as I’ve mentioned earlier, moral courage is equally important. Moral courage to step in and say when something is wrong, when it's an unpopular thing to do. Do you have the moral courage to challenge a senior officer when you know they are wrong?

I personally think back to a few times when I thought I should have expressed a stronger sense of moral courage, I'll be the first to admit that. Sometimes this means having a difficult conversation with a friend, trusted advisor, or boss. As Marines, we have principles that are above us all, and come first before anything else. Moral courage means making the right decision when it may be unpopular.

Knowledge: You are supposed to be the subject matter expert in your field. Are you? Is your talent trusted?

Loyalty: Loyalty to your Marines, and the principles that we as Marines hold dear. Loyalty should never be confused with looking the other way and ignoring a situation out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to one another. As a business leader, you should be loyal to the mission of your company and the values you claim to espouse.

Enthusiasm: You must be enthusiastic if you expect your company's employees to be enthusiastic for the task at hand. Enthusiasm is contagious, but so is negativity. I learned the hard way in life that when something bad happens to me, I need to find three good reasons why it happened to me. Attitude is everything.

These leadership principles I hold dear. They make us better Marines, leaders, and Americans. They’re timeless, and interchangeable in any career field or personal role.

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