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Marine Corps Principles Can Help Identify Leaders

By Jim Leverette

The U.S. Marine Corps recently celebrated its 226th birthday, an occasion of particular meaning to me as a former Marine and as an executive-search consultant.

What does being a search consultant have to do with the Marine Corps? As most former Marines will attest, a stint in the Corps teaches lessons you can apply to whatever field you choose. In the case of executive searches, the key phase occurs when a candidate’s leadership qualities are being assessed. All companies are looking for leaders, but the essence of leadership is hard to define, and divining who is a leader and who isn’t is more art than science.

That’s where the 11 principles of leadership outlined in the Guidebook for Marines come into play. These principles, unchanged for 226 years, are as relevant today as when they were first written — a guide not just for Marines, but for any leader. An executive candidate who has put these principles into action — instinctively or deliberately — is guaranteed an inside track to any executive position for which my firm is recruiting.

Here’s what the Guidebook for Marines calls on leaders to do and how candidates for executive positions might demonstrate how they’ve followed each principle:

  • Take responsibility. What new projects, acquisitions, product lines or other endeavors have you taken responsibility for in your career? What measurable results did you achieve? Keep in mind that all real leaders take risks and all fail at least once. Failure doesn’t mean you aren’t a leader; evasion of responsibility does.  
  • Know yourself. Have you sought “360 degree” feedback on your executive performance from people who have worked with you, above you, and below you? What would people in those positions say about you? Do you have a handle on your limitations? What are they, and how have they impacted your management style? On the other hand, on what do you base your confidence in yourself? Most importantly, what is it you are passionate about, and why?  
  • Set an example. The way you conduct yourself is more important than any instructions you may give. What time do you arrive at work? When do you leave? Are you still responsible for production or have you removed yourself from the performance goals your subordinates are expected to achieve? In short, what type of example do you seek to set, and how do you set it?  
  • Be available. What are the key challenges facing your employees? What do they like least about their jobs? What do they like most? What tools could best aid them in their jobs? Executives who can provide answers demonstrate that they haven’t isolated themselves and that they still understand what is happening on the floor or in the cubicle.  
  • Put the welfare of your subordinates first. Recently, airline executives decided to forgo their salaries for the remainder of the year in light of the damage done to their companies by the Sept. 11 attacks. In what way have you shown that you and your subordinates are all in the same fighting hole? (Marines don’t use the term “foxhole.”)  
  • Keep everyone well informed. Leaders have many constituents with whom they must communicate, both up and down. Who are your constituents? How do you communicate with them?  
  • Set goals that are achievable. Setting unrealistic goals creates frustration and hurts morale. What goals did you set in your last position, and what yardsticks show that they were achieved?  
  • Make sound and timely decisions. What executive decisions have you been charged with making in the last 12 months? How did these decisions work out? And did you have the courage to change your approach if necessary?  
  • Know your job. How do you assess current trends in your field? What are the latest methods and technology being applied in your industry? What general press and trade publications do you read? Leaders shouldn’t lose touch with their profession just because they’ve moved to an office.  
  • Build teamwork. Many people assume the military is efficient due to its direct top-down management style. Not true. The military, and the Marines Corps in particular, often is at its best when noncommissioned officers and enlisted men have a voice and when units act as a team. How have you built teamwork in your organization, and what results did your team achieve?

While each of these principles is important, applying them is what counts. If you as an executive candidate have exemplified these principles, you will have some tangible results. At some point in your career — and more than once — you will have “taken the hill.” That’s what the Corps means when it says it is “looking for a few good men” (and women), and the same principle holds true in executive search.

Semper Fi. (The Marine Corps motto: Always Faithful)

— Mr. Leverette is managing partner of The Broadmoor Group, a Dallas-based executive search and consulting firm. He can be reached at