Corps BusinessI read this book in June 2002 by David H. Freedman. It was the year before I went to MBA, and it made an impression on me. I remember telling the HR director about it, and then seeing quotes from the book in one his presentations.

Whether you are a hawk or a dove (agree or disagree) with the US military’s goals – there are lessons to learn. In fact, HBR recently dedicated an entire issue on leadership lesson from the military in 2010. It’s worth a read here (affiliate link).

= = = The book review I wrote in 2002 in blue = = =

As you might expect from a book that parallels the military and business management, there are many references to training, discipline, order, and sacrifice.  However, a vast majority of the book gives a perspective of the US Marine Corps which is radically different than most people would expect.

Provided that Freedman is correct in his analysis, the US Marine Corps is an extremely focused group which is both fast, versatile, and effective in complex situations.

Marines aim for the 70% solution because in the battlefield, speed and boldness is more important than perfection. Put another way, indecisiveness is a fatal flaw. It is better to make small, frequent, and rapid decisions.  Complete analog to consulting.  The client situation is always fluid, so it’s smart to update the client regularly. 

Marines find the essence of any mission. It should be made very clear. In the process, all the assumptions, boundaries (what shall we NOT do) should be questioned and explored. Dissension is invited prior to the final decision.  This was a bit of a surprise, I originally thought the military would be very rigid (to a fault), but then I ran across this quote from 4-Star General Colin Powell, which only made me respect him more:

Colin Powell“When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not.  Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.”   – Colin Powell

Marines push decision making to very low levels in the organization. Bureaucracy does not work in the battlefield. To quote. “The best soldiers are ones who follow orders from above, but do not depend on them.”

The Marines are very competitive. Marines hire through trial by fire. Boot camp is a form of Darwinian natural selection. The best and fittest survive. Even after boot camp, many officers leave the Corps because they cannot be promoted, because they are not the best. Similar to the “up or out” promotion criteria used at most strategy consultancies.

Leadership is defined as the ability to have others follow you. If a Marine does not follow an legitimate order, he / she can face disciplinary action, but the superior who gave the order will often find their career stops too. (It demonstrates a break in leadership ability.)  This is deep and worth digging into.  This implies that superiors (or managers in the business world) take some blame when their subordinates don’t follow.  It shows a break down in trust, communications or leadership.  When kids don’t follow their parents, the parents are somewhat to blame.  I like it.

Marines glorify the lower levels of the organization. The most training is at the lowest level of Marine leadership – Corporal.  Even in the dress, there is little difference in dress from the officers and the privates.

Marines focus on the end statement. Marine leadership focus on WHAT TO DO (Mission), not HOW to DO (Details).  This is also very deep.  This is a huge lesson for all of us who have been kick ass individual-contributors in the past, and now are having trouble delegating to others.   Leaders need to lead.

Marines reward failure. The best way to learn is through experience, and if someone does not fail from time to time, they are not pushing the envelope. Marines are focused on continuous improvement, and that requires temporary failure.  Fail and learn.  Fail, but not at the same thing twice.

The Marines have passion for what they do. The Marines have an expression to describe people who just go through the motions of their job: “Going Admin”  This is a word of warning for all of us who have been “on the beach” or relaxing between projects.  The lull of an internal project can be attractive, but ultimately deadly.  Gotta stay sharp.  Stop from “going admin.”

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