4 Leadership Lessons I Learned From a Marine Corps General
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I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced a wide range of leadership styles throughout my career. Some were powerful examples to follow, while others were examples to avoid. Each one taught me something. And without question, one of the most effective leaders I’ve had the opportunity to meet is Marine Corps General Anthony Henderson. When he was the commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines, I met him for the first time.
So what does military leadership have to do with leadership in the civilian world? Everything. No matter if you’re leading troops to battle or working with employees, leadership is the same.
Despite what you might see in movies, troops don’t just leap into action when someone shouts at them to. Due to the extremely dangerous nature of military service it requires more effective leadership than in the civilian world.
Think of it this way: How loud would you have to shout at you to get your attention to run across an open field under machine gun fire and artillery? If you’re like most people, the answer will be something along these lines: “There is no amount that can get me to do this!” I can’t say anything that would make you run across that field. This is because true leadership doesn’t require people to do something. It’s about inspiring them to make your mission their mission. A leader is not only a boss but also a mentor and protector. They are expected to give orders but must first educate, train, and nurture their team.
That’s exactly what Marine Corps Major Anthony Henderson did. Every Marine I know would follow him into battle with nothing but a pair of silkies, a spoon and an MRE spoon.
I’m going to break down five lessons I learned from one of the best leaders I’ve ever met: Marine Corps General Anthony Henderson. If you apply the lessons learned from the stories I share here, I can promise that you’ll become a better leader and build a more effective, productive and cohesive team that will help propel you to your goals.
1. Blame belongs to you — praise belongs to your team
My last commanding officer, who I won’t name, was one of the worst examples of leadership I’ve ever encountered. He demonstrated a complete lack of leadership. He was not a regular participant in training operations. And when he did show up, he didn’t do anything. This is unusual behavior in our world. The other leaders in the unit were able to make sure everyone performed as expected. This was a big deal considering we are dealing with literal life-and death scenarios.
I clearly remember a specific battalion formation after a training operation. This was the culmination months of preparation for a deployment. Our unit had done exceptionally well and our battalion commander congratulated us for our achievements. His response was amazing: “Thanks, sir!” I did a lot of work to ensure that my Marines knew what to do and how. I was there to supervise and train them every step of their journey. “
Literally none of this was true. He had no part in our performance. Henderson, on the contrary, was there for almost every training operation and helped us to overcome the mental and physical challenges that came with it. He was a great leader, but he also had a direct and hands-on approach to the junior Marines. Henderson responded differently to a similar compliment from the battalion commander. “Thank you, sir! This was possible because my Marines worked tirelessly all night. They are deserving of all the credit. These two responses were starkly different. It wasn’t about Henderson. It was always about the mission and us.
A true leader knows that leadership isn’t about them and that it’s not all about giving orders. It’s about accomplishing the mission while taking care of those under your leadership.
2. You have to trust your team to do their jobs
When Marine Corps General Anthony Henderson took over the command unit, he called me over in his calm but booming voice: “Lance Corporal Knauff, bring the MCI program documents and come see me in my office. “
This program is basically an educational program in which Marines study on their own and then take an exam about the topic in a controlled, supervised environment. Many of these courses are required to be promoted.
I immediately started gathering the documents and knew exactly where they were going. The program was run like a dumpster fire at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington D.C .
This was affecting the careers of tens to thousands of Marines as the exams that had been returned to Headquarters Marine Corps would mysteriously disappear. Although it was not an ideal solution, I started photocopying the exams before I sent them off so that I could resend them if they disappeared. Another problem was that the completion certificates for courses that Marines had received would suddenly and mysteriously disappear. I was able to anticipate this and started photocopying the certificates. As a result, I was capable of compensating for the mismanagement at Headquarters Marine Corps while keeping my Marines’ careers on track.
As I walked into his office, carrying a stack of documents, he told me, “We’re going make some changes in how we handle this MCI program here. We’re going do XYZ starting now. Do you have any questions? “
Before even realizing that I was speaking, I heard my self respond with “No, Sir.” Here’s why we’re not going that route. Here’s how I do this, here’s why, and here’s what the end result is. “
He looked at me and didn’t say a word. This is not how you respond to your commanding officers, especially as a young Lance Corporal.
After what seemed like an eternity, he simply nodded his head and said, “It seems like you have it under control, Lance Corpsoral Knauff.” Take it easy. That was the end.
An effective leader knows when their team is capable of handling a task and trusts them to do so without feeling the need to micromanage. Your team might do things differently from you, and they may make mistakes. They will make mistakes, but that’s how they learn. As a leader, you have to become comfortable with the uncertainty that comes from this.
3. Never let emotions dictate your actions
Henderson shared a story about how he almost gave up the opportunity to become a Marine over misplaced emotions. More importantly, he shared how, after following the advice of his grandfather, he ended up overcoming those emotions, earning the title Marine, and in my opinion, becoming one of the most effective leaders I’ve met. The short version is that he went through the selection process and was granted the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School. This is an officers’ version of bootcamp. He learned that the Marine Corps needed to fill a certain number of minority officers and that he was being granted that opportunity because of his performance. Henderson was angry about this because he wanted to be judged solely on his merits.
While discussing the situation with his grandfather he said that he didn’t want to be given this role simply because he is Black. He said that it didn’t feel right, and that he felt like he would be considered “less than” due to the circumstances.
With the calm wisdom that can only come from older generations, his grandfather told him, “Tony, the Marine Corps isn’t going to give you anything. They’re giving you a chance to earn the title. There’s nothing more. All the work is still required. If you succeed, you will be able to inspire others to follow your example. “
This lesson was especially important because it highlights how easily we can be led astray by our emotions, but it also highlights the importance of having the right mentors in our lives to help us navigate through our blind spots. I have made the terrible mistake of trying too hard and it has had a profound impact on my life.
Our emotions can either be a powerful tool, or a dangerous trap depending on how we react to them. A leader who is effective will still feel the same emotions as everyone else, but they will react more intentionally to them.
4. Integrity is everything
When we would complete training for the evening during a field op, and the rest of the company was climbing into their sleeping bags, he and I would return to the company office in the humvee.
We would then finish any administrative work that was needed before returning to the field with our company colleagues several hours later.
Even though we were within easy driving distance of the commissary, several fast food restaurants, and vending machines in the battalion headquarter, he would always have an MRE, U.S. Military Operational ration.
Most people wouldn’t do it, and I’ve seen Marines of all ranks grab a more enjoyable meal, or snack, because MREs are sucky. They were worse back then.
One night, I was going for a quick trip to my room at the barrack in order to grab a snack. I had my room set up like a grocery shop and I asked him if anything was available. His answer was simple: “No. I have this MRE. “
I asked him if he was certain and rattled off some things I had that I could return. His reply was the same. “My Marines are eating MREs so I’ll eat MREs.” Needless to mention, I didn’t bring any snacks back for him nor for myself.
It’s worth noting that while leadership does come with some privileges, it also requires sacrifice. Leaders eat last in the Marine Corps. When it’s time to eat, we serve the most junior Marines first, then work our way up to the highest ranking Marines. Leaders are responsible for their troops and their well-being, but they are also in charge of their troops. This is a unique nuance of the relationship that most people don’t really get. A true leader will always put the men and women under their command ahead of themselves.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.