May 2011

Leadership Lessons from the Marine Corps
by Patrick Lefler

The United States Marine Corps is one the great leadership organizations whose principles have become the envy not only of other service branches but for business as well. Companies large and small have spent enormous resources trying to successfully emulate the Marines’ basic leadership principles and put them into application. Leadership consultants are forever trying to find new ways to spread the Marine Corps’ leadership gospel to their clients. And even some of the top business schools have jumped on the bandwagon by availing their students the opportunity to experience this leadership—albeit in very short two- and three-day “Marine Corps experience” sessions. While in most cases the focus is on the rigorous training that all Marines (both enlisted and officers) go through, they are missing the boat in terms of what makes this training experience unique. It’s not the rigor that makes the training so successful; rather, it’s the personnel resources that the Marines utilize that make the difference. Unlike other organizations, the Marines pull their top performers from the front lines to serve as instructors.

That’s right; the Marines actually pull their top performers—both officers and enlisted—from the front lines and use them as trainers, sometimes for two- and three-year stints. This unique practice is how they get the most from their significant investment in training, and why most other organizations (which don’t put an emphasis on using top performers to train others) fall short. It’s one thing to talk up the benefit of training, but it’s another to back up that talk with the proper human resource allocations.

When enlisted recruits join the Marine Corps, they have to endure thirteen weeks of boot camp before they can formally gain the title of U.S. Marines and be ready to join their fellow Marines in the fleet. And while the boot camp experience is notorious for its harshness and rigor, what makes it so successful is the fact that the drill instructors who preside over this intense training period are all top enlisted performers—coming from the top quartile of all Marine non-commissioned officers (NCOs). These top performers—role models for these new Marines—usually spend very intense seventeen-hour days working with new recruits. The drill instructors act as leaders, teachers, and disciplinarians. Their role is so important in shaping the young recruits’ ability to perform up to standard upon completion of boot camp that to staff this important assignment with anything other than top performers would be a huge mistake.

Because of the emphasis on placing its top performers in training roles, Marines don’t view training billets as “second-class” assignments. Enlisted NCOs endure a very selective process to become drill instructors. And drill instructors (along with others assigned to training roles throughout the Marines) are rewarded for their duty—it’s not the “career-killing” backwater assignment that frequently occurs in the civilian business world for those assigned to training. In fact, training and leadership development duties are viewed as some of the best and most well-rewarded assignments within the Marine Corps. A quick look at the biographies of top Marine generals and enlisted personnel will all have one thing in common: they all served significant time away from the front lines in important training and leadership development roles. When was the last time you observed a similar career path for their civilian counterparts serving as CEOs or other C-level officers?

It’s easy for today’s business leaders to talk up the importance of training—and while allocating the required financial resources helps, it’s not enough. The best way to increase the effectiveness of training is to get your top performers involved. They are the ones who will command the most respect, they are the ones who will have the most impact, and they are the ones who can lead the way for other top performers to follow. To successfully accomplish this change, a culture where top performers are encouraged to periodically leave their primary assignments for training assignments needs to be created, you need to re-structure career path expectations so that top performers are not penalized for moving away from front-line jobs into training, and finally, you need to change compensation structures so that these top performers are also not penalized financially for assuming these important training assignments. If you want to truly emulate the Marine Corps way, focus on the people—not the rigor.

Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group; a management consulting firm that helps growing companies grow dramatically faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer and a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School. The Spruance Group acts as a trusted partner by offering unbiased advice and providing unique solutions to help clients solve their most pressing product strategy needs. For more information, visit or contact Patrick at: