No Flex Zone.
Through my work as a content strategist I’ve had the privilege to work with the United States Marine Corps. During the four years that I was entrenched in learning the methodologies, philosophies and inner workings of the USMC, I learned a lot of lessons about leadership by example.
The structure of the Marine Corps is clearly defined. There are no questions as to where people rank based on tenure and experience. From insignia patches to brass on the collar, Marines are taught and expected to show respect and deference to those whose role outranks their own.
If you’re unfamiliar with military rank structure, I’ll give you a quick primer on how the Marine Corps structures theirs. The ranks are divided into Enlisted and Officer. There are other nuances such as Chief Warrant Officer, but for the sake of this conversation we’ll keep it simple. Enlisted Marines and Marine Officers train differently. One is expected to lead, and the other is expected to follow. However, it’s their differences in structure that ultimately provide their combined strength.
The Enlisted ranks range from the entry-level rank of Private all the way to the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, which is held by one Marine at a time and is the highest achievable rank of any Enlisted Marine.
The Officer ranks range from the entry-level Second Lieutenant to the General. While the head of the entire Marine Corps holds the rank of General, the position is referred to as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
With those structures in mind, you should know that Officers are always responsible for the final decision. Regardless of tenure, an Officer always outranks an Enlisted Marine. Even a brand-new Second Lieutenant fresh out of Officer Candidate School outranks a Sergeant with years of experience in the fleet. But that’s where the formalities end, and the brotherhood begins.
An important part of the Marine Corps infrastructure is built upon the mutual respectful and trust fostered between a new lieutenant and a seasoned Enlisted Marine. Marine Corps Officers are trained, honed, tested and challenged under the oversight and tutelage of Enlisted Marines. These Enlisted Marines pour their heart and soul into training the men and women who they will one day have to salute as their superiors. They confer their years of experience into these new leaders, because the responsibility of Marines’ lives will one day rest on their shoulders.
Once commissioned, Marine Officers are assigned to lead a platoon alongside an Enlisted Marine. Again, the Enlisted Marine will guide and support his superior Officer with respect and deference to their final decision. The Marine Officer does not know many of the technical skills that his Enlisted Marines do. So regardless of his rank, his willingness to humbly appreciate and learn from his subordinates will prove most effective in the long-run. Only through this knowledge share that happens when ranks fall-away is true progress, camaraderie and team cohesion formed.
In the heat of battle or when important decisions need to be made, the Enlisted Marine needs to know he has a leader who has listened and understands his position. The Marine Officer needs to know that even when the Enlisted Marine doesn’t understand the reasoning for a decision that he will follow his leader into the fray without delay or question. This willingness to support from the front and lead from behind is only gained through true partnership, respect and understanding that ranks exist for the clear execution of commands, but learning the best decision to make is a result of teamwork.
I’ve seen a lot of wonderful relationships between Enlisted and Officer ranks. While they often give each other a tough time in jest, the shared understanding of the role that they each play is what keeps them both humbly appreciative of the other. This means that a lieutenant fresh out of OCS does not assume that his months of training and rank make him immeasurably more important or wise than the Enlisted Marine that must salute him. Acknowledging experience gained through real-world scenarios will only benefit him in the long run, if he’s smart enough to listen.
This partnership between Enlisted and Officer was made evident again and again during my time working with the Marine Corps. National decisions for Marine Corps recruiting were made by Marine Officers, but never without feedback and input on the realities of what the Enlisted Marines were experiencing first-hand in the field. Could the Lieutenant Colonel have made a sweeping decision on behalf of all these men and women? Absolutely. His rank and years of experience as an Officer gave him that right and privilege. But the brass on his collar was earned by knowing how to effectively engage and listen to the men and women that comprised the Corps.
I’ve attended countless meetings where Marines, both Enlisted and Officer, sit shoulder to shoulder and discuss the issues of the day. Again, respect is always paramount in the Corps, and when everyone attends the table with that expectation conversation always flowed so easily. Voices were heard, opinions were considered and progress was ultimately made for the benefit of all. No egos. No attitudes. No flaunting of titles.
I’ve never encountered anything quite like the strict roles of the Marine Corps since then. Although the structure was a non-negotiable, it was the regard for others and modesty of self that resulted in one of the most successful teams I’ve ever encountered.
My time amongst Marines of all kinds taught me that ranks are very useful for decisive chain of command decisions, but the true wisdom is garnered when ranks are set aside and Marines come shoulder to shoulder to move the mission forward together. Oorah!
I witnessed many decisions over the four years I spent working with the USMC. My reference to the LtCol’s opportunity to make a sweeping decision was one of those. Basically, it was standard practice for Officers to consult Enlisted Marines about all decisions made for recruiting and advertising decisions. There were a million tiny and large decisions made. However, it was the practice of collaborative decision making that stuck with me, rather than one situation.
I think the reason that Marines have this camaraderie, teamwork and ability to foster mutual participation is because they’re made together. Marines are forged, not born. They’re forged through sweat, grit, challenge, battles, triumphs and the need to overcome obstacles together. This unique set of circumstances builds a level of respect and understanding that is hard to compare to any other instance in life. So, it’s a rare and usually non-existent quality in corporate life for that very reason.
To compound the important factor of shared experiences, everyone plays by the same rule book in the military. Roles, compensation, responsibilities – these are clearly defined and provide transparency and an even playing field for all. The corporate world encourages competition and individuality which by default erodes the team work and respect that is found in the Corps.