What Leading Marines Can Teach Us About Leading Teams at Work Today

“Sir, you can tell me what to do or you can show me how to do it, but you cannot do both.” This remark, from one of my Marine Sergeants to me as a young Second Lieutenant, has guided my leadership style for more than twenty years. People do not like to be micromanaged. We hate to be told what to do AND how to do it. Treating adult employees like incapable children arrests everyone's development. Humans are creators, innovators, and problem solvers. Give us a clear objective and leave it to us to figure out how to achieve it. If you want to help, ask us what we need to be successful. What employees really want, what we all want, is freedom.

Freedom is different than flexibility. Flexibility, at work, is often tied to a specific choice or range of choices — how much can you work remotely, at-home, or in the office, can you set the clock for when you work and when you do not, or how much choice do you have in selecting the projects you work on versus having them assigned to you? These are questions of flexibility. Freedom is more of an over-arching concept that says, “tell me the goal and the deadline, provide me with the resources I need, and leave the rest up to me and my team.” Organizational Psychologist and Wharton Professor Dr. Adam Grant recently wrote about this in his Wall Street Journal article The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work:

“The debate about whether work should be in-person, remote-first or hybrid is too narrow. Yes, people want the freedom to decide where they work. But they also want the freedom to decide who they work with, what they work on and when they work. Real flexibility is having autonomy to choose your people, your purpose and your priorities.

In the recent HBR article, Forget Flexibility. Your Employees Want Autonomy. The authors summarize the linkage between freedom, flexibility, and results:

Flexibility now dominates the way we speak about the future of work. And while a new hybrid working survey shows that employees do indeed want flexibility, it also shows that this flexibility is conditional upon their autonomy to exercise it in whichever way is best for them. Autonomy is a key driver of human motivation, performance, and fulfillment; in the context of hybrid working, it is also directly correlated to the amount of flexibility a given employee has access to in their work arrangement. By turning the dial on autonomy up or down, employee flexibility increases or decreases, respectively.

People managers, across many organizations, are struggling to give their teams the freedom to choose how their work gets done. Doing so requires a great deal of trust. It requires you to let go of the belief that you know best how to get things done or that your way is the only correct way. Traditional scientific management techniques taught us to value what we see (if I do not see the work being done, how can I be sure it is?), have people clock in and clock out, optimize the process, inspect what we expect, and manage what we can measure (which now is just about everything). It taught us to applaud the hands-on manager who says, “if it is to be, it is up to me.”

Frankly, most people do not want “this” — the heroic manager who swoops in and does your job for you or tells you precisely how to do it their way and stands over your shoulder until it is done. Scientific management can be brutal, suffocating, paternalistic, and stunt the growth and learning of your team members. If people are micro-managed, how will they ever have the safe space to experiment, try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them? Robbing people of their agency is a surefire way to extinguish their creativity and ability to innovate. It is pretty arrogant, as managers, to believe that we know the one best way to get things done. In fact, Frederick Taylor, the godfather of scientific management observed and acknowledged that when such tight managerial control was asserted on workers they would engage in “soldiering” — mindlessly doing a repetitive task over and over at the slowest acceptable rate, never seeking to improve the process. That sounds awful for everyone. If you want your people to check out and put their brains on autopilot, then by all means use a “paint by numbers” management approach.

So, what is the alternative? How do we give our employees what they really want? How do we set them free? The United States Marine Corps has been operating in this decentralized, distributed leadership model for centuries and it all comes down to having leaders at all levels who you trust to accomplish the mission and who you encourage to take initiative.

In the Marine Corps Manual, Leading Marines, there is a whole chapter on Decentralization. This excerpt and story succinctly sum up the main idea and recommended approach:

Its success lay in a tradition of Marine leadership: the encouragement of subordinates. Give subordinates all the initiative and latitude they can handle by decentralizing authority. “Tell them what results you want and leave the ‘how’ to them.” “Make it clear what you want done and who is to do it. . . .” Remember the old promotion-examination question for lieutenants, in which the student is told that he has a ten-man working party, headed by a sergeant, and must erect a 75-foot flagpole. . . . Problem — How to do it? “Every student who works out the precise calculations of stresses, tackle, and gear, no matter how accurately, is graded wrong. The desired answer is simple: The lieutenant turns to the sergeant, and says, ‘Sergeant, put up that flagpole.’

This is not about hierarchy and barking orders at your team; this is all about inspiring, motivating, and growing your team through autonomy, initiative taking, and supportive, compassionate leadership. Most organizations, as they scale, either choose to be centrally controlled and locally executed or locally led and centrally supported. Only the latter approach inspires people to tap into their full potential and develop themselves as leaders and problem solvers. Here are a few tips and techniques that I have tested and learned over the years that make doing this possible and more effective:

  1. Trust First. When it comes to trust, someone has to go first. You are the leader, the people manager — that means you go first. Trust your team and see what happens. Or as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Most of the time, I think you will find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results and if someone cannot be trusted, you will find out quickly.
  2. Be Clear on Your “Commander’s Intent.” This is your crystal-clear articulation of the mission objectives, what success looks like, and the results you expect. Paint a vision for what the end state looks like. Make sure to answer any clarifying questions your team has about this at the start. Providing goal clarity and role clarity is some of the most important work of a leader.
  3. Distribute Authority (Not Accountability). If you want your people to learn how to make good decisions with speed, then they need to be empowered to make them on their own (seeking guidance when needed) and know that you will support them even if you would have made a different decision. A good leader owns the failures and celebrates the team’s successes.
  4. Take 1/3 and Give 2/3. This is a rule of time allocation in team and mission planning. Do not take more than 1/3 of the planning time for you to explain the situation, mission, and your expected results AND give 2/3 of the planning time to your team for them to come up with their approach and resource needs and back brief you on their plan. A business example of this would be giving your team a goal or problem statement at the start of a workshop and then giving them the rest of the time to come up with the team charter and initial plan.
  5. Inspect Their Gear. Make sure your team has all of the equipment, resources, and capabilities it needs to successfully achieve the mission. The best way to figure this out is to ask them what they need and make sure they have it. This is not a “one and done” thing. Throughout a project, as things change, ask for and encourage your team to share, “what are the main challenges to achieving the objectives?” and “what do you need to overcome them?”
  6. Make It All About Learning. Each and every operation or project is an opportunity to learn and continuously improve. Pause and reflect, as a team, after each project or major milestone and ask yourselves what went well that you want to keep doing, what do you want to stop doing or do differently, and what do you want to start doing next time that you did not do this time. In other words, conduct frequent “After Action Reviews” and make adjustments to future projects based on them.
  7. Invest, Invest, Invest in Small Unit Leadership. In the Marine Corps, the non-commissioned officers are the backbone and the frontline of leadership. Every four-person team, a Fire Team, is led by a Corporal. There is significant investment in the selection and training of Corporals. If you want leadership at all levels, then there needs to be a focus of effort on frontline people managers. It is critical how you select who you put in these roles, what training and support they receive, and especially making the transition from individual contributor to people manager a successful one.

Back in 1999, Marine Corps Commandant Chuck Krulak introduced the idea of the Strategic Corporal in his article The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War. He wrote, “today’s Marines will often operate far
“from the flagpole” without the direct supervision of senior leadership
. And, like Corporal Hernandez, they will be asked to deal with a bewildering array of challenges and threats. In order to succeed under such demanding conditions they will require unwavering maturity, judgment, and strength of character. Most importantly, these missions will require them to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress ~ decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion.

We live and work in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world where the “demanding conditions” require much more from our people and especially their frontline managers. As work now becomes more hybrid, dispersed, and asynchronous, it is even more difficult and nearly impossible to manage from the center. Also, everything people do in an organization, from the CEO to a new hire in the field, is under the watchful eye and scrutiny of the “court of public opinion” on social media. What people want, at work, is more freedom to do things their way — to have agency over how things get done. They want to experiment, innovate, fail, and learn. We ought to figure out how to give people the freedom they desire while helping them be successful in these changing and challenging times. There are many lessons and techniques that can be applied to the corporate world from how the Marine Corps leads teams. In fact, it may be the way, for most organizations to scale leaders at all levels and give employees the autonomy they desire and deserve.

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Nate Boaz

Nate Boaz

Dad, dog lover, Marine veteran, Author, Ex-McKinsey Partner, Ex-Accenture SMD, Harvard MBA, USNA alum.