The successful Marine leader must also deal effectively with the problem of a pervasive zero-defects mentality. This often is seen as standards taken to the extreme, but in practice it is entirely different. If a subordinate makes an honest mistake, it should be tolerated in the name of education and personal development. In today's Corps, however, one mistake often ends a career. This leads to the tendency to look the other way when a Marine fails to achieve the standard so the Marine's career will not be hurt. Today's perceived one-strike-and-you-are-out climate makes many leaders hesitate before they enforce standards. They ask themselves, "Do I have the right to end this Marine's career?" Many leaders simply do nothing. While this phenomenon affects promotions, augmentation, and numerous other Marine Corps institutions, the effort to accept mistakes for what they are has to start at the company, battery, and section levels.
The hesitancy of leaders to act when a subordinate fails to meet a standard is another way the zero-defects mentality has a negative impact. It is the individual's responsibility to ensure that he or she can meet all required standards; if a Marine cannot meet the standard, he or she should face the consequences.
Making a mistake is another thing altogether and must be corrected—but tolerated nonetheless. Leaders must maintain open-mindedness and have the moral courage to enforce standards while teaching their subordinates and letting them grow.
Letting subordinates grow and develop always has been, and always will be, one of the most difficult tasks undertaken by leaders. It requires the leader to have trust, patience, and tolerance, and it requires the subordinate to have responsibility, self-discipline, and a solid work ethic.
The past few decades have shown that many American 17- and 18-year olds do not have these traits. These young people rarely have to respect standards of behavior while growing up. The drill fields at the Marine Corps Recruit Depots are where the carefree teenage attitude is abruptly ended. From day one, the expected standards are preached to the recruits. Standards are the glue that bind the young Marines to the Corps.
The role of the Marine Corps leader is to ensure that standards are enforced, and they must fight societal forces that impede their ability to maintain them. Army General George S. Patton once said, "If you can't get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?"
Captain Houlgate is the weapons company commander in the 1/7, 1st Marine Division, at Twenty-Nine Palms, California.