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While working in a CH-46 fleet squadron maintenance department, the author put his leadership theories to
Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. After months of preparation and schooling, you’ve finally made it to the fleet. For the first time in your career, you’re actually going to have Marines working for you. Now you have the chance to show some real leadership. What are you going to do?
When I stepped into my first officer- in-charge job a few years ago, I had my own ideas about leadership in the Marine
Corps. I believed that Marines wanted to perform—whether they were good, bad, or indifferent came down to how they were led. The best leaders, I thought, worked from positive assumptions about the capacity of Marines to excel and continuously strove to create an atmosphere for success.
Over the course of the next three years, I gathered evidence in regard to theory X, theory Y, situational leadership, and my own theories, while working in a CH-46 fleet squadron maintenance department. Senior officers told me “Marines are going to take the easy way out every time,” and “A Marine cornered will lie to get off.” 1 also saw young Marines come in to the hangar on their day off to clean up “their” aircraft, because they weren’t satisfied with how it looked. 1 saw quiet, seemingly average noncommissioned officers (NCOs) given temporary charge of a work center blossom and achieve phenomenal results. And 1 saw situational leadership degenerate into a frustrating mix of signals that yielded confusion instead of results.
Now, reflecting on my experiences, I find my basic ideas about Marines and how to lead them are unchanged, even validated. The key variable in organizational behavior is people, and the people who make up the Marine Corps are a special lot. Given half a chance, they can work miracles. 1 can’t offer you any shortcut to developing your own style of leading Marines. The joy and frustration and pride and pain you’ll experience are requirements of the job. I will provide a short list of what I think are the keys to creating a climate for success.
Avoid the Pitfalls
Several pitfalls to positive leadersM await you. Getting out of these traps d take a lot of your time and energy, di> tracting you from your primary focus a111 limiting your impact on your unit. He(( are the three toughest I encountered:
► Lending Leaders. The toughest chk lenge is leading the leaders. Your juni‘,: Marines are motivated to be good f°' lowers—they learn that skill in bo°' camp. But as they advance, they mu*1 learn to be leaders. Developing yoU[ NCOs is a delicate task as you struggh with how much to let them run and wN11 to intervene. Don’t limit them to the f°'’ lower’s role by leading too aggressive^ or stifling their decisionmaking.
The staff NCOs you work with W'* prove the source of your greatest jo)"' and deepest sadness. You will find soflf who retired on active duty long befoff you met them. These Marines will be;1 constant drag on your efforts at pos1' tive, enthusiastic leadership, and y0" will need the help of wiser, more expe' rienced hands to deal with them. At $ other extreme is the staff NCO who is s° outstanding you will wonder why the.' even have a billet for you. But take heah If he is really good, he will learn fro1’1 you as well, and together you will P‘ unstoppable!
> Bad Apples. I spent four years stru- gling with how to deal with bad apple>‘ but a succession of three wise coi'1' manding officers finally convinced it’e Every Marine is not salvageable. Belie'1 in your Marines and assume they want t‘ excel. But the rare exceptions will cha1 lenge your faith. The pitfall: One bt> apple can spoil the whole bunch. Barrack talk and the negative influence of a fe* bad Marines can undermine your best£ forts at positive leadership. Again, set guidance. Your boss and the senior e11 listed of your command have seen a
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Not getting out of the office and really •ng to a problem, talking to the ex- s on the scene, is a sure setup for fail- You risk getting distorted and fil
°f Marines and can help you decide when a Marine is beyond repair. If you have a c°nfirmed bad apple, act quickly and decisively to get rid of him.
^ The Food Chain. The company grade °fficers in our squadron vigorously contended that if everyone wearing oak [eaves and above would take a six-month kave of absence, we could straighten out Je Marine Corps. This position is perhaPs a little extreme, but a company j=rade officer can get very frustrated at ais position in the food chain, especially "Men his wonderful ideas are chewed up ar|d spit out by the bigger fish. Priorities lat odds with your own) are mandated r°m above. Information doesn’t come down the chain. Awards justifications you vvrite up for your Marines are dismissed as "he’s just doing his job.”
Without a doubt, your commanding of- ■cer will have the biggest impact on the lunate of your unit. His assumptions and C)lPectations, what he says and doesn’t Say> and what he does and does not do Mil affect your efforts to create a climate °r success. As you gain confidence and Edibility, work in the delicate area of aPWard leadership to lead him and others at>ove you in the right direction. Stay pos- ltlVe- As my first boss in the fleet warned Me> cynicism is not a leadership trait, ^Pecially for a company grade officer. Most important, work in your area of in- Uence to improve performance, and don’t sidetracked by food-chain troubles.
tered input, and you alienate the frontline Marines who know the intricacies of your problem (and quite often how to solve it).
A second aspect of focusing on people is to find an “in” with the frontline Marines. In the aircraft maintenance world this is easy: talk to the night crew. They are the small group of unheralded Marines who, accompanied by blaring rock music and supervised by a staff NCO or two, do the bulk of organizational-level maintenance—transforming 12 down aircraft into four flyers and a backup through their own brand of late- night magic. And although night crews are none too fond of officers in general, a humble demeanor and a little free pizza can gamer some amazing intelligence on what’s really going on in your unit. I have never met a Marine who, with a little prompting, would not tell you how it’s really being done and how it could be done better.
Getting out of the office and talking to night crew will work on their own for a while, but you must put something back into the emotional bank account to continue to draw benefits. The best thing you can do for your Marines is to clear obstacles. Find out what stands in the way of improvement and work to eliminate these hurdles. By tackling the nuisances and being a problem solver, you free your Marines to do better work. In many cases, you have more problem-solving power than you realize. For example, you can use your peers in other departments or units to get prompt action on a project that will help your Marines. You can’t change the world, but Marines know a fair effort when they see one.
Finally, a commitment to put people first is worthless if it won't stand up to the test of personal crisis. Stop everything to help one of your Marines. Drop what you’re doing and go stomp on desks in personnel to get a pay problem solved. If you’re sending a Marine on emergency leave, personally accompany him through all the required stops. Going to all reasonable extremes to help one of your Marines reinforces the message that every individual is important.
Focus on the Mission
Try this experiment: Ask Marines in your unit the old series of inspection questions. What is the mission of the squadron? Of the maintenance department? Of your hydraulics shop? How well the rank-and-file Marines know and believe in their mission will be reflected in the performance of the unit. This sounds simple enough, but dozens of worthwhile and ridiculous diversions clamor for their attention. There is no short cut to getting everybody on board. Leaders must preach the mission and its importance at every opportunity and continuously train on how to prioritize.
Two warnings: First, leaders must know what’s important and act accordingly. It is true that good units tend to excel across the board, but the best leaders focus their efforts on those critical tasks that lead to mission accomplishment. If you talk a good line about getting the job done, but are most concerned with where everybody parks, you are a hypocrite and your Marines know it.
Second, don't make excuses. You never need to apologize for making difficult demands that contribute to mission accomplishment. If everybody is on board with the mission, they want to do no less. My first aircraft maintenance officer would unashamedly tell the department “our number one priority is mission accomplishment, number two is morale.” Although the words were blunt, the message was unmistakable. No one doubted his focus on the mission.
Keep Information Flowing
The number one complaint of subordinates is that they don’t know what’s going on. When I became a division officer, I made a commitment that I would talk to all my Marines frequently and at some length to give them “the scoop” on what was going on in the unit. While this sounds basic enough, competing with the maintenance effort, conflicting work schedules, and other important work meetings proved difficult. But my effort paid incredible dividends. Within a couple months I noticed that Marines from other divisions were listening in on my meetings or cornering their buddies afterward to get the word. As I built a reputation as an honest informer, Marines from throughout the department would stop me on the hangar deck with their “whats, whens, and whys.” Of course, this response gave me countless one-on- one forums to deliver my mission stump speech.
The leader-to-subordinate information flow is absolutely critical, but the information disease most likely to wreck a unit usually attacks the officer ranks. This is the well-known "knowledge is power” disease. Most lieutenants have spent a night as duty officer rummaging around looking for a hidden plan that should have been common knowledge. Unfortunately, some leaders withhold critical information about upcoming events in order to influence decisions or simply as a means of control and power over subordinates.
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Captain Coffman, a CH-46 pilot, currently is an
At whatever level you find yourself, you can do no greater service than to wipe out the knowledge-is-power syndrome. A maintenance chief I served with did his part in the battle so well that his staff NCOs teased him mercilessly about his countless meetings and unending memos. But he understood that word that didn’t get out (down, up, and across) was useless, and the ones who needed information most were the work center supervisors at the heart of the maintenance effort.
Often, the lack of information flow happens more from ignorance than ill intent. I discovered this when our operations officer began to brief the enlisted Marines regularly on the Flight Hour Program and upcoming flight operations. For many of the Marines, it was the first time they understood the confusing numbers around which the squadron revolved.
One of my favorite activities in the squadron was catching Marines doing something extra that no one was likely to notice and giving them a verbal stroke for it. It might be a lance corporal stopping to clean up another Marine’s spill on the way out of the hangar (without being told to!), an avionics technician cross-training a crew chief after hours, or simply a Marine hustling to save a launch time. All those little unheralded deeds were evidence that we were on the right track. Good performance reports and awards are important, but there is no substitute for frequent, honest, unexpected strokes to create and maintain a climate for success. Everybody wants to be appreciated.
You must remember, however, that sincerity is the key element. If you are not truly inspired by the efforts of your Marines, your hollow words will be worse than no praise at all. If you can’t find anybody to stroke, it’s not because they’re undeserving—it’s because you’re not looking. I had a stroke-a-day rule. I wouldn’t leave work until I had sincerely stroked at least one deserving Marine. While not a substitute for more extrinsic rewards, these strokes are a habit that will not only help your unit succeed, but improve your demeanor as well.
You Get What You Expect (and Accept)
accept nothing less. I identified three W haviors that are common to consistent! outstanding performance and began 11 preach them as my expectations: countability, quality, and hustle.
Accountability is being where you’t supposed to be, when you’re supposed11 be there, with the right gear, doing tb’ right thing. It is the essential cornd stone to success. Until you get yo^ Marines to fulfill their basic obligation: you can expect no loftier results. Ac countability is the highest expectatib of a mediocre unit.
The second step is quality. Here, y0' expect your Marines not just to get tb job done, but to do it to specific hi?! standards. Bring your unit together to s£! these standards. Define quality work, & pect it, and accept no less. Institutions! izing this expectation will raise your un1 to excellence.
Finally, hustle will put you over tb top. The best squadrons have a sense 0 urgency, as every member of the tea* hustles to carry out the mission. Hast!1 incorporates all the little extras that di>' ferentiate your product from the one cob ing out of the hangar down the street; it; Marines going beyond what is requir^ to produce the highest quality possible I cannot claim that my squadron tained this state for any extended perio1! but I know we achieved it for brkj shining moments—wonderful, prob moments that make all the effo(l worthwhile.
Get Out of the Way
True success is self-perpetuating. Jws as every Marine’s contributions are ch1' ical to mission accomplishment, so tb expectations and climate for success I0>f be fostered by all hands. The best unip have a sense of family. New joins af£ taken in and indoctrinated in group val' ues. Old hands pass on, enshrined in le? end. But the contagious drive for csc£>- lence can outlive particular billets a11 tours of duty.
The real test of leadership is what haP' pens when the leader is gone. Give y°uf Marines responsibility. Challenge the111 to set difficult goals. If you have cfe' ated a climate for success, you can step back and watch and smile as they val|- date your ideas about leading Marines
officer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Uni1* Camp Pendleton, California. His previous assil? ments include operations officer, HMT-301, MA^ 16; and training officer, airframes officer, quality ^ surance officer and assistant aircraft maintenafl officer, HMM-262, MAG-24. He was graduated fr0*1 Amphibious Warfare School in May 1993.
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1 learned how important this is as a a've quality assurance (QA) officer, aving received a capable briefing from y QA chief on a particular problem, I fVe my boss, the aircraft maintenance ficer, a summary of the situation and . recommended solution. He asked if I ad been on the aircraft myself and re- i y looked at the problem. Of course I adn’t, and my recommendation died a ^e$erved quick death in the flush of my P’barrassment.
People are your prime concern. Their Performance is the difference between Mediocre and outstanding units. To create a climate for success, you must put People first on your work agenda. Staff M'rk, reports, regulations, telephone lines, ar|d computers and their fancy software , ’ll conspire to keep you chained to a esk in an office with no windows. The lrst step to putting people first is to get °Ut of the office!
Positive assumptions about your Marines are the basis for positive leadership. But to build a climate for success, you not only must assume Marines want to excel, you must expect excellence and