Has the internet actually melted kids’ brains? Are they too busy texting each other to notice what’s happening around them? Ignorant of history and basic skills, they neither read nor write unless it’s in 140-character bites. Or so we tell each other.
Yet these same kids who we feel we can’t trust to lead a team of fry-cooks are somehow managing extraordinary feats of leadership in circumstances many of us can’t begin to imagine.
Average Americans between 19 and 22 generally don’t find themselves with the opportunity to take on the responsibility of leadership in our society. And yet members of this same age group fill key leadership role everyday—in the United States Marine Corps. Corporals and Sergeants—Noncommissioned Officers or NCOs—are at this moment responsible for accomplishing missions and are entrusted with the lives of other young Marines and millions of dollars of equipment, even in combat zones.
The NCOs are trained for the job, and they do it magnificently. From the start of their time as Marines, they are taught physical skills, mental strength and flexibility, and less-tangible concepts like unselfishness and justice. And then they bring this training into their work, continually learning as their leadership responsibilities increase.
Because their superiors intimately understand and appreciate this training, they value and trust their NCOs to do their jobs, and they empower them with the ability to make decisions quickly, and to follow them through while making adjustments as situations require.
NCOs are the backbone of the Marine Corps. Small unit leaders are trained, honored, and trusted. The orporate world needs small unit leaders, too. But we don’t admire the assistant managers at Walgreen’s the way the Corps admires their NCOs. Those civilian leaders are on the front lines, too; they’re dealing with problems every day, they’ve got to motivate their people, and they have to deal with customers. But they need a certain respect, too.
Jerry Anderson, a Vietnam-era NCO, explains how modern businesses fail their young leaders: “Upper leaders won’t let small unit leaders make decisions because they feel it will reflect poorly on them. They haven’t either trained them properly, or given them the direction they need to make decisions that are in line with what the company wants.”
While the civilian world focuses on management, the lessons of the NCO are about leadership. They are not the same thing. You can manage resources, but you must lead people.
Just as global military battles become increasingly nontraditional and asymmetrical, business is becoming more like guerilla warfare than ever before. No longer can a chief executive officer make all the decisions. Leaders must fight on many fast-changing fronts, and it is impossible for them to be close to all of them. Today’s complex and knowledge-intensive world requires the kind of bottom-up leadership that Marine Corps NCOs undertake every day. By encouraging frontline troops to innovate and lead by trusting them to understand the mission and those people in their charge, small units can work independently in far-flung theatres of operation, maintaining their commander’s intent in each of their decisions.
Leadership is the ability to influence human behavior toward a specific goal. And it needs to be accomplished with the understanding that human behavior is nearly impossible to predict, especially under pressure, and that leadership is not about changing people, which is also nearly impossible. It is about influencing behavior, so that people make choices that are in line with the mission at hand, even under duress.
It requires flexibility as circumstances change. It is about movement towards a goal on the small unit level, in environments that may always be in flux. It is about speed. Giving the small unit leader the training necessary to be able to make solid decisions, and thorough understanding of the mission at hand, and then trusting them to do so is vital or valuable time and resources are lost forever. Teaching your leaders to say, “How may I provide you with excellent customer service today?” without giving them the power to actually do so does not win customer happiness or loyalty.
By examining those institutions that do it right—like the United States Marine Corps—we can learn how to appropriately apply what they do in civilian environments. And by creating excellent small unit leaders, we’ll see there’s nothing wrong with kids today, and they’ll continue to grow into the leaders we so desperately need.