Every Marine knows the difference between “right and wrong.” However, some cannot discern the value of right and wrong. This inability to discern prevents a Marine from effectively carrying out any of the 14 leadership traits. Therefore, the 14 leadership traits are for naught unless a Marine can discern their value.
We, as leaders, can recommend, suggest, guide, and lead by the best example possible, but before learning occurs a decision has to be made, and it has to be made by the Marine. The Marine will make his decision based on what is more attractive to him at the time. A Marine’s ability to discern the value of what is right is essential when discussing leadership. Should a Marine continue to do what he first intended (that which is more attractive to him at the time), or should he make the decision to take into consideration (discern the value) the second and third order effects of his decision? This level of discernment is paramount when fostering leadership. Possessing a level of discernment is essential if Marines are to successfully perform any of the 14 leadership traits.
In order for a Marine to properly make sound and productive decisions he must first possess a calibrated moral compass. A Marine’s ability to assess situations and recognize their importance/significance gives him the moral compass needed to discern the value of his decisions and foresee future consequences or rewards.
Webster’s tells us that discernment is the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure. Discernment should not be confused with judgment. Every human being demonstrates some level of judgment because the byproduct of judgment is a decision, and throughout our lives we have all made decisions. Those decisions, however, were either good ones or bad ones. Possessing a level of discernment will allow Marines to recognize and take into consideration the value of their decisions and the process in which they make them. If Marines can grasp the concept of possessing a level of discernment they will never hear their bosses say, “Good initiative but poor judgment.”
Discernment should also not be mistaken for wisdom, because the byproduct of discernment is wisdom. Webster’s tells us that wisdom is the accumulation of philosophic and scientific knowledge. In contrast, you need not accumulate these things in order to have the ability to discern. However, only through years of practicing discernment will a Marine possess a level of wisdom commensurate to his rank, which is consistent with the phrase, “with age comes wisdom.”
Marine Corps University, Marine Corps Institute, professional military education academies, and other formal schools provide tools and accreditation necessary to help establish Marines’ careers and foster their leadership. However, if a Marine lacks the ability to discern and is unable to recognize the value of what is being taught, the Marine and his subordinates will suffer, along with the Marine Corps. Life is full of choices, and some choices have consequences and repercussions. A trait of a Marine leader is his ability to discern the value (second and third order effects) of his decisions. Knowing the second and tertiary effects will help a Marine make the right choice when he is presented with a problem/situation or provided recommendations, suggestions, or leadership.
By virtue of my former billet as Director, Corporals Course, Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, my focus was to instill courage among the NCOs, because through years of observation and discernment I theorized that the Marine Corps does not get better for two reasons: Marines do not know what is right, or they do not have the courage to make it right. Moreover, after graduating 12 classes I soon realized the need for a course specifically designed for lance corporals. I did not teach leadership at my lance corporals course, but I did discuss moral courage. The purpose of my lance corporals course was to calibrate the Marines’ moral compass by teaching morals, ethics, and values, which by the way, all foster discernment. I started the lance corporals course because we were dealing with first-term Marines. If we do not plant the seeds of morals, ethics, and values early enough they will not be around long enough for us to cultivate them and watch them grow. I’ve already established that morals, ethics, and values foster discernment. What is more, anybody can plant a tree, but not everybody can grow one!
In closing, I declare the 14 leadership traits are for naught if a Marine is unable to discern their value. I propose that discernment become the 15th leadership trait (see sidebar) as it unites the other 14 traits and gives them their value. Studying and practicing discernment in the professional military education academies throughout a Marine’s career will help him build a decisionmaking model and calibrate his decisionmaking process (moral compass), which will help him measure his responses to his current or potential circumstances. Only by discernment will you be able to control your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words, and your words become your actions. Your actions will define you and later become your legacy. As I used to tell the Marines during our guided discussion, “The legacy you leave behind will be the history we inherit.”
Marine Corps Leadership Traits
The 14 leadership traits are qualities of thought and action which, if demonstrated in daily activities, help Marines earn the respect, confidence, and loyal cooperation of other Marines. It is extremely important that Marines understand the meaning of each leadership trait and how to develop it, so they know what goals to set as they work to become leaders and followers.
Definition. Justice is defined as the fair and impartial assignment of merited rewards and punishments.
Suggestions for improvement. Be honest with yourself about why you make a particular decision. A just person considers both sides and bases rewards and punishments on merit. Try to be fair at all times and treat all things and people equally. Avoid favoritism, and above all protect the institution.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of justice requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Discerning and considering the obscure dangers and repercussions of not being fair and impartial will foster the reasonable and unbiased administration of law.
Definition. Webster’s defines judgment as the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.
Suggestions for improvement. You can improve your judgment if you pause for reflection and discern the implications of your decisions.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of judgment requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Everyone possesses some level of judgment. However, before someone acts on his decision, he must first discern the implications of that decision. The byproduct of judgment is a decision. Only after adecision is made that produces moral and ethical behavior will a Marine be acknowledged as having good judgment.
Definition. Dependability is defined as the means to place reliance and trust in an individual. It means you can be trusted to complete a job through voluntary support of the policies and orders of the chain of command. Dependability also means consistently putting forth your best effort in an attempt to achieve the highest standards of performance.
Suggestions for improvement. You can increase your level of dependability by always making yourself accessible to your leaders. Furthermore, form habits of right conduct and, regardless of understanding or agreeing, always carry out the task at hand to the best of your ability (time for understanding will come after the mission is complete).
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of dependability requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Discerning the implications of not being dependable as a follower and how it can hinder mission accomplishment will increase the possibility of a Marine being an effective leader. Embracing this concept will help a Marine know what is required from both leader and follower to accomplish the mission.
Definition. Initiative is defined as acting independently from outside influences and control—taking action although no one has given you orders. It means meeting new and unexpected situations with right action. It includes using resourcefulness to get something done without the normal material or methods being available to you.
Suggestions for improvement. To improve your initiative, work on staying mentally and physically alert. Becoming proficient in your MOS will help in developing your initiative as it will build confidence. A broader and more indepth knowledge of your job will help you become aware of things that need to be done.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of initiative requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Holding true to the suggested improvements above, being able to discern the second and third order effects of current or potential circumstances, will assist Marines in preparing for what is to come. This will allow Marines to take the initiative to prepare for, improve, or stop a particular action.
Definition. Decisiveness is defined as the power or quality to decide and take resolute action.
Suggestions for improvement. Start with things you know to build confidence. Be sure not to make decisions that are rash or with imperfect information as new information may cause you to change your mind. Get as many of the facts as are available and weigh them against each other. By acting calmly and quickly, you should arrive at a sound decision. You announce your decisions in a clear, firm, professional manner. Although nothing is wrong with changing your mind, it defeats the purpose of being decisive. Gather as much information as you can in the time provided so you can make a more informed decision.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of decisiveness requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Sometimes Marines may have to make decisions with imperfect information. The absence of this information causes pause in our decisionmaking process, hence preventing us from being decisive. When vital information is absent we should revertback to what is moral and ethical tohelp discern possible outcomes through deductive reasoning. Gravitating toward the outcome that is moral and ethical and that produces the highest value will assist us in being decisive.
Definition. The quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.
Suggestions for improvement. Take the time to plan. Pause for reflection and ask yourself two questions—what is the worst that can happen, and if that worst thing happens, did you do everything you could to prevent it? If your answer is “yes” to the second question, then you can likely proceed with the activity. If your answer is “no,” then you mustn’t. Study morals, ethics, and values and adhere to the Marine Corps principles of honor, courage, and commitment.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of discernment requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values.
Definition. Tact is defined as the keen sense of what to do and say in order to maintain good relations with others and to avoid offense. It means that you can deal with people in a manner that will maintain good relations and avoid problems.
Suggestions for improvement. Begin to develop your tact by taking a step back to look at the big picture. Understand the event and be aware of those in your company. Familiarize yourself with the protocols for the occasion. Remember, it is the senior’s prerogative on how comfortable you get. Treat others as you would like to be treated.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of tact requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. First, discern possible outcomes before you speak or take action. Understanding that your words and actions mean something to you, theymay also be perceived differently by others, so discerning this fact will help you be more tactful. Only by discerning will you be able to control your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words and your words become your actions. Your actions will define you and become your legacy. “The legacy you leave behind will be the history we inherit.”
Definition. Integrity means that you are honest and truthful in what you say or do. You put honesty, sense of duty, and sound moral principles above all else.
Suggestions for improvement. Be absolutely honest and truthful at all times. Stand up for what you believe to be right.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of integrity requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Embracing these principles fosters discernment.
Definition. Enthusiasm is defined as a sincere interest and exuberance in the performance of your duties. If you are enthusiastic, you are optimistic, cheerful, and willing to accept challenges.
Suggestions for improvement. Understanding and belief in your mission will add to your enthusiasm for your job. Try to understand why even the uninteresting jobs must be done.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of enthusiasm requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Reflecting on the suggested improvements above, I contend that discerning the moral and ethical implications of not understanding your mission will have a drastic effect on your enthusiasm.
Definition. Bearing is defined as the manner in which one bears or comports oneself. Your manner should reflect alertness, competence, confidence, and control.
Suggestions for improvement. To develop bearing, you should hold yourself to the highest standards of personal conduct. Behave in a manner that is right, proper, or expected.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of bearing requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Prior to adhering to the principles of right conduct, which manifests bearing, one must first discern the occasion for which to demonstrate a specific level of bearing.
Definition. Unselfishness is defined as the means by which you avoid making yourself comfortable at the expense of others.
Suggestions for improvement. Avoid using your position or rank for personal gain, safety, or pleasure at the expensive of others. Give credit to those who deserve it and be considerate and generous to others.
How discernment applies: Demonstrating a level of unselfishness requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Discerning the implications of being selfish promotes the application of right conduct.
Definition. Courage is defined as the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Possessing a level of courage means you have the ingrained capacity for meeting strain or difficulty with fortitude and resilience. Courage is what allows you to remain calm while recognizing fear. Moral courage means having the inner strength to stand up for what is right and to accept blame when something is your fault. Physical courage means that you can continue to function effectively when there is physical danger present.
Suggestions for improvement. You can begin to control fear by practicing self-discipline in every area of your life. If you fear doing certain things required in your daily life, force yourself to do them until youcan control your reaction. Embrace your training and venture to push yourself beyond your mental and physical limits.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of courage requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. If one cannot discern the physical and mental implications of not completing arduous tasks in the presence of danger or not having the moral courage to accept responsibility, then controls will not be implemented and immoral behavior will result.
Definition. Knowledge is the understanding of a science or art. It is the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association. Knowledge means that you have acquired information and that you comprehend and understand people.
Suggestions for improvement. Increase your knowledge by remaining alert. Listen, observe, and make every effort to learn things you do not understand. Study field manuals and other military literature and be active in the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. Your knowledge should be broad, and in addition to knowing your job, you should know your unit’s policies and keep up with current events.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of knowledge requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. Discernment and knowledge are part of the same equation used to calibrate a Marine’s moral compass. Possessing a higher level of knowledge will help prevent Marines from making decisions with imperfect information, thus stressing the accuracy of right decisionmaking. Possessing knowledge will help Marines discern the second and third order effects of their decisions.
Definition. Loyalty is the quality or state or an instance of being loyal or possessing fidelity. This meansyou are devoted to your country, the Corps, and to your seniors, peers, and subordinates. It also holds true to the Corps’ motto of “Always Faithful.” You owe unwavering loyalty up and down the chain of command, to seniors, subordinates, and peers.
Suggestions for improvement. To improve and demonstrate your sense of loyalty you should never discuss the problems of the Marine Corps or your unit with outsiders. Never talk about seniors unfavorably in front of your subordinates. Once a decision is made and an order is given, execute it and carry it out willingly as if it were your own. Moreover, protect the institution as it is who you are.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of loyalty requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. The collective strength of the Marine Corps is gauged by an individual’s loyalty toward the institution. However, an individual’s loyalty is dictated by his ability to discern the secondary and tertiary effects of his decisions.
Definition. Endurance is the mental and physical stamina that is measured by your ability to withstand pain, fatigue, stress, and hardship. It is the ability to withstand a prolonged stressful effort or activity.
Suggestions for improvement. Develop your endurance by engaging in physical training that will strengthen your body. For example, enduring pain during a conditioning march in order to improve stamina is crucial in the development of leadership.
How discernment applies. Demonstrating a level of endurance requires adherence to the principles of morals, ethics, and values. However, Marines must discern the value of when to apply the concept of “work smarter and not harder.” Discerning, or having the insight to know when to endure, how much to endure, and why to endure, is paramount when ensuring the safety of yourself and others.