May 2017


Leading forward with complementing leadership traits
Volume 101, Issue 5
Leaders must uphold the Corps’ leadership traits to bring out their Marines maximum potential.
Photo by Cpl Jesus Sepulveda Torres

All Marines understand that every Marine is a rifleman. From privates to general officers, every Marine experiences the privilege and honor of leading others or being led themselves. We observed and learned from those who motivated and inspired us through their actions, demonstrated traits of leadership, and personal examples. They taught and showed us what great leadership can achieve through positive influence; how poor leadership has detrimental impacts on individuals and entire organizations. 

Gen John A. Lejeune provides an explanation of the qualities all leaders must develop within themselves. In Marine Corps Order No. 29, Relations Between Officers and Men, dated 14 August 1920, Gen Lejeune wrote the following: 

Young Marines respond quickly and readily to the exhibition of qualities of leadership on part of their officers. Each officer must endeavor by all means in his power to develop within himself those qualities of leadership, including industry, justice, self-control, unselfishness, honor, and courage, which will fit him to be a real leader of men and which will aid in establishing the relationship.1

In keeping with Gen Lejeune’s leadership philosophy, our Corps expanded the list of leadership traits through the years. We remember them by the acronym JJ DID TIE BUCKLE (judgement, justice, dependability, integrity, decisiveness, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, and enthusiasm). Named in his honor, the LLI (Lejeune Leadership Institute), a world-class leadership center under the Marine Corps University, continues to uphold JJ DID TIE BUCKLE as essential leadership traits. All Marines have witnessed committed leaders who not only consistently exhibited those 14 traits but also possessed additional character traits worthy of attention and further discussion—leadership traits that are not yet reflected in current publications and doctrine, but should be. 

In MCWP 6-10, Leading Marines, Gen Carl E. Mundy states that,

The most important responsibility in our Corps is leading Marines. If we expect Marines to lead and if we expect Marines to follow, we must provide the education of the heart and of the mind to win on the battlefield and in the barracks, in war and in peace.2

What did General Mundy mean by “education of the heart and of the mind”? One can assert that education of the heart requires leaders to better understand the human spirit and will in order to unleash other’s full potential. Perhaps it is a call for leaders to study and comprehend the emotional, mental, and psychological effects on both ourselves and those we lead with an understanding that Marines respond best to those who genuinely care about their needs and desires. I believe that the concept of “education of heart” can apply to a leadership trait concerned with human sentiment and passion. Leaders who take care of their Marines and see to their welfare by being thoughtful, considerate, empathetic, and compassionate display the hallmark qualities of what I term sensibility. 

“S” for Sensibility—Trait #15

Sensibility is not about touchy-feely thoughts and tending to emotions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity.” Others define it as “emotional intelligence.” Regardless of how you describe it, sensibility is an essential leadership trait that is not solely reserved for the meek. Sensibility is an innate trait in every human being, and having it enables dynamic understanding and connectivity between the leader and the led. Think of sensibility as an enforcing virtue that makes all qualities, including unselfishness, tact, compassion, and empathy, common to exceptional leaders. It is a primal trait that enables coherent situational awareness at the highest cognitive level on multiple dimensions, including emotional, mental, and psychological. 

MCWP 6-10’s introduction clearly speaks to the “relationship between the leader and the led. It is also about the bond between all Marines that is formed in the common forge of selfless service and shared hardships.”3 Marines cannot bond unless they are aware, understand, and are concerned with each other’s needs and desires. Sensibility enables meaningful relationship between leader and led; it applies at all levels. Ninety-nine percent of all leadership occurs from the middle, not at the top, of organizations (see The 360-Degree Leader).4 Some believe that knowledge and understanding only applies to those junior to you. It applies, however, to all those around us. 

Sensibility is an inherent human characteristic and critical element that allows humans to relate and connect with others. Great leaders are adept at understanding the complex needs of people around them. They understand how to provide interactions to create occasions that motivate others to achieve success, whatever the mission requires. They are acutely aware of the reactions of people around them, emotional tones that are not readily apparent, and the subtle shifts in mental attitudes that enable these leaders to journey with others who want to follow. All of these insights, however, require personal interaction.

The social dynamic of our modern world is saturated with advanced automation that results in reduced face-to-face social exchanges. The need for leaders with qualities of sensibility that comprises awareness, perception, empathy, and compassion has never been greater. These intangible qualities cannot be attained through knowledge or intellect nor produced by technological innovation. It is even more important now than before to provide leaders with educations of the heart to enable clearer understanding and consideration of the human spirit and motivation. 

There is a downside to sensibility—it can be a double-edged sword. The advantageous qualities of sensibility come hand-in-hand with heightened awareness that can be emotionally draining. This requires another vital leadership trait—resiliency. 

“R” for Resilience—Trait #16 

The Oxford English Dictionary define resilience as the “capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Resilience is often described as a personal quality that predisposes individuals to bounce back and thrive in the face of challenges. However, resilient individuals do more than bounce back—they bounce forward with renewed strength, purpose, and conviction. Resilient individuals take positive action in response to new and ever-changing realities. The MOC (Marine Corps Operating Concept), published in September 2016, discusses the need to develop Marines for complexity. It states that we

should teach them how to read the human terrain and navigate the social domain ... We need Marines with mental acuity and resilience no less than physical fitness if we are to remain a professional, disciplined and moral force that can be effective in chaotic environments and complex terrain.

Now more than ever, leaders must possess qualities of sensibility and resilience to effectively lead in our demanding environment and uncertain future.

Rapid and disruptive changes are the norm for the future. These changes may come as faintly as a breeze or as violently as a tornado. Distress and “burn-out” result from leading in environments of persistent change, high expectations of success, fear of failure, unrelenting operational tempos, and limited resources. Harnessing the merits of sensibility and resilience is key to maximizing human potential to overcoming challenges and achieving success. 

Our personal ability to sustain and thrive in the face of what may appear to be endless setbacks and challenges is critical not only on an individual basis but also on an institutional one. Our Corps’ current operational effectiveness and continued strategic relevance is wholly dependent on our individual and collective ability to “operate with resilience.” Being a Marine 24/7 is not a bumper sticker—the demands on individual Marines and units can overwhelm with devastating effects if not properly managed.

Personal tragedies, such as suicides, can occur when individual Marines are unable to practice the virtues of resilience. A lack of resilience can also result in declining operational readiness and mission failure. Additionally, the lack of resilience may also contribute to a talent drain as many trained and experienced Marines choose to leave the Corps for civilian opportunities and career options instead of continuing their service. Our new administration recently announced planned growth in military end-strength. Concurrent growth in DOD and a strengthening U.S. economy will likely lead to a highly-competitive environment among different Service components and prospective civilian employers in the private and government sectors to recruit and retain quality men and women.

The Marine Corps is quite adept at meeting the maintenance and readiness requirements of our most sophisticated equipment and weaponry. However, we need improvement in caring for our Marine’s mental, emotional, and psychological ability to withstand and overcome stress. We need to elevate resilience as a critical leadership trait. While we are attentive to Marines’ physical stamina (endurance) and mental courage as enduring leadership traits, we fail to address the emotional and psychological aspects of their character. 

Resilient Marines of every rank deal with different challenges every day. The trials and tribulations of a new recruit are different than an SNCO’s. Similarly, a second lieutenant has dissimilar concerns than of a colonel. Like sensibility, resilience requires introspection. Everyone has different stressors and varying degrees at which they reach their breaking point. As Marines and leaders of Marines, we must endeavor to discover the inner strength that each of us possesses in order to overcome whatever challenges and difficulties confront us, whether personal or professional in nature. 

Although the Marine Corps invests heavily in technological advancements for its equipment and weaponry, it has not applied the same level of effort in modernizing its leadership traits to address present and future demands. The most intricate, sophisticated, and developed equipment and weapons systems are no match for human resolve and will. We must continue to encourage courageous young men and women who join the ranks of the Marine Corps for a variety of reasons. Resilience is not reserved for epic battles with an enemy of another nation. It is required on a daily basis to assist Marines in overcoming challenges every day. 

Life as a Marine is tough. Marines confront personal and professional demands daily that require a delicate balance between priorities at home and mission requirements either at home station or deployed. Years of sequestration, persistent budget cuts, dwindling resources, smaller staffs, and outdated or dilapidated equipment and facilities have contributed to long work days and frequent deployments. This translates into high frustration levels which ultimately erode a Marines’ outlook and quality of life. In the aggregate, lower unit morale and subsequent drop in unit readiness levels result. As leaders, we must recognize sacrifices not only of the Marines but also of their family members. We can do better. Simply “knowing” about their challenges is not enough. Leaders must strive to reduce the impact of multiple and competing requirements on Marines whenever possible by employing the virtue of sensibility and qualities of resiliency in dealing with the array of personal and professional challenges confronting them. 

It is imperative that we acquaint and instill the qualities of resilience in recruits and candidates as soon as they embark on their journey toward becoming a Marine. How much better would we all be today if resilience had been one of our core leadership traits? It must be inculcated in the formative stages of this transformation and an enduring part of every Marine’s professional military education throughout their careers. 

“I” for Imagination—Trait #17

We’ve all heard the mantra, “Think outside the box.” If only you had a dollar—adjusted for inflation—every time you heard it! That adage should invoke your creativity and imagination to spur innovation. At his recent confirmation hearing in January 2017, our current Secretary of Defense, Gen James N. Mattis, USMC(Ret), said the following about his commitment to cybersecurity and new technology: “The U.S. must invest in innovation and prepare for the wars of tomorrow.”6 He informed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would prioritize investments in innovation. Gen Mattis recognizes technology and training as important pillars of military success. He also understands that technology must be balanced with the human element of combat and is equally important as the tools we carry.7 It is clear that we must look for innovative ways to move forward. In order to innovate, however, one must first possess an imagination that can envision or conceive what is not yet a reality. Webster defines imagination as the “act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before.” Imagination enables visions, ideas, thoughts, and concepts. 

It is a brave new world. The pace of change has accelerated through emerging technologies, political dynamics, and various injects. Meeting current and future challenges requires rapid assessments and bold actions. Time is of the essence, and imagination will be the key to our success that allows innovation to embolden our Marines. Innovation and experimentation keeps our imaginations nimble and enables the discovery of enhanced technologies and weapons. In light of future uncertainties, defense of our Nation is dependent on our ability to maximize our most advanced and precious human capital—imagination. 

The call for innovation is apparent throughout every type of organization, to include manufacturing, health care, and government agencies as well as institutions at the local, state, and national level dealing with a wide array of issues such as education, labor, agriculture, and defense. Innovation is also a buzz word across the Marine Corps. It is found in the MOC, the Force Development Strategic Plan, and in every Deputy Commandant’s office. 

The MCCDC’s (Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s) October 2016 Force Development Strategic Plan recognizes innovation in its definition of the future Marine Corps. It states, 

The Marine Corps of 2035 is an optimally balanced force possessing the best organized, trained, and equipped Marines who can innovate and adapt to win across the ROMO in an uncertain and complex world.8

We must continue to foster and nurture an environment across our Corps which encourages, recognizes, and rewards innovation and imagination. Truthfully, we’ve already begun. The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has sponsored science fiction labs and innovation symposiums, and in December 2016, MARADMIN MSG 667 published the results of the Commandants Innovation Challenge (Washington, DC: HQMC, December 2016). 

The Marine Corps is clearly employing multiple opportunities and venues to encourage and recognize innovative efforts. We should continue to reinforce the development of “fresh ideas.” We must also, however, do more to allow the spark of innovation to fuel the flame in our Marine culture for future generations. Recognizing that innovation is only possible through imagination, it should come as no surprise that the latter element should be considered as a critical leadership trait. MCDP 1, Warfighting, published in 1997 agrees. It states, “Our philosophy must not only accommodate but must exploit human traits such as boldness, initiative, personality, strength of will, and imagination.”9 The importance of imagination is now more critical than ever for our continued success and future achievements.

Wrapping it up, SIR

Times have changed, and changes are happening much faster with advances in technology as we’re wired and connected in the cyber realm through a multitude of social media outlets. With abundant technology at our fingertips (literally), we are connected via electrons and more susceptible to the whims of electronic emotional and psychological detonation. Yes, we know that with a single tweet, one can telegraph and employ potent psy-ops against or for another person/organization with precision like a smart bomb or guided missiles. Anyone following the 2016 Presidential campaign can attest to this effect. 

The question of cyber veracity, whether based on reality or fiction, is here to stay. Marine leaders must invoke all of our current leadership traits (and more) to sharpen leadership skills that can deal with and conquer the ebb and flows of future challenges. While the cyber world we live in has contributed to our leadership challenge, it would be too easy to blame all of our troubles on technology. We must consider our own inability to keep up with the changing human landscape and failure to fully understand the need for personal attention to our Marines. 

Significant leadership challenges await us that require new leadership skills and fresh ways of thinking. In order to move seamlessly forward toward greater success, we must embrace sensibility, imagination, and resilience. These complementary traits should be added to our proven leadership traits of JJ DID TIE BUCKLE. Together, all 17 traits will allow us to adapt and overcome present and future threats. The time for change is now. Our MOC states that, “We need to change where it makes sense, adapt as quickly as possible, and constantly innovate to stay ahead of our adversaries.”10 Adding sensibility, imagination, and resilience—SIR—to the list of Marine Corps leadership traits makes complete sense, and it will help us evolve and modernize our doctrine to include qualities already exhibited by many of our best Marine leaders.


1. MajGen John A. Lejeune, Marine Corps Order No. 29, Relations Between Officers and Men, (Washington, DC: 14 August 1920).

2. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, MCWP 6-10, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: 2016).

3. Ibid.

4. John C. Maxwell, 360-Degree Leader, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005).

5. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC), (Washington, DC: September 2016), 25.

6. Congress of the United States, Senate Confirmation Hearings of Gen James N. Mattis USMC(Ret), (Washington, DC: 12 Jan 2017), in response to questioning by committee members Sen Elizabeth Warren, (D-MA) and Sen Gary Peters, (D-MI).

7. Loren Thompson, “How Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis Will Remake the Pentagon,” Forbes, (New York, NY: December 2016). 

8. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Combat Development Plan, (Washington, DC: Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, Force Development Strategic Plan, October 2015).

9. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997), 78. 

10. MOC.  

Col Fecteau is the G-3 (Operations), Training Command.