2016 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: First Place
In a 1924 address, BGen Logan Feland recounted a story of a Marine who had been dispatched to escort a group of German prisoners through fighting at Belleau Wood. Upon reaching a road that they were to cross, this Marine, wary of incoming artillery fire, spotted a culvert that was being used as a temporary medical station and was full of wounded American servicemen. The Marine called down the tunnel, asking if he could bring the Germans through. He received shouts of assent, and observed the wounded scrambling for bricks, rocks—any weapon of opportunity that they could find. “I took ‘em over the road,” the Marine recounted wryly, “because I had given the Adjutant a receipt for prisoners that were alive.”1
Having had little exposure to the Marine Corps prior my arrival at Brown Field for OCS (Officer Candidates School), I did not know what to expect concerning the personality and conduct of Marines. I was quick to see that this institution is a culture unto itself. There was no rose garden—my sergeant instructors made sure of that—but even in the midst of the pain, misery, and woe this band of men heaped upon us, I couldn’t help but notice a surprising trend: man, were these guys funny. “Do they issue a sense of humor?” we often wondered. OCS is not the place where one would expect much in the way of levity; yet, I was assigned more than one disciplinary essay on the merits of maintaining one’s bearing after failing to keep a straight face after hearing the staff members crack wise. Leadership trait or no, it is all but impossible remain emotionless when a sergeant instructor saunters up to the haircut line and asks the two bald candidates of your platoon if they’re planning on getting high and tights.
The Marine Corps is an organization that subjects itself to constant self-evaluation and close scrutiny. Debriefs, after-action reports, and hot washes are built into field operations. Marines relentlessly research new practices and appraise the old in a continuous effort to maximize effectiveness in every aspect. One of our most defining institutional traits is thriftiness. Marines pride themselves on making something from nothing, cobbling together a solution from a collection of seemingly useless or exhausted resources. Whatever is of no value is quickly jettisoned. This ruthless efficiency of action and tendency for cracking wise seem irreconcilable. How can such an organization waste time on such a seemingly frivolous luxury as humor?
Leadership is the right, honorable job of getting a group of people to do what they do not want to do. Humor is a powerful tool that can serve as fuel, motivation, and distraction from the present conditions, however undesirable they may be. One of its most important functions is to, as researchers Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra put it, “create team.” “Effective leaders,” they write,
typically make use of humor for its most obvious function of strengthening solidarity or social cohesion between team members, building good rapport and emphasizing collegiality.2
Case in point: my platoon had just wrapped up its fourth offensive operation in two days, and the night attack from the night prior had left us with two or three hours of sleep. Facing us was the defense. “Done right,” an instructor had told us with disconcerting relish, “the defense is miserable.” Forty-eight hours of work-intensive activity lay before us, and the forecasted cold rain was heavy on everyone’s minds. Our staff platoon commander moved to address the platoon, and we gathered around him, unsure of what to expect.
“You know what this is, guys? The … Catalina Wine Mixer,” he told us, referencing to the winner-takes-all climactic event of Step Brothers, a 2007 Will Ferrell movie wildly popular among 20-something males. Grins broke out. The mood changed with the flip of a switch. Humor, precisely and deftly employed, had brought the platoon’s morale back up in a matter of moments. The talk reframed our current situation and brought our focus back onto getting on a win, mirroring a trend described by Holmes and Marra.
In different communities of practice, the same effect of constructing a sense of team and emphasizing group cohesion is achieved by a more competitive or contesting style of humor.3
The utility of a sense of humor extends far beyond the obvious function of teambuilding. MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, imparts that the relationship between officer and enlisted personnel should not be “that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.”4 Officers are responsible for training their units to the highest standard possible, and the use of humor can work to maximize the effectiveness of instruction. Another example from my limited personal experience: as a platoon, we were deep in the middle of our longest field exercise. As soon as the last of us had gathered around the terrain model to begin the day’s attack, a heavy, drizzling rain began to fall. I am willing to bet that more than a few of us felt our attention begin to draw away from the platoon commander’s brief and instead began to focus on everything that comes with unsavory weather—gear soaked from head to toe, chafing, and the cold. The platoon commander wrapped up his order, and our assistant instructor took over. We braced ourselves for an onslaught of buzzwords and doctrine. I cringed inwardly at the thought of hearing the answer “situation dependent” one more time.
Instead, he began with a hypothetical situation that none of us were expecting. “You know that one buddy who, every Friday night, claims that there are tons of beautiful women at this one bar in Georgetown?” the assistant instructor asked. “You show up, and look—there are nothing but dudes. And what does this guy say? ‘Just wait, man, they’ll be here before you know it!’” Smiles and nods of assent broke out through the rain. “And what happens? They never show! Guys, you’ve got to be willing to alter course as circumstances change.”
The humor had worked because the instructor had, in a sense, “read the room”—a group of lieutenants who had made numerous “contact patrols” within that same area of operations. The shared experience caused it to ring true to all present, and we appreciated it. The whole group was in on the joke and, therefore, in on the lesson. Being relatable is a highly effective way of transmitting knowledge. I’ve stood in a fair share of debriefs, and many of them are a whirl of fatigue and messy scribbles in a trashed rite-in-the-rain. But I will never forget that joke, and I will never forget the lesson that the willingness to be flexible, to alter, tweak, or even scrap the original plan, depending on the situation, is absolutely vital to offensive operations. Using humor, the captain cut through the less-than-desirable conditions and ensured that his message reached us.
Holmes and Marra describe this very technique in their research. They distinguish between two styles of leadership: transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership is a style that emphasizes routines and rewards based on merit. Transformational leadership, however, takes a greater interest in shaping and inspiring one’s subordinates by portraying “a positive vision of what can be achieved.” Leaders who employ this style
exploit the transformational potential of humor, i.e. its creative energy, to stimulate innovative thinking in attacking problems and generating ideas.5
Creative energy is exactly what the Marine Corps wants to instill in its small unit leaders. Decentralization of command is a hallmark of our operations, and the focus of instruction is not on how to follow inflexible orders from higher headquarters, but rather how to read the situation as it is and achieve an end state that is flush with the commander’s intent. Commanders make their money on finding creative solutions to difficult problems. Anything we can do as leaders to encourage critical thinking and decision making at the lowest levels makes the subordinates, the unit as a whole, and the Marine Corps at large that much stronger.
At the close of his address, BGen Feland put forth an idea that encapsulates the value of levity in situations that are anything but. “I have shown you how that superior “sense of humor” has been turned to advantage under circumstances where apparently no other quality of the human make-up could be substituted.”6 As leaders, our duty is to set our units up for success by providing them with the instruction and encouragement they need to perform. Among the many tools in the toolbox is humor. It can be undervalued and overlooked due to its intangible nature—it is nowhere to be found in MCDP1, Warfighting, or on a gear list—but its value can be incalculable. Lest one think that jokes or wit may be inappropriate between leader and subordinate, MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, contradicts such a belief. “A spirit of comradeship and brotherhood in arms came into being in the training camps and on the battlefields,” it reads. “This spirit is too fine a thing to be allowed to die. It must be fostered and kept alive and made the moving force in all Marine Corps organizations.”7 For this reason, officers should look to hone their senses of humor, as it could be the force multiplier that a unit needs when in dire straits. If nothing else, it is one piece of gear that we do not have to wait on for the Army to pass down.
1. Anonymous, “The Saving Sense of Humor of the American Marines,” Leatherneck, (Quantico, VA: 22 November 1924), 2–5, available at https://www.mca-marines.org.
2. Janet Holmes and Meredith Marra, “Humor and Leadership Style,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, (Berlin: 2006), 119–138.
3. Ibid., 127.
4. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: 1995), 97.
5. Holmes and Marra, 134.
6. “The Saving Sense of Humor of the American Marines.”
7. MCWP 6-11, 11.