Marine Corps Innovation: It's Simple. It's About Leadership

There is an almost endless discussion today regarding innovation. Countless books provide blueprints for organizations to innovate, to routinely turn ideas into increased value and profits. This discussion is mirrored in the Marine Corps and across the greater Department of Defense. But one must ask the basic question: “Are we lacking innovation, and if so, why?” More specific to the Marine Corps’ emphasis on leadership, is our leadership falling short in setting the environment for innovation to flourish?

History is rich with examples of points in time and space that not only encouraged innovation, but also enabled mankind to reap tremendous benefits. Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and Silicon Valley are just three to consider. But what were the conditions that made these instances possible? Was it the rival governments of Athens and Sparta that enabled the Golden Age of Greece … or was it Pericles’s vision for arts and literature? Was it the beauty of Florence that inspired da Vinci, Michelangelo, and so many others … or was it the Medici family’s financial and political backing that empowered these artists to create? Was it the venture capital business model that fostered the Silicon Valley culture of innovation … or was it leaders such as Steve Jobs that delivered a higher vision and then ruthlessly removed barriers to that vision? Innovation is complex and not easily replicated, but there is a single constant: leaders that set the conditions for innovation to occur by recognizing talent and allowing it to flourish.

Before going further, we must assume that innovative people and their ideas to improve the status quo have been prevalent throughout mankind. It would be improbable that there was simply a randomly generated convergence of only brilliant people who happened to be collocated in Greece, Florence, and Silicon Valley during those precise periods of time. We must also assume that innovation did not only occur during these three periods. In fact, innovation is occurring all the time – it is simply that these three instances manifested into a larger innovation revolution that was defined by a specific time and location. Also, it must be assumed that there are myriad other contributing factors to innovation, such as financial resources, the necessity for change, or levels of education. However, these factors pale in comparison to the role of leadership in fostering or hindering innovation – whether intentional or otherwise. Even the occasional savant who makes huge contributions, such as Einstein, had to be inspired, developed, protected, and endorsed.

You might be asking: “Well, these are interesting examples, but how do they affect my role as a leader in the Marine Corps?” Let’s take a look at two Marine Corps case studies in which innovation occurred in real time, and where leadership made the critical difference:

In Vietnam, a Company Commander was operating in Hue City in 1968. The simple mission - to move his unit across a street – seemed impossibly daunting, as this task exposed his Marines into the teeth of the enemy. He had an idea, articulated it to his Marines, and closed with “What do you think, and does anyone have a better idea?” His Marines offered the idea of putting a 106mm recoilless rifle round on the back a mule. The huge round will put the enemy to the ground and the back flash will provide cover. The idea was accepted and worked brilliantly. Also, the Marines needed maps and the Battalion Commander (then LtCol Cheatham) needed better reference points than just the color of the building. A few lance corporals found a gas station, broke in, and found three tourists maps. All the buildings were numbered and were very accurate. It instantly solved the problem.

In Anbar, Marines were suffering casualties from IEDs. Leadership in their first tour in Anbar asked: “Why not slow down and look for the IEDs?” Marines tried it, and the enemy responded with pressure-plate IEDs. That same leadership then asked: “Why not build something that goes in front of the vehicles that detonates the pressure plate?” He could not get anyone in CONUS to do this, so he went to the engineer capability within the FSSG, Seabees, and MWSG and asked them to build something to defeat pressure plates – and he briefly described the challenge. Marines and Sailors responded within days, and the first mine-roller (and all three organizations built devices that looked like a contraption unworthy of definition but practical) detonated a pressure-plate IED. Immediately, mine-rollers were being built and adopted across Iraq.

In the case studies above, Captain Ron Christmas and Brigadier General Bob Neller each found themselves in a situation which demanded innovation due to a sense of life-or-death necessity. However, these leaders had a choice about how to respond to this need. And in both cases, these leaders chose to deliberately create the conditions for innovation to flourish. They created an environment where ideas were welcomed, opinions were sought, and leadership provided the resources to put those ideas into action. And in both cases, empowered Marines responded boldly when challenged.

As Marines, we have traditionally excelled at tactical leadership. The Marine Corps is not – and should not pretend to be - Ancient Greece, Italy, or Silicon Valley. But the Marine Corps does share one common thread with every one of these three instances – the ability to empower individuals with a common goal and foster diverse thought. Placing this into the terms of maneuver warfare, the prime directive is incredibly simple: intent backed by bold leadership. A bold leader will deliver intent, and immediately get the hell out of the way. A bold leader will encourage his Marines to unquestionably bring him barriers that only he has the resources to remove. A bold leader will inspire his Marines to become more and achieve more – all in alignment with that singular intent.

A Marine sage once said: “If you ask your Marines to go to hell and get you water, they will. If you lead them well, they will come back with clear, cold water with ice in a Waterford crystal glass. Just don’t ask how they got it … because chances are they were innovative.”

Now, ask yourself: What deliberate actions have you taken to create the environment for innovation to flourish? Are you inspiring your Marines to bring their impassioned ideas to you, or do you find yourself delivering near-constant edicts of your own ideas? Do you have explicit and resourced mechanisms to tap into both the passion and the knowledge within your unit – irrespective of rank or education level? How often, if ever, has a junior Marine taken risk to come to you candidly for help to remove a barrier to innovation and you actually did exactly as asked?

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