Collegial Leadership: Leading as a staff officer

2023 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: First Place

The Importance of Staff Leadership
Marines take pride in their identity as leaders, and Marine officers are trained to aspire to command. We are leaders, not managers is a common mantra. This results in many officers viewing staff time as something to be endured while waiting for their chance to command, the “real job” of Marine officers. But given the typical officer career path, this is a flawed view of one’s time in service. Marine officers spend the preponderance of their careers as staff officers, and not as commanders.

The average captain will spend only one year in company command. A small minority of officers may get more command time as majors, though most will spend this entire rank doing “iron major” time in the staff officer trenches. Depending on the community, approximately one-fifth of lieutenant colonels will be slated for battalion or squadron command, which usually lasts two years. In an average twenty-year career, most officers will see only three years in command, and most will never command again once they are promoted to major.

To be fair, the traits the Corps seeks to cultivate in future commanders often overlap with those desired in good staff officers.1 Yet, there is a significant disparity in the emphasis placed on developing future commanders, compared to developing officers for what most of them do for most of their careers—staff work.2 More than that, command includes lawful authorities by virtue of rank or assignment that makes the exercise of direction over subordinates a fairly straightforward task.3 Staff work includes no such authorities, and relies instead on influence and collaboration.

Good staff officership includes a litany of skills that are beyond the scope of this article.4 However, the authors aim to discuss elements of a leadership style uniquely suited to staff work: collegial leadership, or a set of behaviors and communication skills that deepen and sustain collaborative processes.5

The authors are all currently serving as G-5 plans officers at a MEF headquarters. We are regularly appointed as operational planning team (OPT) leaders for MEF priorities and must assemble or tap into a team of peers from across staff directorates and major subordinate commands to support emerging planning requirements. This provides us with a broad perspective on collegial leadership and staff officership as a result of working with fellow staff officers at the MEF command element, an echelon down at major subordinate commands, an echelon up at the Marine Force level, as well as with joint, combined, and coalition headquarters, depending on the planning effort.

What this puts us in a position to do again and again is to grapple with the leadership challenge of leading our peers toward a common objective while possessing no meaningful authority over them. That is, we must excel as coordinators, not as commanders. We must seek that fine balance of drawing the best results out of a motley crew and meeting our own commander’s timeline, with few if any levers of power on which to pull. Collegial leadership—which focuses on behaviors that optimize collaboration—is the style that serves us most effectively.

Below, we aim to discuss some of the most important lessons distilled from this experience to share with the readers to better prepare Marine Corps officers for the preponderance of the challenges that await them throughout their careers as staff officers—rather, as collegial leaders.


Set the Environment
Setting conditions for sharing ideas is key. Whether in a one-on-one conversation with an action officer in another directorate, in a small working group, or in a large OPT, a collegial leader creates an environment where critical thoughts are freely shared, and the open exchange of ideas can flourish.

If running an OPT or working group, lay the ground rules upfront. Back up that talk by listening when ideas contrary to your own are raised. Allow other members of the team to offer contradictory views and seek to distill from those the essential points that keep the team driving toward the objective.

If you must shoot down an errant idea, do it gracefully so that the individual—and the rest of the team—still feel comfortable sharing their own estimates. If you are a participant in another staff officer’s planning effort, put in the mental sweat and back it with vocal contributions—but understand that your ideas may be culled to support a different vision.


Ideas Over Rank or Billet
In an organization as hierarchical and organizationally conservative as the Marine Corps, it is all too easy to weigh an idea based off the rank or position of the person who offers it. When a commander makes a decision, it is certainly the role of the staff and subordinate commanders to wholeheartedly support it. But before that point, and in planning efforts across a team, it is the obligation of staff officers to offer their best professional effort for the task at hand.

In any cross-functional team, such as an OPT, rank often has little bearing on the authority with which one speaks. This is especially true in large staffs at higher echelons, where individuals often specialize in discrete “portfolios” within a directorate or even within an already-specialized occupational field. This specialization tends to be rarer or less pronounced at lower echelons, where most officers begin their careers.

For more junior officers, do not mute your own voice because others around are more senior. For more senior officers, do not discount estimates from juniors due to rank disparity. Do not weigh an idea’s credibility with the title of the person who offered it—assess the idea on its own terms. While subject-matter experts will be leaned on primarily for their area of expertise, everyone is a MAGTF officer and should be capable of discussing warfighting on a meaningful level; collegial leaders do not just expect this—they ask for it.


It’s All About Relationships
The Marine Corps is a people business, and relationships always matter, but they matter more when leading those you do not command. If the only time you are talking to someone is when you need something from them, they will be less inclined to go the extra mile for you. If you do not do your part and pull your weight when other action officers need your expertise, do not be surprised if they do not drop their priorities to support yours. In large commands, it can be surprising how infrequently priorities between directorates coincide.

When your fellow staff officers need your support, give them your best effort whenever you can. When you call or drop in on someone’s office because you need their input, take the time to say hello, ask how they are doing, and mean it. Develop and practice good “sandbox” skills. In short—be a good person and a good teammate.


Manage Personalities
When working across a staff, the cross-section of personalities is varied. Every person came to the Marine Corps from a different place. After joining the Corps, every Marine took a distinct career path. As a result, two Marines of the same grade and MOS may have wildly different perspectives or divergent personalities. Inevitably, this will mean some people will never see eye to eye. Even though each person may fully buy into the planning effort, these same divergent personalities may come across as oil and water when put in the same room together.

Still, it is your responsibility to get the best effort out of every member of the staff supporting your objective, or to offer your level best when supporting the objectives of others. You do not have to agree with everyone you work with, and you do not have to like them either. But you have a professional responsibility to complete the assigned task to the best of your ability.

Regardless of your role on the staff or within an OPT, be self-aware enough to realize your own biases and emotionally intelligent enough to recognize and manage such biases in others. When insurmountable disagreements arrive, feel free to “mark and bypass” in a professional manner. Know when to agree to disagree. Collegiality demands that conflict is not allowed to fester; if teammates become toxic, tactfully but decisively remove them from the team. Maintain unity of effort and keep the team focused on the cause.


Kill Your Darlings
One of the best rules of editing is “kill your darlings.” That is, do not hesitate to edit out or cull the work you have already done if it does not actually move the story forward. The same is true for staff work. Your team may have lost a lot of blood, sweat, and tears developing a product or an estimate—but that does not mean it will help the commander make an informed decision. If your product does not fit the bill, give it a swift death.

At the same time, you may be that staff officer who was asked to burn the midnight oil to create a product for someone else’s big show, only to find that your precious intellectual gems ended up on the cutting room floor.

When darlings must be killed, collegial leaders kill them without prejudice, then ask for and welcome the next great idea from the team. Understand—and help the team understand—that no matter what ideas make it to the final product or brief, everyone’s contribution was part of the planning process and inevitably helped, even if in a way that cannot be measured.


It is not about you, it is about the objective. When leading an effort on the staff, you must certainly lead, but you do not need to be the main character. When supporting an effort, you may row the hardest or have the grandest idea, but you do not need to steal the show. Chief of the German General Staff, Gen Hans von Seeckt, once observed, “staff officers have no name.”6 The final product may have a dozen parents, but the most effective products should be orphans. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you are not concerned with who gets the credit. A skilled staff officer ensures names and personalities do not confound the output.

Collegial leaders leave the me at the door. Lead and participate with the we. Challenge ideas, not the contributor. Invite challenges to your own ideas and embrace them as contributions to the process, not as challenges to you as a person. Do not steal all the oxygen in the room, and do not let anyone else do so either. If someone is turning something that should be a dialogue into a monologue, return control to the group and to the questions you are trying to answer.

When briefing your work to the commander or another principal, talk in terms of the OPT’s efforts, not in terms of your own efforts: “Ma’am, the staff assessed that ____.” or “Sir, the OPT recommends that____.” This more fully attributes the work to the entire team while also reassuring the principal that you leveraged the collective talents of multiple staff sections to create a more robust product.


Becoming a Collegial Leader
Commanders are invested with lawful authorities that make compliance fairly straightforward. But Marine officers spend most of their careers as staffers and not as commanders. Accomplishing any task that relies upon the efforts of the entire staff then becomes a function of influence and collaboration rather than a function of command. As such, developing a set of communication skills and behaviors that build collaborative processes—collegial leadership—becomes an invaluable leadership style that should be mastered.

The examples discussed within this article are far from exhaustive, but they drive home the essential theme of collegial leadership. Collaboration is achieved through sustained behaviors over time that set a team-based environment, build trust across the staff or an OPT, and wins buy-in from peers and teammates over whom you have no tasking authority. To thrive across their careers, Marine officers must thrive as staff officers—and collegiality is the leadership style uniquely suited to the task.

>LtCol Kerg is a prior-enlisted Mortarman, Communications Officer, Operational Planner, and Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Indo-Pacific Security Initiative. He is currently the G-5 Director of Plans, III MEF in Okinawa, Japan. 

>>LtCol Dunbar is a prior-enlisted Motor Transport Operator, Infantry Officer, and Operational Planner. He is currently the G-5 Northeast Asia Plans Officer, III MEF in Okinawa, Japan. 

>>>LtCol Frederick is an MV-22B Osprey Pilot and Operational Planner. He previously served as a MAWTS-1 Instructor Pilot. He is currently the G-5 East Asia Plans Officer, III MEF in Okinawa, Japan. 

>>>>Maj Denzel is an Intelligence Officer and Operational Planner. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and National Intelligence University. He is currently the G-5 Japan Plans Officer, III MEF in Okinawa, Japan.  


1. Headquarters, Marine Corps, MCWP 6-10, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: 2019).

2. Marine Corps University, “The Lejeune Leadership Institute,” Marine Corps University, n.d.,

3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 1-02: DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, (Washington, DDC: 2016).

4. COL Steve Leonard, “The Utility Infielder: The 7 Principles of an Effective Staff Officer,” Clearance Jobs, January 17, 2023,

5. Debra Mooney, David Burns, and Scott Chadwick, “Collegial Leadership: Deepening Collaborative Processes to Advance Mission and Outcomes,” A Collection of Papers on Self-Study and Institutional Improvement, 28th ed., (Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission, 2012).

6. General der Artillerie Friedrich von Rabenau, Seeckt, Aus meinem Leben 1918–1936, (Leipzig 1940).