Leadership for a More Educated Corps

by Capt Francis E. Halliwell

With its emphasis on mission orders, maneuver warfare demands Marines who can be innovative, creative, and flexible-Marines who can exercise initiative in fast-moving, fluid situations without the benefit of orders. This need is clearly identified in FMFM 1. Warfighting, which states that “the Marine Corps’ style of warfare requires intelligent leaders with a penchant for boldness and initiative down to the lowest level.” Marines with these characteristics will enable our Corps to take advantage of the chaotic battlefield of the future, rather than be hindered by it. These traits, however, don’t come from Marines who just follow orders as if they were robots: they come from thinking Marines with inquisitive, questioning minds. Stifling those minds by requiring blind obedience would destroy the traits we hope to exploit through maneuver warfare. It becomes our duty, therefore, to encourage the questioning, thinking nature of our educated Marines. This will be especially important over the next few years since the average intelligence and education level of our Marines is going to increase, as only the best and brightest will be recruited and retained in a Corps of decreasing size.

The question for us then is this: How do we lead Marines who are encouraged to question orders and authority? The answer is quite simple: We lead them as we always have. All the leadership traits and principles we are familiar with still apply. Today, however, we need to give greater emphasis to the principle of keeping our Marines informed. Since most Marines today are better educated than their predecessors, keeping them informed of basic decisions, such as what we’re doing or where we’re going, isn’t enough. Today’s Marines are a part of the information age. They are accustomed to receiving and accessing almost any information desired, and they bring that expectation with them to the Corps. In a time when we can watch a war on television from the enemy’s point of view, what else can you expect? Under these circumstances we must be prepared to explain the rationale behind our decisions-the why to go with the who, what, when, and where. When a Marine questions why a task is necessary, why it needs to he carried out in a particular manner, or why one Marine is carrying out a specific task rather than another, we must be prepared to explain. If we tell the Marine to just follow orders, he may have lingering doubts as to its validity or appropriateness. Given time, these doubts could jeopardize his trust and confidence in his leader. On the other hand, by answering the question we clear up any doubts or misunderstandings and prevent any loss of trust. Additionally, the Marine’s question may reveal a weakness in the plan that a change in the order might remedy. As frustrating and distracting as it may be, this questioning behavior results in several other important benefits to the Corps.

First, when we take the time to encourage and answer questions, we show a Marine that we care about him and his opinions. Additionally, when we keep an open mind toward criticism, we allow a Marine to participate in the decisionmaking process. This practice is highly recommended by FMFM 1. which states that ” . . . until a commander has reached and stated a decision, each subordinate should consider it his duty to provide his honest professional opinions. . . . ” LtGen Louis Metzger, in his article “Some Thoughts on Leadership” (MCG, Jan93), concurs when he reminds us that “communication is a two-way street.” Finally, LtCol Jon W. Blades, USA. in his book Rules for Leadership also support (his two-way communication and suggests that this practice is good not only for morale, but for unit esprit and cohesion as well.

Second, in explaining the purpose or intent behind an order, a leader demonstrates the reasoning that went into his decisions; and that explanation assists a Marine in learning how he should think. If he understands how his leader’s mind works, then he will have greater trust and confidence in the leader’s decisionmaking ability. Over time, this increased trust will result in fewer questions and better understanding. Some might argue that many leaders don’t have time to be constantly answering the questions of Marines, but they’re wrong. In my experience, there is rarely a time when a leader can’t spare a few moments to explain his order or reasoning, particularly in peacetime. It is usually poor management on the part of a leader that creates the illusion of a lack of time.

Finally, a biproduct of the previous two benefits is the development of a certain rapport between the leader and those he leads. This is manifest in his ability to communicate implicitly with Marines-that is, communicate without the benefit of the physical transmission of information, but rather through a shared way of thinking. Thus, just as a less-educated Marine may instantly carry out an order, we can also expect instant obedience based on trust and an understanding of our reasoning from our educated Marines. It is this kind of response that enables Marines to adapt to changes and achieve our intent even if the assigned mission is no longer valid. It is this kind of response that is crucial for maneuver warfare, which requires implicit communication in order to achieve maximum results. This capability, in and of itself, is worth any frustration that might result from encouraging questioning from our Marines.

By way of an example, let me describe the events during which I first became aware of this questioning behavior among my Marines, and how I used it to my advantage. While on sea duty. I wrote the Marine detachment’s guard orders and most of the detachment’s standing operating procedures (SOPs). I had put a lot of effort into them and was quite proud of the result, but upon publication I was besieged with questions and comments. I listened to these questions and, in turn, explained the rationale behind my decisions. We then evaluated what would work best. Quite often, the recommendations I received improved the original orders and drove me to modify them accordingly.

This questioning behavior, however, was not limited to just orders and SOPs, instead it encompassed almost everything we did. I routinely took the time to explain my reasoning when a question arose and would not hesitate to make changes if a better alternative was proposed. This practice helped build a deep sense of mutual trust and confidence. Eventually, the detachment developed into a highly efficient organization in which implicit communication was self-evident. Later, when we went through the Nuclear Weapons Acceptance Inspection, we passed with flying colors, and I credit this to the inquisitive, questioning nature of my Marines. All this may seem like common sense to you, and you may wonder what this has to do with maneuver warfare, but the point is that if I had demanded silent obedience rather than encouraged questioning, the performance levels and degree of implicit communication we achieved would never have been possible, and that is a lesson that can be applied universally.

I admit that the idea I have presented isn’t new. To keep Marines informed is routine procedure for any good leader, as is the practice of providing subordinates with the maximum opportunity to exercise initiative and flexibility. What is new, however, is the depth and extent to which we must be prepared to explain our orders and decisions to our subordinates. If we are afraid to explain, or cannot articulate, the reasoning behind our orders, then perhaps the order should never have been issued. The key to keep in mind is that our Marines do not question orders or authority in order to be disruptive. They do so in a genuine effort to learn, to improve, and to achieve the goal, whatever it might be. It is our job, as leaders to ensure that they are equipped to do just that. If the price we must pay is to answer the questions of our inquisitive Marines, then it is a small price to pay for such a large reward.