Leadership Principles for Warfighters

by 1stLt Scott E. Camden

. . . it should be clear that maneuver warfare exists not so much in the specific methods used-we eschew formulas-but in the mind of the Marine. In this regard, maneuver warfare-like combined arms-applies equally to the Marine expeditionary force commander and the fire team leader.


The Marine Corps doctrine of warfighting, laid out in FMFM 1, continues to generate numerous interpretations regarding its specifics, i.e., “commander’s intent,” “tempo,” and “decentralized command.” However, all these become merely professional academic debates if the proper command relationships between commanders and junior leaders, which are so essential for warfighting to flourish, are not established. FMFM 1 is not a replacement of tactical fundamentals and techniques, as perceived by many senior Marines, but is rather a mindset, or as described in FMFM 1, “. . . a way of thinking in and about war that should shape our every action.” It is a philosophy of command and leadership that provokes, even demands, critical analysis of present techniques and strives for everhigher levels of proficiency.

This mindset, or shared way of thinking, is required both of the commander and the commanded. Trust tactics between commanders and junior leaders can never begin to take hold and flourish if we only pay lipservice to FMFM 1 buzzwords and phrases, and don’t make a sincere effort to implement its principles on a daily basis. Maneuver warfare, represents a radical departure from the Corps’ past ways of conducting battle. With decentralized decisionmaking, the size of a unit becomes secondary, and the internal relationships between leaders and junior leaders-the Marine expeditionary force commander and the fire team leader-take precedence. New emphasis is placed on the individual Marine and his ability to be a “thinking warrior,” making every Marine a leader in some capacity. The way we lead this new breed of warfighters also needs radical revamping to bring our leadership into line with the spirit of FMFM 1. This essay addresses the issue of leadership within the doctrine of warfighting, and the relationship between commanders and junior leaders.

The commander’s authority is derived from rank, but his command atmosphere results from attitude. While there are no checklists that can ensure an effective command relationship between leaders and subordinates, there are certain character traits and leadership principles that are useful in creating a positive command environment.

First, before a commander can have confidence in his subordinates he must have confidence in himself. He must be man enough, both emotionally and psychologically, to realize that he cannot be the “duty expert” in every matter relating to his command, and he must possess the strength of character to utilize those junior leaders who are. Can every officer hold every company- and battalion-level billet? No. Therefore it follows that no one man can have all the answers for every situation that arises at those levels. Soliciting counsel from junior leaders and acting on it must not be misconstrued as a sign of weakness, rather it is a sound leadership practice that can drastically improve the efficiency of a unit.

Second, he must not be afraid to experiment with unorthodox methods and techniques during training. In the structured environment of the Marine Corps, the courage to break with the accepted norm is a rare trait indeed, but warfighting demands innovation to keep tactics and techniques pertinent to reality instead of checklists. Company- and battalion-level commanders must accept that most techniques of leadership and tactics taught at The Basic School in the seventies or even the eighties are not being taught there now. History has rendered harsh judgment on those militaries unable to cope with changes in weaponry and technology by creatively implementing changes in their tactics and techniques. In reality, after-action debriefs are debates about how to save more lives. The effective warfighting commander must demand honest and open debate from his junior leaders at every debrief, and sycophancy must be dealt with harshly. Healthy critical analysis, no matter how unflattering to the commander, does not equal insubordination or lack of respect.

Third, clear standards and guidance must be established, followed by the true empowerment of junior leaders so that they are able to act within those standards without second guessing from above. Training should not be limited to field problems conducted far away from the judging eyes of one’s higher commander. Only by giving junior leaders real power to make decisions at all times, including in garrison or during a “high visibility” situation, can a commander instill a strong sense of responsibility and the implicit understanding among his junior leaders that will allow them to make the appropriate decisions in his absence.

Finally, a commander must be decisive. The willingness to accept risk, as an unavoidable part of every decision, is paramount in the warfighting commander. Nothing represses the development of an effective command and saps initiative and morale more from subordinates than indecisiveness and second guessing. Once the courses of action are debated and the order given, every commander expects the full support of his subordinates. This attitude must prevail when the roles are reversed.

As previously stated, responsibilities flow both ways under warfighting doctrine. Junior leaders also must possess certain personal traits:

First, a successful junior leader must possess, as the foundation of his character, a strong sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance. This is the willingness of the junior leader to accept responsibility for his actions and what is more important, those of his Marines. Just as he is expected to offer healthy critical analysis during debriefs, he must constantly engage in a candid analysis of his own strengths and weaknesses and those of his unit and act on the results to develop improvements.

Second, is a base of solid and mature judgment. This is an essential ingredient in the decentralized decisionmaking environment created by true warfighters. Through training and constant development, judgment can be honed and molded to closely resemble that of the commander’s. Junior leaders must always be conscious of the potential weight their decisions hold. They must be developed by their superior to distinguish the often blurry differences between bold action and reckless behavior.

Finally, the subordinate must have initiative. The ability of subordinates to “self start” themselves is the cornerstone of any successful warfighting command structure. Many senior officers would find themselves quite surprised to find the great things accomplished within their commands by merely allowing someone to take the ball and run; the essence of trust tactics. Without initiative, and the willingness of a command to exercise it, the doctrine of warfighring will never get off the ground.

In conclusion, there are no checklists, formulas, or charts to clearly illustrate what constitutes successful warfighting leaders and subordinates. There are as many styles of leadership in the Marine Corps as there are people, and each individual must choose what fits him best. However, the basic traits and principles outlined above are a good reference point when evaluating the conditions that exist within a command, and should be encouraged and developed to the fullest extent possible. What is more important, commanders and their junior leaders must realize and accept that they each bear specific responsibilities to one another, and that carrying them out on a daily basis is the only way for the principles of warfighting to take root and grow within their unit.