A Critical and Devastating Gap in our Leadership Traits, Principles, Evaluations, Ethos, and Culture: The problem with solutions

2023 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: Honorable Mention

The title, Marine, is synonymous with leadership. Many outside entities study the Marine Corps to understand its leadership traits, principles, values, and ethos. Yet, “the reader should note that there is a difference between a philosophy and a culture. A philosophy is merely words, but a culture is what truly matters since the culture is the unwritten norms and rules of an organization.”1 While we have a good leadership ethos, we must remember that “good is the enemy of great.”2 

Jim Collins states that many organizations fail to become great because becoming good is achievable and comfortable.3 Though the Marine Corps is considered by many as an organization in which outsiders should emulate our leadership philosophy, we are missing one critical leadership trait, in which we are limiting our ability to effectively and efficiently achieve mission success, impose our will, develop and empower our subordinates, and sustain the transformation of our Marines. We, the Marine Corps, must recognize that humility is needed: as one of our leadership traits; to be incorporated into our leadership principles; as a metric in our evaluations; in our ethos; and most importantly to be consistently demonstrated and applied in our culture. As stated by Hayes and Comer, “Humility is one of the most important attributes of leadership because it helps connect the leader to followers through their common bond of humanity. Leaders who have humility build trust, and trust is the essence of leadership.”4 Therefore, the purpose of this article is to clearly showcase the importance of humility, and then provide solutions to our Corps’ decision makers on how to incorporate humility officially in our ethos and culture.  


 “Leaders who have humility are able to build trust and inspire people to want to follow them.” -Merwyn Hayes and Michael Comer 


What Is Humility?
According to Hayes and Comer, authors of the book Start with Humility, the word “humility” is derived from ancient Greek, meaning “not rising far from the ground,” and Latin, meaning “of the ground or earth.”5 This concept is essential for leaders within the Marine Corps because as we progress in rank and billet, we must “remember that you are above the Marines only in rank structure and nothing else.”6 A humble leader is close to the boots on the ground physically, interpersonally, and environmentally. As stated by Bill Burns, “You have to keep your feet on the ground when others want to put you on a pedestal.”7 

Figure 1. Humility is needed for justice and judgment.

According to Kaissi, “Humility is about having a true understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.”8 For Kaissi, humility is about self-awareness and how you understand yourself, your relationships with others, and your place in the universe.9 Those who possess humility typically display increased: interpersonal interactions, gratitude, time management, agreeableness, approachability, empathy, altruism, and willingness to seek advice.10  


What Humility Is Not
Humility “has incorrectly evolved to mean having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”11 Some unfortunately equate humility with being timid, weak, complacent, non-driven, and not outspoken. Figure 2 displays the incorrect definitions provided when searching the phrase, “humility definition,” on the Google search engine. However, this is an incorrect view of humility. Humility is specifically not: a weakness, a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, an absence of ego, nor a lack of assertiveness, ambition, or speaking out.12 As stated by Hayes and Comer, “Humility and confidence are not at opposite ends of the scale.”13 

In Amer Kaissi’s book, Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High Drive Leadership, he expertly describes how ambition and humility are not at opposite ends of the spectrum, with both needed for high-output leaders.14 Whereas non-humble leaders have ambition for themselves, humble leaders have ambition for the organization and the team.15 Being confident and possessing an ego are needed in a strong leader; however, without humility, leaders cannot assess their true capabilities, limitations, or the situation correctly. Furthermore, leaders who lack humility will exhibit flaws in all our Corps’ leadership traits (Figures 1, 3, 4, and 6).  

Moreover, humility does not demonstrate weakness, rather it showcases moral strength. A leader needs to be competent—not omniscient or infallible. Admitting one’s mistakes accurately and publicly can drastically increase the trust of one’s subordinates, and we must remember there is a distinct difference between a subordinate and a follower. A subordinate is dictated by the task organization, but a follower is an intrinsic choice by a subordinate to follow their leader/ commander, and followers will put in more effort than subordinates. Thus, we must strive to make our subordinates our followers. As discovered by Hays and Comer, discretionary effort (effort put into one’s work that is above what is expected) is directly correlated to one’s trust in their immediate manager and the organizational leadership as a whole.16  


“Humility as a leadership virtue does not mean lack of asserting one’s self. Rather, it relates to how one asserts oneself, and where one places one’s focus- whether it is on the leader’s accomplishment or on the team’s accomplishment.”- Merwyn Hayes and Michael Comer 


What Is the Opposite of Humility?
The opposite of humility is entitlement, pride, and self-centeredness. Entitlement, pride, and self-centeredness have facilitated and directly caused the downfall of individuals, teams, and organizations. When an individual is not humble, they will elevate themselves at the expense of the mission and others. As stated by Kaissi, “one of the most common myths about leadership is that arrogant, overconfident, and even narcissistic individuals are better leaders … It’s very clear: self-centered leaders do not achieve success in the long term … It is humility that leads to higher performance.”17  

Entitlement, pride, and self-centeredness can be assessed by the frequency of one’s use of “I, me, mine, myself, etc.” When an individual talks exclusively about themselves; about how great/ impressive they are; about how hard they have it/ had it; and even how they are not great/ worthy, is an indication of the lack of humility. The latter, talking about oneself constantly in a self-deprecating manner, is a sign of pride concealed by pretending to be humble. This is because when one constantly talks about how they are not worthy, they are still constantly talking about themselves and “pretending to be humble may be worse than outright arrogance.18 Furthermore, according to Kaissi, when you have a skill or capability and do not acknowledge it, you are not only displaying false humility but also self-disparagement and ingratitude.19 

Figure 2. Google search engine definition of humility.
Figure 3. Humility is needed for dependability, initiative, and decisiveness.

When an individual uses terms like “they, the team, we, us, our, etc.,” this is a sign of humility. Leaders who possess humility, “share credit, emphasize the team over self, and define success collectively rather than individually.”20 However, a leader’s talking about others more than themselves must be genuine; otherwise, it is not humility and will be detected by those in the organization. As is taught in the Basic Officer Course, nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.  


Why Is Humility Needed?
The following section will concisely state eight facts on why humility needs to be fully integrated into our Marine Corps ethos and culture.  


Fact 1: Leadership Begins with Humility.
Prior to action, there is thought; either on the conscious or subconscious level. Regarding leadership, correct thinking begins with humility. Without humility, thoughts, words, and actions will derive from selfish and self-serving motives. With leadership being described “as the ability to inspire and influence those around you to perform at a higher level and become better versions of themselves,”21 “perhaps there is no greater sign of humility than serving others.”22 


Fact 2: A Servant Leader Requires Humility.
There is a difference between a manager and a leader. A manager cares about an efficient process with an effective end-state. A leader cares about those variables as well. However, a leader also cares about the development of the individuals they have the privilege to serve. In John Maxwell’s book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, the fifth and highest level of leadership (Pinnacle) is categorized as “people follow because of who you are and what you represent.”23 In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins states that one of the six factors that enable organizations to become great is “Level 5 Leadership.” As stated by Collins, “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”24 Thus, a true leader is a servant leader, which demands humility. As credited to Andre Malraux “to command is to serve, nothing more and nothing less.” 


Fact 3: Our Leadership Traits Are Connected to Each Other and Governed by Humility.
Gen Mattis, when asked, “What in your opinion is the most important leadership trait and why,” replied, “There is no way to separate out the leadership traits because if you prioritize one over the others then you actually become a weaker leader. You got to look at all of them and how they come together … it is how you put them together in your own authentic way.”25  

While this is very true, we must also recognize that our leadership traits are not only connected but are governed by humility. As seen in Figures 1, 3, 4, and 6, humility directly affects all 14 Leadership Traits. Kaissi concludes that “the idea that humility needs to be coupled with other positive traits in order to lead to high performance is well supported by evidence.”26 Lastly, humility allows one to accurately self-assess their capabilities and limitations, which aligns with our first leadership principle (know yourself and seek self-improvement).  


Fact 4: Humility Decreases Blunders. 
Zachary Shore states that a mistake “is simply an error arising from incorrect data,” whereas a blunder is “a solution to a problem that makes matters worse than before you began.”27 Zachary Shore, in his book Blunder, categorizes typical blunders into seven categories (Exposure Anxiety; Causefusion; Flatview; Cure-allism; Infomania; Mirror imaging; and Static Cling). Humility directly contributes to minimizing all seven types of blunders proposed by Shore because humility facilitates a leader’s ability to listen to others for input, have increased empathy, and assess the situation more clearly; whereas pride diminishes the ability of an individual to truly listen and be open-minded.  

In the book, The Smartest Guy in the Room, Enron Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling is quoted as stating that Enron would be the greatest company of all time because he was the smartest person in the room, and in 2001 Enron filed for bankruptcy.28 This directly contradicts the concept proposed by Gregerman in his book, Surrounded by Genius, which talks about the need of leaders to surround themselves with individuals smarter than themselves.29 As stated by Kaissi, “You can’t know everything or do anything by yourself. You need to rely on others for help, ideas, and advice. And for that, you need to be humble.”30 


“Humble leaders recognize that unless they extract important insights from people around them, they run the risk of being limited by the scope of their own knowledge and expertise.”-Merwyn Hayes and Michael Comer 


Fact 5: Humility Increases Trust.
When a leader lacks humility, their subordinates will believe that their superior is more about themselves than the unit; will not value their opinions; and their ideas/ efforts will be used to advance the superior, which all decrease trust. Lencioni, in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, states that the lack of trust is a primary contributor to dysfunctional teams.31 In the book, The Speed of Trust, Covey expertly conveys the vast importance of trust in organizations. As stated by Covey, “Trust is one of the most powerful forms of motivation and inspiration. People want to be trusted. They want to trust. They thrive on trust.”32 Furthermore, Covey states, “In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.”33 

Figure 4. Humility is needed for tact, integrity, and enthusiasm.

Fact 6: Humble Leaders Create Humble Leaders.
Throughout James Kerr’s book, Legacy, the reader can see the utmost importance and value that New Zealand’s premier rugby team, the All Blacks, place on humility.34 In Legacy, Kerr states that in the All Blacks culture, “leaders create leaders.”35 In regards to humility, “most humble leaders see their mission as a leader to serve—particularly the younger generation.”36 Hayes and Comer state that “humility is the soil that grows effective leaders.”37 One of the most overlooked characteristics in authentic leadership is humility, the overarching virtue that enforces all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, wisdom, confidence, compassion, and courage.”38 Lastly and notably, it has been found that the level of humility of employees in an organization can directly impact the failure or success of a leader.39  


“The level of humility of employees in an organization can directly impact the failure or success of a leader.”-Amer Kaissi 


Fact 7: Vulnerability Is Needed for Growth.
The Marine Corps is at a time of transition, evolution, and transformation guided by several critical documents.40 For our growth to occur in the Marine Corps, we must be vulnerable. The same is true for the individual or small unit; vulnerability is needed for growth. If a subordinate does not feel they can be vulnerable with their superior, such as with ideas, loyal dissent, or ownership, there will be no growth of the person or the organization. Non-humble leaders do not promote vulnerability in their subordinates, eliciting yes-men, thus closing avenues for growth. As seen in Figure 5, “The Growth- Vulnerability Curve,” there is an asymptotic curve related to the growth of an individual/ organization with the level of vulnerability associated with the leader-led relationship.  

Growth (depicted by the Y-axis) does not immediately occur in an individual or unit when new relationships occur; rather a level of trust, thus vulnerability, must be cultivated. Once a level of vulnerability via trust is established between the leader and led, growth can occur. Vulnerability is needed for the growth of our subordinates/followers, which demands humble leadership. Michael Useem, in his book, Leading Up, talks about the vast importance of subordinates to be able to lead up the chain of command; however, this is only possible if a leader possesses genuine humility.41 Furthermore, humble leaders “realize the concern that others have during times of change and the importance of getting their involvement in the implementation of change.”42 Of note, Dr. Thad Green, who developed the concept of “The Belief System,” has concluded that regarding a person’s motivation, their perception of the situation is more important than the reality.43 


Fact 8: You Cannot Have Semper Fidelis without Humility. 
Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful, requires humility. One cannot be faithful to anything but themselves without humility. A non-humble Marine cannot put their fellow Marines, the mission, or the Corps above their desires, pride, and ambitions. According to Lencioni, the ideal team player possesses humility, hunger (i.e., drive), and smarts (i.e., emotional intelligence), with humility being “the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.”44  

Figure 5. Growth-vulnerability curve.

Solution 1: JJ-DID-TIE-BUCKLE-H 
I cannot take credit for the concept of including humility in our leadership traits via JJ-DID-TIE-BUCKLE-H. This concept was introduced during the Basic Officer Course and heard throughout my time in the Marine Corps. However, I am calling for the Marine Corps to officially incorporate humility into our leadership traits to elicit more effective, lethal, and resilient Marines. The Marine Corps leadership traits, JJ-DID-TIE-BUCKLE, are taught to each recruit and candidate, and humility must be integrated into our Corps from a Marine’s earliest training. The following is a proposed definition of humility as a leadership trait: “the ability to genuinely assess one’s capabilities, limitations, and the situation, listen to those around them, and place the mission, the Marines, and others above themselves.” 


Solution 2: Leadership Principles
Our current leadership principles do not explicitly mention humility. However, humility will affect all eleven of our leadership principles, most notably in the first (know yourself and seek self-improvement), third (seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions), fifth (set the example), and sixth (know your men and look out for their welfare). The Marine Corps needs to develop a leadership principle that explicitly states the importance of humility in the leader. The following is a proposed example of a twelfth leadership principle regarding humility: Humbly lead, listen, and learn, ensuring the growth, development, and trust of your subordinates, while not seeking recognition. 


“Humility allows us to ask a simple question: how can we do this better?”-James Kerr 


Solution 3: Junior Enlisted Performance Evaluation System
Our privates’ through corporals’ performance is measured via the Junior Enlisted Performance Evaluation System (JEPES) with, “JEPES will be the means by which Marines in the ranks of Private through Corporal are evaluated and recommended for promotion to the next higher grade.”45 This replaced the legacy system of the private through corporal being evaluated via the proficiency-conduct system. Ironically, both the proficiency-conduct system and JEPES did not and do not use humility as a metric by which we should evaluate our junior enlisted Marines. 

The JEPES “score is comprised of four equally weighted pillars each worth 25 percent of the Marine’s score as depicted.46 The four pillars are warfighting, physical toughness, mental agility, and command input, with the pillar of command input being the only ability for the Marine’s direct leadership to influence the Marine’s score. Within the command input section, there are three equally divided variables (i.e., individual character, military occupational specialty and/or mission accomplishment, and Leadership). The Marine Corps needs to incorporate humility into the leadership subsection of the command input pillar into JEPES via incorporation of humility into the definition of a leader, as well as into the six brackets of performance; specifically in the last two brackets of performance (exceeds expectations and exceptional). 

Figure 6. Humility is needed for bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, and endurance.

Solution 4: Fitness Reports
As stated in the Commandant’s guidance for the fitness report, “the completed fitness report is the most important information component in manpower management. It is the primary means of evaluating Marine’s performance and is the Commandant’s primary tool for the selection of personnel for promotion, augmentation, resident schooling, command, and duty assignments.”47 However, humility is not assessed in our fitness reports. Furthermore, shockingly, the word humility is not even written in sections D (mission accomplishment), E (individual character), F (leadership), or G (intellect and wisdom). This is a critical gap in our “Commandant’s primary tool for the selection of personnel for promotion, augmentation, resident schooling, command, and duty assignments.”48  Figure 7 is an example of how humility can be incorporated into either sections D, E, F, or G (since humility is needed and can be easily applied in each section).  

Figure 7. Humility incorporated into the fitness report.

Steven Pressfield states “No one is born with the Warrior Ethos … The Warrior Ethos is taught.”49 The Marine Corps fully embraces this concept with our basic training and Officer Candidate Course training curriculums and culture; specifically of having to earn the title of Marine. At entry-level training, our future Marines are taught how to be Marines and how to be leaders, yet we have a critical gap in our curriculums and culture at these schools because we are not emphasizing, measuring, or acknowledging the importance of humility. This gap of not emphasizing, measuring, or acknowledging humility is only increased as one gains rank within the Marine Corps because humility is not used in our evaluation systems.


“Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”-C.S. Lewis


As we approach our 249th year of existence, let us holistically incorporate humility into our ethos and culture. Our ability to create small-unit leaders is a competitive advantage we possess and must fully exploit. Our ability to create competent, morally strong, and tactically proficient leaders allows us to impose our will against our adversaries. Our ability to empower our Marines is a strength that we must cultivate and unleash. All of this is enhanced by humble leaders and a humble culture. “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.”50 Never forget that we must emphasize, measure, acknowledge, and correct the culture we pursue.

>Capt Carter, prior to becoming a Special Operations Officer, was an Infantry Officer, serving as a Platoon Commander, Company Executive Officer, and Company Commander. Before commissioning in the Marine Corps, he was a strength and conditioning coach, a researcher in sports science, and a graduate teaching assistant. He is still currently active in the strength and conditioning community with his research centering on holistic training approaches for human performance. 



1. Jeremy Carter and Thomas Ochoa, “The Relationship Between Enlisted and Officers- Part 2: Developing the T-Shape Culture,” Marine Corps Gazette 107, No. 12 (2023).

2. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).

3. Ibid.

4. Merwyn A. Hayes, Michael D. Comer, Start With Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on how to Build Trust and Inspire Followers (Merwyn A. Hayes and Michael D. Comer, 2010).

5. Ibid.

6. “The Relationship Between Enlisted and Officers-Part 2.”

7. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, “Managing Authenticity: The Paradox of Great Leadership,” Havard Business Review 83, No. 12 (2005).

8. Amer Kaissi, Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High Drive Leadership (Canada: Page Two, 2021).

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Start With Humility.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Humbitious.

15. Start With Humility.

16. Ibid.

17. Humbitious.

18. Start With Humility.

19. Humbitious.

20. Patrick Lencioni, The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues-A Leadership Fable (Hoboken, New Jersey: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

21. Jeremy Carter and Thomas Ochoa, “The Relationship Between Enlisted and Officers- Part 1: The T-Shape Philosophy,” Marine Corps Gazette 107, No. 7 (2023).

22. Start With Humility.

23. John C. Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential (New York: Center Street, 1995).

24. Good to Great.

25. Marines, “Leadership Lessons from Gen. James Mattis (Ret.),” YouTube video, 16:36, October 13, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EYU3VTI3IU.

26. Humbitious

27. Zachary Shore, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008).

28. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing and Scandalous Fall of Enron (New York: Portfolio Trade, 2004).

29. Alan S. Gregerman, Surrounded by Genius: Unlocking the Brilliance in Yourself, Your Colleagues, and Your Organization (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007).

30. Humbitious.

31. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

32. Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2018).

33. The Speed of Trust.

34. James Kerr, Legacy: What the All Blacks can Teach us about the Business of Life (London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2015).

35. Legacy.

36. Start with Humility.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.

39. Humbitious.

40. Gen David H. Berger, 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, (Washington, DC: July 2019); Gen David H. Berger, Force Design 2030, (Washington, DC: March 2020); Headquarters Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations 2d Edition, (Washington, DC: May 2023); Gen David H. Berger, Training and Education 2030, (Washington, DC: 2023); Gen David H. Berger, Talent Management 2030, (Washington, DC: 2021); and Gen David H. Berger, A Concept for Stand-in Forces, (Washington, DC:2021).

46. Michael Useem, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001).

47. Start with Humility.

48. Ibid.

49. The Ideal Team Player.

50. Headquarters Marine Corps, MARADMIN 505/20, Junior Enlisted Performance, Evaluation Systems (Washington, DC: 2020). https://www.marines.mil/News/Messages/Messages-Display/Article/2334563/junior-enlisted-performance-evaluation-implementation/

51. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Order 1616.1, Junior Enlisted Performance Evaluation System (JEPES), (Washington, DC: 2020).

52. Headquarters Marine Corps, NAVMC 10835A, USMC Fitness Reports, (Washington, DC: n.d.).

53. Ibid.

54. Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2011).

55. Good to Great.

From Failure to Growth: Leadership reflections on promotion non-selection 

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

In December 2022, my boss notified me that I was passed for promotion to lieutenant colonel. The emotions encompassing this gut-wrenching juncture in my career embodied myriad mental emotions, including rage, betrayal, emptiness, uselessness, shame, and embarrassment; similar mental emotions when one encounters ending relationships, failing to reach the highest levels in sports, or receiving a rejection letter from college. Despite these negative sentiments, the failure of promotion selection forced me to grapple with several essential leadership reflections to focus on—internally defining success, building resiliency through adversity, service before self, and humility in all. The purpose of this piece is to shape all Marine’s mindsets when faced with adversity, to help build their mental resiliency through understanding varying perspectives, and to provide lessons learned—not in the mechanical process after non-selection to the next rank but lessons that one can apply as a humble professional seeking the next opportunity within the Marine Corps and beyond.


Leadership Reflection # 1: What does success look like for you?
Success comes in many shapes and sizes—promotion to the next rank may not characterize the embodiment of success. My pass for promotion compelled me to truly reflect on my definition of success. While in college and throughout my almost seventeen years in service, I was surrounded by senior leaders describing the path to the next rank or challenging experiences that would lead to promotion. The consistent focus on routes to promotion was instilled into my mindset that promotion defined success. Moreover, various engagements with senior officers invoked an idol persona, further describing success aligned to a specific rank. This is not only true of my experience but also part of our institutional fabric; for example, key billet in grade leads to success, or achieving critical milestones in a MOS roadmap will define success. Through deliberate thought, one must find what success looks like while expanding the aperture to consider events outside of the professional lens, such as becoming a parent or experiencing personally challenging events like running a half marathon. Only you define what success looks like for you—no one else.


Leadership Reflection # 2: A diligent work ethic will build mental resiliency.
My parents taught me to work through challenges and complex problems diligently, but I failed to see that the industrious work ethic they instilled in me would prepare me for mental adversity in the future. I was raised to have a robust and committed work ethic in all aspects of life—including academics, physical fitness, and in the professional workforce—which resulted in overcoming various challenges. Furthermore, the time and commitment devoted to those challenges led me to focus on just the results. I focused my diligent work ethic on the outcome, not the intangible mental development I would gain through that hard work. With the unwelcoming promotion results, my mental resiliency was tested, and my work ethic was triggered to focus on the next promotion board. Moreover, it highlighted the symbiotic relationship between work ethic and mindset hardening or resiliency. I will continue meticulously and thoroughly working through complex problems, regardless of circumstances or results. Still, I will further reflect on how my mindset has matured in preparation for future endeavors I may face.


Leadership Reflection # 3: Your tribe members will reveal their true character during challenging encounters. Surround yourself with true teammates to keep you on course.
In professional and personal development, colleagues become friends and mentors, congratulating you on achievements and significant career milestones; however, during adversity, only those committed friends and mentors will stand out, ensuring the developmental process stays the course. When the promotion message became public, confirming the failed promotion, those dedicated friends and mentors contacted me immediately for a mental check-in and encouragement. Those same individuals followed up after the initial notification, providing invaluable guidance and direction for immediate actions in preparation for the next board. What I found unexpected and upsetting were the various individuals who became voiceless in the aftermath. No contact was made, and the check-ins stopped. The character of those “friends” and “mentors” became evident when the professional hardship emerged. I realized that I must surround myself with genuine friends and mentors who cherish and respect the relationships, and I accepted that I may have to form new connections that will endure.

As a friend or mentor, remaining engaged in a relationship must carry through the joyous moments, and those engagements must increase during the challenging ones; however, sometimes, new bonds must form when existing ones fail. Upon non-selection, I sought guidance from a humble leader with whom I had no previous relationship. Entering that professional relationship with a level of humility and vulnerability provided me with clarity and understanding of his type of leadership. This individual did not indulge my weakness but forced me to widen my aperture on life and view the problem from a different perspective. The experience was invaluable. Everyone must surround themselves with mentors to guide them on personal and professional paths. Still, more importantly, one may be required to form new relationships to ensure continued personal and professional growth in the future. I am forever grateful for the genuine leadership displayed and the incalculable guidance provided by my new mentor.


Leadership Reflection # 4: The Fourteen Leadership Traits and Humility
The fourteen Marine Corps leadership traits always influenced my actions and frame of thought as a platoon commander, company commander, and in everyday life as a Marine, father, and husband; however, one trait, not included in the fourteen, that was stressed and exercised based on the promotion failure was humility.1 Every promotion in the past was a humbling experience because I could not have made it without the commitment and hard work of the Marines I led and the colleagues around me. The fact that the previous Marine Corps boards saw the potential in me for the next rank was a reminder of the required focus and effort to lead Marines at the highest level. As I was informed of the failure of selection, my humility was challenged. It was a sign of how I miscalculated my importance: a delicate balance and harmony between humility and confidence must be reached to effectively lead and follow. Moreover, the failure reminded me that promotions do not define us, and my previous commitments to the Corps aligned with my purpose of leading Marines. Lastly, the humility within thickened, realizing that, at some point, my Marine Corps career will end while the next generation will take the Corps to the next level. Though each of the fourteen leadership traits impacted how I would tackle the next board, my humility was the trait that cauterized the most during the rebuilding journey.


Leadership Reflection # 5: We hear and see the triumphant, but the others walk amongst us.
Leaders of all ranks revere those who succeed in training, garrison, and combat operations, but often, some leaders overlook those who are not prosperous but still reside within their formations. Not everyone will become an honor graduate, but leaders must acknowledge and understand that those not at the top of their class can and will provide value to an organization—it’s service to the Corps. The pass for promotion event allowed me to meet other leaders who are still providing valuable contributions to the Corps. Some individuals did not reach the next rank or were not on the path to command but still held high visibility and critical billets in the organizations they served. Others chose to remain in the Service long after retirement eligibility, where some of their peers surpassed them in rank, but they still remained engaged. Furthermore, they served as sturdy professionals and consummate examples to emulate for others. They continue this selfless duty, knowing they are not destined for command or other higher-ranking paths. In a people organization, it becomes essential to acknowledge that both winners and losers will walk among the formations. However, it takes astute leaders to maximize the value of all members of an organization, leading them to an overall objective for the betterment of the organization.


Leadership Reflection # 6: Stay in the arena.
After tremendous self-reflection, you must choose whether to stay or leave an organization. You must decide to either stay or leave the arena.2 The personal reflection period I endured allowed me to focus on a sense of purpose, not just within the profession of arms but in life. Moreover, the reflection period concentrated on defining the arena I operated in while assessing and refining my personal and professional goals. All while confirming my purpose. Staying in the arena requires complete devotion and anticipation of future challenges that may result in failure. However, only you can decide to stay. By choosing to stay, I reaffirmed my commitment to the organization and found mental tranquility in decisions I had zero control over, like the promotion board. More importantly, I recognized that remaining in the arena would allow me to break the headwind for the next generation of Marines.

In closing, the failed results of the promotion board illuminated mental emotions and brought on a level of mental imbalance. Some feelings were tamed and predictable, but some emotions surfaced at random triggered moments. Through this struggle, I concluded that the power of failure is incredible. It was incredible because it allowed me to focus on life’s essential moments and the people throughout. The failure forced me to define success. Moreover, this failure tested my resiliency and helped me identify the source of my mental toughness—my diligent work ethic. Lastly, the failure allowed me to mature into a more humble professional, positively influencing how I lead Marines today and will lead them in the future.

I have formed other leadership reflections throughout my career, but the six ones that remain enduring are described in this piece. The reflections aim to support those encountering challenges and those who have undergone failure within the Marine Corps or other career or personal efforts. The intent was not to develop a navigation chart to beat the promotion boards but to overcome challenges and build mental toughness. Through my failure, I desire that these leadership reflections provide guidance and mentorship, empowering subordinates, peers, and seniors who wish to stay in the arena. I learned these lessons through adversity. Thankfully, in December 2023, I was notified that I was selected for promotion. I will now carry these lessons forward and focus on service to the Corps and our Nation—not on the promotion to colonel.

>LtCol Rodriguez is a Communications Officer serving at the Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Group. He has served at all three MEFs with a combined twenty months in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM/Operation ENDURING FREEDOM as a Communications Officer and an Information Operations Planner.  


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 6-11, Leading Marines, (Washington, DC: 1995).

2. Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic,” (speech, Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910).

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., https://www.usmcu.edu/lli.

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, https://news.clearancejobs.com/2023/01/17/the-utility-infielder-the-7-principles-of-an-effective-staff-officer.

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).