Leadership Lessons from Marine Corps Boot Camp

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Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Keon Pondexter, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, commands his recruits on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. July 19, 2019. The formation Pondexter is putting the recruits in is how they will line up every time he has a mentoring session with them. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Michelle Brudnicki)

In my sophomore year of college, I decided that I needed to find a sense of purpose. During Spring Break that same year, I went to the recruiter’s office and enlisted into the Marines. I had no idea what kind of impact the Marines would have on my life and how the adventures that followed boot camp would shape me as a teacher, father, mentor and entrepreneur. But before I could begin these adventures, I had to complete the most challenging rite of passage that I had ever faced –or ever will face- Marine Corps Boot Camp.

When I arrived in South Carolina in May 1999, I was determined to be as tough as I could be and go through boot camp without complaints. I thought that the tougher that I was, the less the drill instructors would mess with me. As I gained experience in this environment, I realized that the opposite was true and that the training I would receive was designed to break down the tough guy who was focused only on the individual. In fact, recruits referred to themselves as “this recruit” and weren’t even allowed to use the word “I”. The individual’s identity would be stripped away then rebuilt as a member of a team.   

As time passed, I released the tough guy mentality and bought into the importance of being a member of a team. I also observed the demographics of our platoon, which consisted of 80 men from various backgrounds:  the farm, inner-city, trailer park, suburbs, and even foreign countries. Very few of us knew each other prior to our training at boot camp but by the end of the 13 weeks, we knew each other very well. More specifically, we were forced to learn one another’s strengths, weaknesses, fears, and many other aspects that would affect our performance as a team. Several times we argued, and even fought. However, we knew that under the supervision of the drill instructors (DI), we had to perform under pressure as a team.

Our drill instructors were our leaders. They provided tough love, mentorship, instruction and discipline to us individually and collectively. Because of these qualities, they garnered our respect for life. Several lessons and leadership principles that I learned from my drill instructors, I still apply in my daily life. These principles include:  

  1. Lead by Example- Our drill instructors showed us, as recruits, what model Marines were supposed to be through their actions. The DIs were the last to go to sleep at night and the first to awake in the morning. They demonstrated each task perfectly both slowly and at full speed, stayed in phenomenal physical shape, looked sharp in their uniforms, treated each one of us fairly, and pushed us farther than we thought we could ever imagine.
  • Investment in Body, Mind, and Team- Our DIs warned us of the challenges that many Marines face once they leave boot camp. They warned us about the dangers of complacency, inattention to detail and those around us looking to bring us down. To counter this, they taught us the value of investing in physical fitness and appearance in uniform; the need to continuously train and retrain with new skills and opportunities for education; and the awareness to surround ourselves with those who would enhance our careers.
  • Clear Instruction and Feedback- Each task was modeled by our DIs, or other instructors, and was taught to each recruit in small, understandable steps. Many of those steps were performed at a slow speed to develop muscle memory and form good habits. Under the DIs’ supervision, we repeated the steps over and over while receiving direct feedback. Though recruits didn’t always appreciate the DIs’ form of honesty, the feedback was meant to motivate and correct performance in real time. The DIs instruction and feedback always included the importance of attention to detail in simple tasks like mopping a floor or complex ones like shooting a weapon.
  • Responsibility Cannot be Displaced, Just Improved– Each of us performed a wide variety of tasks necessary to complete boot camp. Many times, these tasks were extremely difficult and designed for recruits to fail (initially). These difficult tasks were meant to help us learn from failure and direct feedback was given following each failed task. Recruits were then given time to practice with peers and try again. Many of these tasks were critical to the completion of boot camp. A recruit was never allowed to give up, nor was he allowed to transfer that responsibility to others to complete the tasks for him.  
  • Delegation of Authority- The platoon was broken down into four squads of 20 recruits, each with a (recruit) squad leader. During certain activities, the DI delegated responsibility to the squad leaders. The squad leaders were responsible for the completion of assigned tasks and were held accountable for the squad’s readiness and performance. This allowed the squads to function independently as a group and make decisions collaboratively.

While businesses cannot, and in most cases should not, provide the same kind of experience as Marine Corps Boot Camp, the principles named above can be demonstrated in any organization with modifications. In addition, studies done by Gallup show that organizations who invest in building high-performing teams see huge returns on investment with employee performance and retention.

I still apply the lessons learned from my drill instructors, GySgt Gerard, SSgt Golden, SSgt Roberts, and Sgt Brown, to each aspect of my life, especially as a father and business owner. Those men helped me to see the value in shedding the emphasis on being only an individual and the value that I can bring to a team as a leader or one who follows directions.

Our DIs constantly told us “every Marine is a leader”. Because I was told what to do every moment of every day at boot camp, I never knew what that meant. Today, I know exactly what they were trying to communicate to me. I still hold onto the values that I was taught as a child, but the Marine Corps taught me how to apply those values in a way that can be impactful for others. I will forever be grateful to my DIs, who helped me to have much stronger pride in myself, my family, my business, my community, the Marine Corps and my Country.

 For more information, please contact Chris Gonzalez at CGonzalez@A-GAssociates.com.

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