Companies & Industries

The Strategic Corporal


As part of a spotlight on leadership lessons from the military, Harvard blogger Rye Barcott looks at the role of the lowest ranking non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps

Posted on Harvard Business Review: October 21, 2010 8:04 AM

This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.

Discipline. Order. Service. These are among the words that I hear most frequently associated with military life. They are accurate depictions. But they are incomplete, and in certain circumstances they reinforce stereotypes of military men and women as automatons taking and executing orders without thought, initiative, or ingenuity. This stereotype, and versions of it, is unfortunate, because it is far from the truth, and in some cases it creates barriers for veterans seeking to find good jobs and reintegrate into society.

The truth is modern military experience, particularly in combat, is often characterized by rapid decision making in autonomous environments. While militaries function through chains of command, most units have decentralized leadership that places enormous amounts of responsibility in the hands of young men and women.

One of the first concepts to which I was exposed in the Marines was the idea of the "strategic corporal." The lowest ranking non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, a corporal typically has at least two years of service and leads small teams of three to nine Marines. When deployed overseas, corporals often lead their teams and squads on patrols in dangerous places that are at times far from direct supervision. Corporals have to make quick decisions, some of which can carry strategic implications.

What do you say to the Afghani reporter thrusting a camera in your face and asking you, "Why are you here?"

Do you and your Marines open fire on an Iraqi police car that has just blazed passed a roadblock, is heading straight at you, and may be a VBIED (vehicle-born improvised explosive device)?

I was 22 when scenarios like these were presented to me at the Marine Corps Basic School for new second lieutenants. Our instructors presented them in the context of discussions about the strategic corporal. They were talking about young Americans whom we would one day lead. As I heard their questions, I couldn't help but ask myself: What would I do in these circumstances?

While I didn't know the answers, one thing was clear. The Marines I would soon lead would have to make many of these decisions on their own. I would have to make such decisions, too, and we would all have to live with the consequences. We were being trained to obey orders, but also to make them. We were being trained to think, to be teachers as well as students and soldiers. As young lieutenants, we learned that we needed to set the example, communicate the commander's intent, and then empower our corporals and sergeants to operate in places where they may not be able to ask, "What do I do next?"

And that's what happened. Over the course of the following five years, from 2001 to 2006, I led units on missions in nine countries, from Iraq to Bosnia, Djibouti, and Yemen. My Marines and I made dozens of decisions with strategic implications. These implications were especially severe if we made poor choices in what one of my colleagues, the author Craig Mullaney, refers to as Kipling's "unforgiving minute."

It's been four years since I left the active duty for a three-year graduate school program in business management and public administration. Now in my first full-time job in the private sector as a commercial associate at Duke Energy, I am struck by the level of uncertainty in business, even in a regulated utility, which is among the most stable of enterprises. In conditions of constant uncertainty and change, there is tremendous need for leaders and project managers who take the initiative to identify solutions to problems in their earliest stages, and have the execution skills to follow through, mobilize others, and complete tasks. These are among the core competencies that many young Americans develop through military service.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10% of our young veterans who have served since September 11 are unemployed. That percentage is unacceptable, and I cannot imagine that it would be so high if there were a broader recognition of the skills our veterans possess. From Fortune 500 companies to small businesses and start-ups, growing organizations need strong managers. They need thinkers and doers. They need strategic corporals.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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