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Marine Corps' new leadership initiative takes fresh look at mentoring

New order takes fresh look at mentoring

Oct. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Marines throughout the Corps will soon see flashes of their boot camp experience as the service implements a new leadership order designed to exterminate what the brass sees as a troubling rise of bad behavior in the ranks.

Marines throughout the Corps will soon see flashes of their boot camp experience as the service implements a new leadership order designed to exterminate what the brass sees as a troubling rise of bad behavior in the ranks.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Marines throughout the Corps will soon see flashes of their boot camp experience as the service implements a new leadership order designed to exterminate what the brass sees as a troubling rise of bad behavior in the ranks.

Drill instructors use foot-locker discussions or talks at the rifle range to instill Marine Corps values into new recruits. Now Marine Corps officials want every Marine carrying those ideas forward, throughout their careers, as they emphasize a more engaged and involved brand of leadership. It’s coined Leadership Development, and is expected to be formalized in the coming weeks. This initiative will replace the Marine Corps’ existing order on mentoring, and will consolidate several disparate efforts meant to help leaders get more engaged in their Marines’ lives.

The effort applies to ranks across the force on both the enlisted and officer sides, and aims to make leadership a more intimate experience between junior and senior Marines. It emphasizes direct and sustained relationships, particularly when dealing with younger groups like lance corporals, the Corps’ most populous rank, many of whom are deeply skeptical of authority — if not outright disdainful toward it.

The new order also comes on the heels of a controversial effort to “reawaken” Marines’ morals. That plan, announced in October by Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, includes regular and robust barracks checks that require leaders to keep a more watchful eye on the service’s most junior Marines.

“We have listened to the operational forces on where some of the leadership deficiencies have been,” said Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, head of Training and Education Command here in Quantico, which is spearheading the new order. “[This] is about growing those Marines to understand what it means to have engaged, responsible leadership and to live their lives as Marines — whether you’re in uniform or out of it, whether you’re in combat or in garrison.”

The new initiative has six focal points:

■Fighter.

■Fitness.

■Finances.

■Family.

■Fidelity.

■Future.

In short, it means that from work life to home life, leaders should be finding out what’s going on with their Marines. It’s not immediately clear, however, how the Corps will measure leaders’ success or failure.

The new order follows several grassroots efforts aimed at patching problems some commands have experienced within their units. One in particular — the Committed and Engaged Leadership Initiative out of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing — offers a glimpse of things to come. Maj. Gen. Steven Busby, the MAW’s commanding general, spent months touring the wing with his sergeant major to get a better sense of what their Marines are thinking.

The MAW has been at the forefront of such initiatives, with its former top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Anthony Spadaro, famously encouraging his noncommissioned officers and staff NCOs to refrain from using knife hands and other forms of intimidation when trying to engage their subordinates. Marine Corps Times documented his philosophy and others in a controversial cover story published last spring: “No more knife hands.”

Busby has held breakfasts and lunches at his home for small groups of lance corporals, corporals and sergeants. He calls NCOs the VIPs of the wing, and said he wants them to know that leaders are listening to what they have to say. When a corporal told the CG that Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., could use an obstacle course for physical training, Busby invited him back within weeks to break ground on the project.

The approach is very much in line with what the the Corps wants to accomplish on a whole as a part of the new order on Leadership Development, Murray said.

“Whether it’s breakfast at the CG’s house or a captain just talking to [Marines] while they’re cleaning their weapons, ... it’s a constant topic of discussion that you are thinking about 24 hours a day,” Murray said. “At 1630, if you go home and take off your uniform, you don’t stop being a Marine. You still think ethically and behave the same way.”

Be approachable

Members of Marine Air Control Group 28, based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., are testing the upcoming Leadership Development initiative and providing feedback to Headquarters Marine Corps and TECOM. Col. Jeff Kojac, their commanding officer, said Marines know who their leaders are — “warts and all.”

“This is about kneecap-to-kneecap leadership,” Kojac said. “Having the one-on-one talks with them, having small group events with them — that’s going to generate greater buy-in and assimilate them into the institution to a greater degree than filling up an auditorium with 300 people and telling them how it is. How much life changing does that create?”

Sgt. Maj. David Dubé is the top enlisted adviser for Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 28, one of the units testing the new initiative. To Marines who were around before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much of this feels like a return to basic leadership ideas. But for the new generation of Marines, such principles don’t always translate, he said.

“As I’m sitting here talking about back to the basics, the basics to them were working up to deploy and then come home to work up to deploy again,” Dubé said.

Even at the staff NCO level, Dubé said they found that two-thirds of the Marines in their unit had joined after Sept. 11, 2001. So as he explained getting back to maritime operations, wall locker inspections, attention to detail and the “hurry-up-and-wait” mentality of expeditionary readiness, the majority of his staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants weren’t connecting.

“That was a challenge to them and they came to me with that and kind of stressed that they didn’t really understand the importance of all of that when we’re doing so good the way things are in combat,” he said. “I explained to them that the things that make us successful today ... was that attention to detail, the force in readiness, the expeditionary mindset.”

The Corps has dealt with a host of behavioral issues in recent years that have marred the service’s reputation and put Marines or their families at risk. During 2011 and 2012, there were nearly 1,600 cases of child abuse reported. Substance abuse is such a concern that commanders have been ordered to conduct random Breathalyzers when Marines show up for work in the morning.The Corps also continues its tough stance on ridding the ranks of hazing and combating suicide. In 2012, more than 10 percent of Marines who deployed overseas reported having suicidal thoughts.

When Busby took command of 3rd MAW in August of 2012, he said he was troubled by some of the data he saw on drunken driving incidents and domestic abuse cases. Leaders in his wing needed to be doing something differently, he concluded.

Busby said he knew based on his conversations with members of 3rd MAW that NCOs felt they weren’t as empowered by leadership when stateside. They began letting Miramar NCOs run the base colors ceremonies. Sergeants and corporals were allowed to plan the events from start to finish, including speeches and themes, he said.

Letting them know that their ideas matter is important, Busby said. So when Cpl. Mark Willoughby Jr., an air command and control electronics operator with Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 38, approached Busby about an idea he and Sgt. Mark Sanchez, a tactical data system administrator with the same unit, had for a base obstacle course, their CG listened.

They broke ground on the new course in August, and Willoughby and Sanchez have been invited by Busby to be the first Marines to run the course. It’s expected to be completed in November.

“I never honestly would’ve thought that as a sergeant, I would sit down with the CG and talk about my ideas,” Sanchez said. “A lot of people feel scared when a CG comes up to them. ...They don’t realize their ideas can actually have an impact.”

Marines need to care about the future of their service, Busby said. That means getting them committed to the idea that they are serving in an institution bigger than themselves. They also should consider that being a Marine is who they are, not what they do, he said.

Lead, don't micromanage

The Marines testing this new leadership initiative at Cherry Point said one major change is the time they now devote to engaging their Marines. Just as commanding officers and sergeants major have time to devote to unit-level training, the Leadership Development initiative allows for time throughout the day for one-on-one or small-group discussions.

Kojac said he thinks the initiative will help junior Marines feel more connected to their leaders. A sergeant talking to one of his Marines about issues that are relevant to them will help develop trust between the two. That will help address problems more directly than, say, a single training event for a mass audience, he said.

Those who don’t carry out the work appropriately are only cheating their Marines, the institution and ultimately their own units and themselves, Kojac said. That’s why it’s important to encourage Marines to develop and perfect their own leadership styles, he said.

“Each of our units is different, each of our COs is different and each sergeant major is different,” Kojac said.

“If we tried to do some cookie-cutter approach to leadership for every unit, it just wouldn’t work. We had to keep it tailorable, which required that we delegate a lot of the how to carry the initiative out to each unit.”

When Busby got the leaders with 3rd MAW involved with his Committed and Engaged Leadership Initiative, he shared a similar sentiment. He presented the overall concepts to his commanders and sergeants major, and then let them carry it out as they saw fit. For some, that might mean discussions on the rifle range. Others might shut their hangar doors, play baseball and then have a values-based discussion afterward, he said.

“My job is to set the stage and to provide them with a framework,” Busby said. “Everyone has their own individual, personal leadership philosophies inside their units. The last thing I want to do is come up with a [one-size-fits-all] approach.”

During MACG-28’s test, units were given leeway in how they documented their findings, Kojac said. Some of his unit leaders provided long, detailed reports on how they are approaching the test run. Others, he said, turned in a single-page report. Each fit the personality and needs of the unit and its leadership, he said — and that’s how it should be.

“It was across the whole spectrum, and it worked,” he said. “These are capable individuals and they have their own staffs and they know what they’re about. So us micromanaging them and telling them how they were going to train their sergeants won’t work.”

Dubé said that during the test, sergeants and corporals were multitasking, helping their junior Marines and seeking guidance from their own leaders. The NCOs like talking to their Marines informally, he said.

The existing mentoring order — while well intentioned — left leaders asking their Marines a series of questions off a list and checking yes or no. Now they can get to know them more organically, which will lead to better conversations about what might be troubling them — on duty or off.

That’s how people get to know one another in personal settings, Kojac said, so it makes sense for leaders to get to know their Marines this way, too. And now they’ll be afforded the time to do so.

“I think history speaks for itself,” Dubé said. “Our forefathers have fought battles and fought wars and have never compromised the standard. ... We need to follow in those same footsteps. It works.”

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