Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I recently reread LtGen Robert B. Neller’s “An Open Letter to the “Young Turks” in the November 2011 issue of the Gazette. I want to highlight and expound on one item on which he is absolutely correct: that centralized training requirements do not indicate a lack of trust.

From the letter:
“Although I think “The Attritionist Letters” and the thoughts of the Maj Munsons of the world are a bit overstated, especially the inexplicable correlation between centralized, directed training executed in a decentralized manner equating to a lack of trust, it is done, I believe, for effect.”

I, like LtGen Neller, find it hard to believe that senior officers simply do not trust junior leaders. I think that senior decision-makers respond to a perceived need for Marines to be trained in a certain area and take steps to ensure that they receive training to address that need. I also know that many training requirements arise not just from the Marine Corps, but from sources such as the combatant commands and from the Department of Defense. Marines in the supporting establishment have little or no control over these directives. Thus, LtGen Neller’s frustration over this issue is justified. The intentions of those who put these training requirements in place are good and are not, I think, brought about by a lack of trust.

However, to those junior leaders who must implement the training requirements, it feels like a lack of trust. While Marines are sometimes quick to dismiss feelings as a valid argument, they can have deleterious effects. The Marine Corps takes great pride in its outstanding training at the recruit depots, MOS schools, OCS, and TBS. Marines justifiably take great pride in completing the programs successfully. Officer training especially is focused on producing a responsible Marine capable of making decisions based on his or her own judgment. When Marines arrive at the fleet and are presented with simplistic training requirements and courses, they cannot help but feel that those who mandate the training are being condescending. This feeling is particularly strong amongst the junior enlisted community. While junior enlisted Marines and junior officers are new to the Marine Corps, they are not boys and girls. They are grown men and women who should be treated as such. Additionally, many junior Marines are veterans of combat. Being treated as just another Lance Corporal is particularly galling for a combat veteran. There are two major problems that this feeling will cause. One, the training will not be taken seriously and thus will be ineffective. Second, good Marines who consistently feel like children of condescending parents will leave the service. MCDP-1 expresses this sentiment as well: “There are several points worth remembering about our command philosophy. First, while it is based on our warfighting style, this does not mean it applies only during war. We must put it into practice during the preparation for war as well. We cannot rightly expect our subordinates to exercise boldness and initiative in the field when they are accustomed to being over-supervised in garrison.” (MCDP-1, page 81)

So how can senior Marines ensure that this training is accomplished in such a way that is both more effective and more palatable to junior Marines? First, there is very little feedback from the operating forces to the supporting establishment when it comes to training requirements. Either the system for such feedback is insufficient or broken entirely. The tenants of maneuver warfare are frequently forgotten when it comes to training. The operating forces are not just told what to accomplish, but how to accomplish it and how long they must spend on it. Second, the operating forces must be allowed the freedom to tailor training to specific units. A unit with a high rate of alcohol abuse incidents should receive more focused training on the issue while a unit with a low rate should be granted the time to focus on other areas. This, again, requires a robust feedback loop between the units executing training and the leaders who mandate it. The chain of command is supposed to act as this feedback loop. However, if there are too many links between the decision-makers and the decision-implementers, the feedback it may not work as intended. The fact that this debate is occurring in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette is itself evidence that the feedback loop is not operating as it should.

I’d really like to hear the views of some junior enlisted Marines on this topic. Leave a comment or send me a tweet on Twitter. My handle is @brettfriedman.


  1. I believe there is a lack of trust and it goes beyond training. As a commander in Afghanistan (detachment OIC of a 6-plane VMGR det) my Commanding General placed an unbelievable amount of trust in me. Despite being an O-4 replacing an O-5 for the MEF's airline, I was subject to zero micromanagement. I was shocked at how much leeway I had and how little the Wing staff got into the business of running my detachment. Even when I had serious personnel issues, the CG and Asst Wing Commander took a common sense approach and were content to let me deal with things once I made it clear I had a plan and had the situation in hand.

    In garrison and for much more mundane issues, I saw a far higher level of micromanagement (though thankfully not from my immediate commander). I do think that it is a lack of trust. Many leaders do not trust their subordinates and fear the one mistake that could get them fired. Much of this lack of trust is actually a lack of self-confidence. As an aviator, I liken this to an instructor who doesn't trust his own skills. He will ride the controls and not let the student make the mistakes he needs to make to learn. A more confident instructor will let the student get a bit farther afield so that he can recognize and correct his own mistakes, while still having safe parameters at which he steps in to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

    Self-confident leader/managers must do the same. Set clear guidance. Get immediate feedback as to what your subordinate understands of his tasking. Ask your subordinate what help he needs to get the job done. Tell your subordinate that you expect that he is going to get the job done on time and that you are not going to get into his weeds, but warn him that, since you're not getting into his weeds, he needs to ask for help if he's headed for failure. Then let them go until they prove they can't be trusted. The mantra "trust but verify" is all too often a veil for micromanagement. Tell them you expect them to come back with the mission accomplished or ask for the help they need to get it done before it becomes a mission failure and they usually won't disappoint.

    As for the training and safety bit, that is where we really go off the rails with trust. Marines see the childish HARP forms for what they are: childish paper toilet seats for cowardly leaders. A HARP form never saved a Marine's life. Involved leaders who care more about their Marines and identifying at-risk Marines than about filling out stupid paperwork save Marines. We treat Marines like they are all ignorant and can't be trusted. They've been sitting through drug and alcohol awareness briefs since they were in middle school. They know the risks. We need to empower and trust leaders to identify and focus on at-risk Marines. As I looked at the excel by name roster of what I still have to do this year for training yesterday, I shook my head in wonder at why I have to sit through tobacco cessation classes. I don't smoke or dip. As a matter of fact, I tell Marines how I quit dip years ago because I started getting leucoplakia and a college roommate got a throat tumor from dipping. We don't trust Marines and their leaders to conduct training, mentorship, and leadership, so we make one-size fits all solutions that make no sense. And the leadership is completely tone deaf when it comes to understanding the level of outright hostility at this force-feeding.

  2. "Centralized training requirements do not indicate a lack of trust."

    A better way to put this would be "centralized training requirements don't necessarily indicate a lack of trust, but they can."

    Chafing at any type of supervision is part of our culture. It is part of who we are as Marines. If a Marine didn’t get frustrated at being supervised in some capacity, I’d wonder just how much buy they have into our ethos. You cannot encourage initiative and independence of action without also encouraging a disdain for someone higher than you overseeing your conduct of a task given.

    That doesn’t mean all oversight and supervision is bad. The backside of BAMCIS, an acronym every Marine is familiar with and one we should all love, is supervise. Everyone understands some supervision required when performing a task/accomplishing a mission, and that not all decentralization is good.

    My question, what are the general principles of centralization vs. decentralization that can be taught, understood and practiced within a command that will allow a proper balance conducive to an atmosphere of trust and excellence?

    A good place to begin answering this is in defining the principle that underlies our definitions of centralization and decentralization. I think that underlying principle needs to be identified before particular examples of centralization/decentralization can be discussed in a way that would assist universal application of . . . timeless leadership principles. I think it needs to be identified so we have a more systematic standard by which to judge centralization/decentralization.

    I recommend the principle of subsidiarity as the underlying principle. It should be considered as the starting point in any discussion on what is too much and what is not enough oversight and control. I recommend that it be kept in mind as the first principle of command, leadership, centralization and/or decentralization.

    Here are two definitions for the principle of subsidiarity (both meaning essentially the same thing):

    “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79)

    Put another way:

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.