Thursday, December 1, 2011

Growing Up

A friend of mine who is dead set at getting out of the Marine Corps at just a bit over the ten-year mark is wondering what his boss will say once he drops his papers.  In his "mind movie" of the encounter, my friend would tell his incredulous boss that he's ready to move on, "And frankly, sir, it is time to grow up."  Indeed it is, and this is a large part of the reason why he is getting out.  He wants to grow up, but the institution does not value that.

Now, my friend has made his share of sacrifices and has held positions of grave responsibility in combat.  He has filled very grown up roles.  Yet, the institution is not providing him or a great number of other high performers with the opportunity to operate in a grown up world.  This is not so trivial as my common gripes about safety stand-downs or HARP forms.  My friend and many others like him are disheartened by the lack of seriousness, the lack of opportunities, and the lack of grown-up respect that our institution affords them.

The Corps does give us brilliant opportunities that really have no parallel in the civilian world.  Where else are you responsible for every aspect of the lives of dozens or hundreds of people or millions of dollars worth of assets at such a young age?  Where else do daily decisions often have life or death repercussions?  Despite a decade of experiencing such immense responsibility, our junior and mid-grade Marine leaders are still not allowed to grow up.  We live in a locker room culture that doesn't age with us, in which far too many of us still try to make our bones on blocking and tackling, while eschewing the sorts of professional dedication and study that is required to leave the pads behind and truly excel as position coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, managers, and owners.  Unlike even NFL players, we look at wearing a suit as shameful, even as we grow older.  We still want to be the boys on the field, in the trenches.

I speak in metaphor, here.  We do have great instructors and mentors, but as I have written here, we often fail in management and leadership in the more administrative realms, with real and deleterious impacts on our ability to conduct our tactical missions.  This downward focus, with each leader seeking to show his blocking and tackling prowess, leads to the micromanagement we all bemoan.  What is more, our insecurity with growing older and getting farther away from the field leads to a sophomoric attitude on the part of some of our leaders who can't age gracefully.  For them, rank is like the class year on the sleeve of a letter jacket.  Instead of treating their subordinates as valued colleagues, they treat them as ignorant, beneath them, and not to be trusted.

A friend of mine worked in a role under Marine staff officers, but along side civilian counterparts.  He noted how senior Marine officers treated the civilians as intellectual equals.  While these civilians were no older or more educated, and in fact less experienced than a senior captain foreign area officer, the Marine officer did not receive nearly the same degree of collegial respect as the suits.  Our working class, locker room ethos requires a misplaced, pseudo-humility that goes past self-deprecation to outright hee-haw childishness.  I have by now lost count how many times a Marine officer has stood in front of an audience, once including a sitting U.S. ambassador and assembled foreign dignitaries, to say "Well, shucks, the Marine Corps sent me to graduate school but I'm not a very smart man," or some variant thereof.

I have likely turned many of you off at this point.  I am not, however, arguing for an effete or elitist culture.  I am arguing only for a professional, adult culture.  If you expect to be a career officer and fill important staff or command roles, you should be expected to have some intellectual curiosity, read beyond the Commandant's list (and beyond Runner's World or Field & Stream, for that matter), and have some intellectual curiosity about the matters that impact your trade.  This includes business and management literature, as well as reading on politics, economics, history, and current events.  You should not feel ashamed if you read extensively, write well, or have an advanced degree.  You should have a well fitting suit, so that you don't look like an idiot when you have to dress in civilian clothes.  How much did you pay for your uniforms, after all?  And do you wear those off the rack?

In all, Marine leaders must grow up.  My friend who made the comment about growing up noted a quote about a man in a book he was reading:  "All of the bearing of a Marine, but none of the bluster."  As we grow up, we learn to be more confident, more subdued, and more poised.  We lose our bluster and settle into the role of sage, mentor, and esteemed leader.  We learn that we can treat colleagues with respect and nurture them without feeling insecure.  We know that no bluster is required to show who is in charge.

The thing is, though, people grow up at different rates.  Some are quite grown up at 25, others at 35 or 45.  Still others will never be able to play the role of sage, mentor, or esteemed leader.  Some have the capacity to lead and manage large organizations and complex issues, others do not.  Our high performing young stars quickly grow tired of the locker room world when they know they can outperform the lieutenant colonel or colonel who treats them as an unworthy sophomore, while bumbling through the day with a hee-haw act that fails at its attempt to act as a cover for incompetence and insecurity.  Too often, competent people are led, and stifled, by incompetent people.  This is because our promotion system is a lock-step mediocracy, instead of the meritocracy we pretend it to be.  Just like in the locker room, we can never forget who are the seniors and who are the freshmen.  This works for four years.  Much more after that, many high performers begin to chafe and look for the exit.

I'm drawing to the close of what will undoubtedly be labeled by some as another "whiney diatribe."  I have little to offer in the way of actionable suggestions.  I could suggest a complete revamp of our promotion system, but that is not going to happen.  I could plead for just a few more promotions from the below zone, but that probably won't happen either.  So, I'm left with imploring our officers to grow up, become professionals, and quit the hee-haw act.  There are quite a few examples around you to follow, but there are many more that need to get the message.


  1. "I have little to offer in the way of actionable suggestions."

    That about says it all.

  2. I'm glad you agree. The point of my closing was that there are actionable suggestions (such as the perennially discussed changes to promotion systems, manpower management, fitreps, etc), but there is little that actually has a hope of overcoming institutional inertia beyond, hopefully, the slow replacement of people like you, who think I'm out to lunch, with people who are sick of the hee-haw act and are ready to step up and act as confident professionals instead of micromanagers, braggarts, and bullies. Instead of offering your snide, anonymous snipe, why don't you take a few more minutes to substantively attack my overall argument or to provide your insights or to offer some actionable suggestions?

  3. "Well, shucks, the Marine Corps sent me to graduate school but I'm not a very smart man,"

    I cringe whenever I hear someone say something along those lines...especially when it's around civilians or members of the other services.

  4. Peter,
    This is probably the best articulation of the apocryphal elephant in the room that I have seen. Great job!
    Mike Grice

  5. Pretty much sums-up my primary reasons why I just left the Marine Corps as a Captain and am now at business school in Michigan. Great writing!


  6. Your article adds light to my previous thoughts when I experience my super sharp company commanders getting out after four years. Hee-Haw and popularity parallel. My suggestion is add a popularity attribute to the fitness report and if your graded as popular than you must be engaging in hee-haw, instead of adulthood. Great Post!
    Aaron Colling