The Most Valuable Leadership Lesson I Leaned in the Marines
It’s probably not what you think.
“Miller! You’re fired! Get to the back of the line!” Drill Instructor Sergeant Stinson barked at me, and I my heart sank.
I f*cked it all up, I thought, as my head hung down. I was so tired there on the blistering cement parade ground of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. We were a few days into our third month of boot camp, just returned from two weeks up in the California hills living on MREs and learning basic infantry skills.
Third phase boot camp was probably the most important part of forging a Marine.
Roughly speaking, the three-month conditioning of a Marine Recruit consists of one month of tearing down everyone’s sense of self until we’re malleable human clay, then spending a month turning that clay into a lean green fighting machine.
In the third month, they slap a veneer of “honor, country, bearing” over it all, turning Marines into quiet, polite, deadly soldiers.
I wasn’t all that great physically, but I was smart, and had managed to distinguish myself as the “prac private” — standing in front of the platoon with our manual whenever we were standing in formation waiting (which was a lot) and drilling my fellow recruits on “practical knowledge”: ranks, orders of battle, rules of engagement.
It wasn’t valued as much as skill with a rifle or the ability to do pull-ups — but I was good at it.
A few days after we’d returned from field training, the drill instructors had given me a chance at the head of the line — making me the leader of squad four, about fourteen recruits who’d made it this far without dropping out.
It had been my chance to shine, and I f*cked it up.
Squad leader — especially in third phase — was a real opportunity.
If you graduated boot camp as a squad leader, that meant an automatic bump in rank to Private First Class — along with a bump in pay.
Since I was in the Marines to support my fiancée and our daughter, this translated beyond “hey, I get to order my buddies around!” and into real benefits for my family. It would put food on the table and jump-start my military career.
It would also prove everyone who thought I would never make it through boot camp — which was literally everyone I knew — completely wrong.
I worked hard at the position, managing the other fourteen recruits, giving them schedules for the watch, making sure their gear was squared away. If they were having troubles with any particular part of their training, it was my job to get them through it — which meant late-night tutoring in the barracks or herding them together during our daily seven-mile runs.
And it meant being the lead of the fourth column as we marched around the hot tarmac doing “close order drill”.
The object of close order drill is to teach Marines by exercise to obey orders and to do so immediately in the correct way. Close order drill is one foundation of discipline and esprit de corps. — Marine Corps Drill & Ceremonies Manual
It sounds easy — just walk in a line, right? But the reality was that the squad leaders at the front of every column of soldiers had to gauge exactly the right angle, speed, and distance or any maneuver would lead everyone behind them into a tangled mess of sweaty Marine recruits.
“Double time, Miller! Get your ass back to end of the line!”
I’d just messed up “Column half right, MARCH” for the fourth time in a row, turning at the wrong angle and leading my column off from the rest of the platoon.
As the drill instructor barked out those words, I felt a wave of shame. My shoulders slumped as I felt that bright future for myself and my family slip away. I double-trudged back to the end of the column.
That was part of the humiliation, of course. Every other recruit had coveted that position. We weren’t quite at mean-girls level, but I could see more than few half-smiles of satisfaction on the stoic faces of my squad as I moved to the back of the formation. Guess you weren’t all that after all, eh, Miller?
The end of the line was a shitty place in more than just status. It was where the dust from all the boots ahead of you ended up. You were last in your squad in any single-column formation, and being in fourth squad, that meant I was literally the last recruit in line.
You can’t really hang your head when doing close order drill, but my eyes were on the deck as we started to attempt the next maneuver. It wasn’t just the feeling that I’d disappointed myself, my squad, my fiancée, my daughter, my family — it was worse, because there was also a guilty sense of relief.
I could sleep through the night now. I didn’t have to help Ramirez make the runs any more. I could just let Stilwell’s lousy rifle handling continue to suck. I was only responsible for myself.
Then, as we marched, I noticed a different kind of smile on the faces of the recruits around me.
The Few, the Proud, the Fired Squad Leaders
I looked to my right — there was Washington, giving me a quick knowing smile — he could get away with it, because we were at the end of the columns, and the drill instructors didn’t pay as much attention back there.
“Welcome to the club,” he muttered, and I was shocked. You never spoke during close order drill!
But he had, and so did Huff, next to him “Nice try, Miller. Now your’e back with the rest of us rejects.”
That’s when I realized that back there in the dusty and hot part of the formation I was surrounded by all the other recruits who’d been fired as squad leaders before me.
Now you know was the feeling surrounding me as we marched along.
They’d all been through it themselves. They’d all excelled at something, been put into a position of leadership — and some part of the pressure had been too much, and now they were at the back of the line.
The back of the line was made up of the competent, resilient, and dedicated.
It would be stretching it to say that close-order drill became “fun”, but it was a lot easier. Instead of trying to lead, all we had to do was follow. We weren’t going to get the bump in rank, but we had been through an extra level of training: we knew what it was like to fail and still keep going.
That made us stronger — more than the current squad leaders, who’d been put up there not because they’d succeeded, but because they hadn’t failed yet. Sure, somebody would graduate boot camp and get that rocker on their collar — but they’d be doing it after watching us, and that made us a part of their success.
I’ve been a lot of different kinds of leader since that day on the parade ground. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. But that lesson stayed with me.
It’s not about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about making the effort in the first place, and learning from it.
It takes a lot of the stigma of that word “failure”. Everybody fails at something — most things, in fact. Yoda was wrong; it’s not “do, or do not.”
There is only try.