Support the Marine Corps Community

OO-RAH Articles

Unit Shirts: Getting Started | Gallery | Pricing | Contact Info At All Costs: Accomplish the Mission by Gannon Beck
he civilian leadership system is more ambiguous. Because the civilian society is not an organization like the Marine Corps, individuals are not indoctrinated into a particular philosophy. There are books that civilians gravitate toward. One of the most popular books, with over 10 million copies sold, is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. Because of its popularity we will use this book of personal leadership as the civilian standard for comparison. It may shatter many stereotypes about the military to know that Covey's philosophy -- one millions of civilians aspire to -- has many similarities with the Marine Corps' philosophy. Both philosophies are character-based. Covey calls it the "Character Ethic" and explains, "The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness -- natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably 'there' as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension." (1990, p.32)

If such laws do, in fact, govern human effectiveness then leadership principles are natural laws that are simply part of human nature. The challenge then, is not to create principles, but to identify and describe the ones that are already there -- the timeless principles that are effective in producing the best results. It is not about envisioning something new, but seeing clearly what already works. Steven Covey has made an attempt to describe these principles as has the Marine Corps. By comparing Covey's habits with the Marine Corps system, one can see that the two philosophies are not altogether different:

Covey Habit 1: Be proactive
Marine Corps Equivalent: Initiative

Covey Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind
Marine Corps Equivalent: Mission accomplishment, and know yourself and seek self-improvement

Covey Habit 3: Put first things first
Marine Corps Equivalent: Decisiveness, initiative, ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised and accomplished, dependability.

Covey Habit 4: Think win/win
Marine Corps Equivalent: Mission accomplishment and troop welfare.

Covey Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood:
Marine Corps Equivalent: Ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised and accomplished, and know your troops and look after their welfare

Covey Habit 6: Synergize:
Marine Corps Equivalent: Train your Marines as a team.

Covey Habit 7: Sharpen the saw:
Marine Corps Equivalent: Know yourself and seek self improvement.

Similarities and Differences
While the two philosophies have many similarities, there are a few critical differences that are important to understand. Although the basic character traits are essentially the same in both systems, there are differences in prioritization.

For the
Marine Corps,
troop welfare
is the secondary,
not the primary

One habit that does not translate well to the Marine Corps leadership philosophy is Covey's "seek first to understand, then to be understood." Marines must make sure that tasks are understood, supervised and accomplished -- on one hand -- and know their troops and look after their welfare, on the other. It is critical in Covey's philosophy that one must empathize first. For the Marine Corps, troop welfare is the secondary, not the primary leadership objective. In other words, it can be said that Marines seek to be understood, then seek to understand.

Prioritization of principles has further dramatic implications. When we look at Covey's habit "think win /win" it seems to match up well with the primary and secondary leadership objectives; first, Marines must accomplish the mission -- a "win" for the Marine Corps and the American people. Second, Marines must lookout for the welfare of their troops -- a "win" for the troops themselves. The difference is in the details. In explaining his "think win/win" habit, Covey states that when two parties are working toward a solution, they should work toward a solution that is mutually beneficial -- or as Covey proclaims, "win/win or no deal." (1990 p. 214) If two parties cannot find a workable solution, they will agree not to embark on an endeavor. The Marine Corps, on the other hand, sets a priority on winning for the organization and the American people. Additionally, the Marine Corps will position its employees for success. It gives them the best training in the world for what it asks its people to do; it provides money for college and opportunities for advancement. Individual Marines benefit too -- most of the time; however, the Marine Corps mindset requires and ensures that each individual is mentally prepared to lay down his or her life if that is what is required to accomplish the mission. The difference in the two philosophies is the prioritization of the leadership objectives. Where Steven Covey says, "win/win or no deal," the Marine Corps says, "win/win if possible, but at all costs accomplish the mission."

“There was no
way the guys
we just
rescued were
going to get
shot now.
That was the
last thing
we were going
to let
They’d have
to take us
down first.”
--Cpl. C. Castro

It is this mentality that produces people like Charles J. Berry, who in WWII, lost his life as he covered a grenade with his own body to save his fellow Marines, and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone who died while single-handedly destroying a Japanese blockhouse while braving smashing bombardment of enemy heavy caliber fire on Iwo Jima (Marine Corps History and Museums, 2003). A more recent example is expressed in the sentiments of one of the Marines who helped rescue American POW's in Iraq. About the experience, Cpl Christopher Castro said, "There was no way the guys we just rescued were going to get shot now. That was the last thing we were going to let happen. They'd have to take us down first." And after seeing the POW's safely to Kuwait the Marine rescuers asked to return to their unit because as Cpl Castro put it, "There is still fighting." (Chenelly, 2003)

"Win/win," without a mission accomplishment prioritization, may leave the door open for selfishness, even though that is not the intent of the philosophy. Covey does not acknowledge the need for sacrifice. He does, however, demean people with what he calls a "lose/win" mentality as "quick to please or appease. They seek strength from popularity or acceptance. They have little courage to express their own feelings and convictions and are easily intimidated by the ego strength of others." (1990 p.209)

It is clear the two philosophies differ on the point of unselfishness. It is a liability in Covey's philosophy, but a requirement in the Marine Corps philosophy. If leadership principles are, in fact, laws of nature as Covey describes, then which philosophy is seeing reality clearly? Which philosophy describes the characteristics of human nature that reflect effective leadership? The question can be answered by studying the character traits of the leaders of successful organizations.

Concluded on page 4
<< Previous Page
1 2 3 4 References
next page >>

Have a column you want to see published on our site? Send it here!
"From the Halls" Archive

Neither the United States Marine Corps nor any other component of the Department of Defense has approved, endorsed, or authorized this Web site. is now an editorial site to share military stories. If you are looking for informaiton regarding custom t-shirts, please click here.