The 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 leadership objective.

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 happen. 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.

While studying organizations that made the transition from average to great performance, Jim Collins inadvertently found that effective leaders share key traits. All the companies had what Collins labels a "Level 5 leader." A Level 5 leader is described as having a blend of personal humility and professional will. They have ambition for the company (not themselves), a compelling modesty, and an unwavering resolve to do what must be done. They shun credit for their company's successes and accept responsibility for its failures. Collins explains that Level 5 leaders are "fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decision." (Collins, 2001 p.39)

We can conclude that a Level 5 leader -- a leader with proven character traits necessary for success -- is unselfish, with an unshakable focus on accomplishing the mission. The Marine Corps, with its leadership philosophy, is teeming with a Level 5 leadership mindset:

The strong sense of unity within the Marine Corps does not lend itself to the creation of highly visible leaders; it seems to have the opposite effect. Generals, after all, come up through the officer ranks, and Marine Corps officers are quick to give all the credit for any successes to the men they command. Marine officers would surely provide dull interviews, thwarting questions that would imply their personal leadership skills were responsible for the victories achieved. In fact, the whole story of the Marine Corps seems to belie the "great man theory" of history, which attributes the turning of events in human affairs to the strong, charismatic leader who steps forward, ahead of all others, and takes charge. When the Marines go down in history, they do it together.
This is why the names of famous Marine generals are not linked, in the mind of the public, to famous Marine Corps victories. We remember MacArthur vowing to return to the Philippines and Patton turning the tide at the Battle of the Bulge, but what Marine generals were responsible for the victories at Iwo Jima and Tarawa? The most famous Marine leaders are virtually unknown outside of the Corps, and that is how they would want it. It is as if they have been too humbled by the sacrifices of their fellow Marines to accept any personal credit (Carrison & Walsh, 1999).

For the record, one of the Marine generals who commanded the Marines on Iwo Jima was General Clifton Bledsoe Cates. Throughout his distinguished career, General Cates fought at Belleau Woods and other battles in WWI where he was repeatedly wounded and gassed. He commanded Marines in the Pacific, and served as the 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps where his leadership guided the Marine Corps through the Korean War.

Once his term as Commandant was over, General Cates voluntarily went from being a four-star general to a three-star general to remain in the Marine Corps and continue to contribute by commanding the Marine Corps Schools on Quantico (Simmons & Moskin 2003). He was the quintessential Level 5 leader.

The willingness to make sacrifices is an essential ingredient in leadership and the key difference in the two philosophies in question. It is also proven in Jim Collins' study to be a requirement for leadership success. "Win/win if possible but at all costs accomplish the mission" is sound advice in the Marine Corps and in the business world.

For a moment, consider the alternative, selfishness, which manifests itself in the business world as greed. Imagine CEOs -- who make 411 times the salary of the average production worker (Kandel, 2001) -- doing the corporate equivalent of throwing themselves on a grenade. It does not happen often, if ever. In fact, frequently the opposite occurs -- CEOs throw their employees on proverbial grenades. Consider Don Carty, CEO of American Airlines. He convinced union members to accept 1.62 billion dollars worth of annual concessions to avoid bankruptcy. While asking his employees to make sacrifices, he was unwilling to make any of his own; once Carty's lucrative retention bonuses and pension protections were made public, the unions called for new votes on the concessions. As Wendy Zellner in her BusinessWeek article put it, "CEO Donald J. Carty snatched defeat from the jaws of victory." (2000) Perhaps a "win/win" mentality -- without a mission accomplishment qualifier -- ensures that unselfishness will be rare.

"Win/win or no deal" is noble in theory but it allows little tolerance of risk. Often with business ventures, there is no guarantee that the endeavor will be a "win" for any of the parties involved. When things go poorly and losing looks possible or even probable, those scripted in a "win/win or no deal" mentality may be inclined to quit too soon to avoid a loss. Furthermore, it steers people away from failure, which is often a necessary predecessor to success. The Governor of Georgia and former Marine, Zell Miller, captured this sentiment when he wrote, "Everybody wants dessert, but few are willing to eat spinach to get it." As former Marine Robert Kiyosaki puts it in his book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, "The greatest secret of winners is that failure inspires winning; thus, they're not afraid of losing." (1998) Covey's "Win/Win or no deal" principle will either give you a utopian society where everyone benefits, or a stagnate society where, because of fear of losing, no one agrees to do business. An argument could be made that a fear of failure is at least partially responsible for keeping the U.S. economy in a long recession.

The greatest secret of winners is that failure inspires winning; thus, they're not afraid of losing. - Robert Kiyosaki

The Marine Corps leadership philosophy is character driven and has proven itself in the military and in the civilian world time and again. Although it has many similarities with popular civilian teachings, its mission focus encourages its practitioners to seek out endeavors worth making sacrifices for. Although the leadership system calls for the welfare of all, benefits are secondary to the objectives the organization must achieve. The bottom line is that if you want someone who will get a job done no matter what -- find a Marine -- or at least someone who thinks like one.