4 Marine Corps Leadership Lessons

Marines are trained to overcome all challenges, whether they come in the form of a physical or mental challenge. Here are four leadership lessons that can be applied to any situation you might find yourself in.

The “dress like a marine” is a dress code that has been present for many years. The Marine Corps Leadership Lessons are four lessons that the Marine Corps have learned over time.

US marines soldier carrying gun to ready for war.

Note from the editor: This is a guest post by Jeff Clement.

As a US Marine Corps logistics officer, I deployed twice to Afghanistan, leading hundreds of Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen (along with dogs) on risky resupply convoys that faced enemy IEDs and ambushes. This isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. Leadership is a taught talent, whether in the most severe war scenarios or in ordinary business in the United States. In fact, I jokingly named my book The Lieutenant Don’t Know, making fun of all I had to learn.

I have some amazing instructors and mentors who taught me how to lead. I took some time to condense all I learned into four fundamental ideas that apply to everyone, not just Marines. They all have one thing in common: they’re all about people, guys.

Lesson #1 — The time to prepare was yesterday: you’re not running fast enough if you’re asking how fast to run in a battle.

Helicopter flying in a construction area.

MEDEVAC helicopters are landing in Helmand Province to extract wounded from a complicated ambush. The platoon executed a flawless security and recovery strategy, successfully repelling three coordinated assaults on our location.

Imagine a 30,000-pound armored gun truck gaining altitude as it leaps from a four-foot precipice at 50 mph, the Marines inside laser-focused on the objective at hand. The deadline for preparation was yesterday. It’s too late now.

It doesn’t matter what profession you have; you must prepare your body, mind, and team to be successful. Run through potential situations in your head, consider everything that may happen, and devise a strategy. Everyone is placed in risk when a leader takes a half-step and hesitates to make a choice. A plan that is “partially correct” but executed right away is preferable than a great plan implemented three days late.

This thing, on the other hand, doesn’t work if you simply think about it and try to figure it out on your own. Even worse than a hesitant commander is when the squad fails to operate as a unit – if a platoon strikes in two separate ways at the same time, the platoon will split in half and each side will be destroyed. When faced with an issue, examine it, make a choice or reach an agreement, and act as a team. If the team hasn’t practiced or rehearsed in advance, speak calmly and clearly with your teammates. Act with conviction, conviction, and action violently.

Lesson #2 — Be a part of something larger than yourself: a leader is defined by self-sacrifice for the greater benefit.

Soldier sitting on a hummer army truck.

Before a mission, Cpl Jesse Schueder briefs LCpl Samuel Gorton and double-checks machine gun preparations. The characteristic of a successful leader is self-sacrifice of time and effort for the greater good, in this instance ensuring that all machine guns are ready for a mission.

One of the most difficult things a commander has to do is advise one of his Marines to perform something that has to be done but puts that person in grave risk. The Marines, on the other hand, never fail, and will willingly put themselves in grave danger to transport another Marine to a MEDEVAC helicopter or clear a passage out of an ambush.


The Marine to your right and left is the finest thing about being in the Marines. On separate missions and from one day to the next, it may have been a different individual, but every Marine is my brother or sister. I’m sure they’d go to great lengths for me, but it’s a two-way street. They’d do anything for me because they know I’d go to such lengths for them.

You aren’t asked to risk your life very frequently in the United States. Sometimes all that is required is that you give your time to a friend or coworker. Other times, it involves getting down on your hands and knees alongside your team and performing the dirty labor.

As a leader, you are first and foremost a servant. You’re here for the team, to look after them and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed. A leader who has a reputation for being selfish or self-centered will find it difficult to gain his colleagues’ loyalty or respect. Great things are achievable if you take a step back and accept “it’s not about me, it’s about the team.”

Lesson #3: If you’re unsure, ask.

Two soldiers standing in a desert.

At a desert security post in Helmand Province, SSgt Joseph Caravalho, the platoon sergeant, and Lt Jeff Clement, the platoon commander, in 2010.

Pretending to know something about which you have no knowledge is not a macho trait. It will undoubtedly bite you, or worse, damage your whole team. “The Lieutenant don’t know” is a term used by Marines to mock Lieutenants, the lowest ranking officer ranks, for their lack of understanding.

Dudes always seem to believe that asking a question is a show of weakness. People, on the other hand, will value your self-awareness and eagerness to develop. A M2.50 cal machine gun is a little (really a lot) more fussy than an old shotgun, and changing a tire on an armored vehicle is a little (actually a lot) more complex than changing a tire on your Toyota Corolla. I immediately discovered that my most junior Marines understood more about the gear’s inner workings than I did. I attempted to spend time with my most junior Marines as a platoon commander, asking them what they did and how they did it. Not only did I learn from them, but we also developed a trusting relationship that would eventually pay dividends.

There’s something you don’t know about your work, no matter what it is. Spend some time with the folks at the warehouse, lumber yard, mailroom, or anywhere else they are. Those tidbits of knowledge might come in handy later.

Everyone needs the assistance of a mentor. The most significant mentor I had was my platoon sergeant, who taught me how to lead. It might be a supervisor, a peer, or even a subordinate, but you never know where you’ll discover a mentor. It is not a sign of weakness to listen and ask questions.

Lesson #4 — It all comes down to trust and respect.

It’s not about becoming everyone’s buddy when it comes to leadership. Leadership, in my opinion, cannot be summed up in a few words or bullet points. Leadership, on the other hand, is clear. It’s all about trust and respect, which are both very difficult concepts to grasp. There’s nothing you can do to assure that your colleagues respect and trust you.


The totality of your actions over time defines who you are as a leader and determines whether or not your men trust you. It includes things like asking questions, devoting yourself to your team, doing your studies and putting in the effort, developing specific plans and communicating them to your team, and so on.

The totality of your actions over time defines who you are as a leader and determines whether or not your men trust you. It includes things like asking questions, devoting yourself to your team, doing your studies and putting in the effort, developing specific plans and communicating them to your team, and so on.

Jeff Clement is the author of The Lieutenant Don’t Know, which is available now on Amazon.com. He served in the US Marine Corps during the war in Afghanistan. He and his wife Alison reside in Washington, DC, and he is a Smith School of Business MBA student.



The “female marines” are the first to be allowed in combat. They have a lot of leadership opportunities and they don’t need to be promoted any higher than a corporal.

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