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QPME: History and Traditions of the United States Marine Corps: Ethics, Values, and Leadership Development

Marine Corps Leadership: Theory & Style

"The United States Marine Corps, with its fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth. "

- Thomas E. Ricks (1997) in Making the Corps


Marine Corps leadership philosophy is direct outgrowth of its philosophy on warfighting, expressed in MCDP 1 Warfighting, and its predecessor, FMFM 1 Warfighting. There are many themes in MCDP 1, but perhaps preeminent of all is the emphasis on decentralization of authority – pushing down the authority to make decisions to the lowest level practicable. The vehicle that implements the concept of decentralization is mission tactics – tasking a subordinate with a mission, providing the intent underlying the task, and providing flexibility within predefined limits to accomplish the mission in a manner of the subordinates' choosing. In other words, as is often said in Marine parlance, trusting subordinates to “figure it out.”

Marine Corps leadership philosophy prefers an approach to leadership characterized by decentralization and delegation, known as the delegating and persuasive approach, as stated in MCDP 6 Command and Control, because the Corps believes this is the best means to foster “imagination, ingenuity, and creativity.” Doctrine (MCDP 6) states that leadership approaches have two distinct components: A set of assumptions and beliefs about why the approach works (theory) and the techniques by which the approach is employed (style). Command and Control further elaborates on this point by illustrating that under the delegating and persuasive approach, leadership becomes more a “question of inspiring, guiding and supporting” subordinates while “encouraging them to perform freely within set limits.” It is also more likely to produce “subordinates who exhibit a high degree of independence, self-discipline, and initiative,” according to the doctrinal publication.

MCDP 6 also elaborates on the effects that differing styles of leadership will likely produce on subordinate behavior. The persuasive theory and style of leadership is contrasted with the authoritarian theory and style, which is generally characterized by the belief that threats of coercion are the superior means with which to motivate subordinates (theory), and provides rigid instructions to subordinates on how to accomplish tasks (style), and believes threat of coercion are the best means with which to motivate subordinates (theory).

Thus, MCDP 6 Command and Control informs us that the Marine Corps prefers the delegating or persuasive approach as the best means to encourage  desireable qualities in its Marines, and the opposing authoritarian approach is more likely to produce subordinates who are “highly dependent” on leaders for direction and require “continuous supervision.” Highly dependent subordinates who require constant supervision are not conducive to the Marine Corps warfighting philosophy that emphasizes decentralization.

The Marine Corps’ belief in decentralization of authority, however, existed long before its publications on warfighting (first in FMFM 1 Warfighting (1989) and then MCDP 1 Warfighting (1997). In 1961, the Marine Corps Manual underwent its fifth revision and included a tract on military leadership, generally. This paragraph remains in substantially the same form in the sixth rewrite in the current (1980) version. Both the 1961 and the 1980 versions of the Manual go to great lengths to memorialize and institutionalize the Marine Corps’ belief in decentralization. A notable example of this is the “special trust and confidence” bestowed upon all officers. Special trust and confidence, rather than being a descriptive label that accompanies rank, must be “tangible and real.” This is accomplished, the Manual informs us, through such things as giving full credit to an officer’s “statements and certificates,” and conferring upon him or her “maximum discretion of authority” in the execution of his or her duties.

The 1961 and 1980 versions of the Marine Corps Manual also impose a regulatory mechanism that aims to ensure that this scheme of decentralization at the core of Marine Corps philosophy continues into perpetuity. A subparagraph common to both versions requires that commanders:

"[B]ring to attention of high authority, referencing this paragraph, any situation, policy, directive, or procedure which contravenes the spirit of this paragraph, and which is not susceptible to local correction."

Finally, both the 1961 and 1980 versions make special effort to communicate that the authority bestowed in this scheme of decentralization comes with it a reciprocal obligation that “it be wholly deserved.” The conferment of special trust and confidence is based on a “presumption of integrity, good manner, sound judgment and discretion,” and that this presumption “is jeopardized by the slightest transgression."


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