7 Leadership lessons from the USMC, that church leaders should learn.
“You were a Marine?” That’s one of the questions I get every time I mention my time in the Marine Corps. Especially if I mention it in a sermon. It might help if you could hear the tone of it; they’re amazed, astounded, or more probably just a little amused. After all, it’s a little unusual to encounter a pastor with a Marine Corps background. When they get a handle on it, or decide that I’m not making it up, then they sometimes have a follow up question, “So, how did you go from the Marines to the ministry?” And we’ll go through that history a little bit, and to sum it up for you, I joined the Marines while trying to run away from God’s call on my life. On reflection, God used that time in the Corps to profoundly shape me. That leads to the third question they usually ask. And it’s this question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, “Did the Marine Corps prepare you for the ministry in any way?” I usually throw out a little quip, “Well, it’s sure given me a lot of sermon illustrations, some I can use in church.”
But, you know, there really is a lot the Marine Corps taught me that has applied to pastoring and preaching. And especially to leadership. The Marines are renowned for their leadership development. I’ve been trying to think through all of the leadership lessons I learned from that experience. It’s incredibly difficult to pare it down to just a few lessons. But, I’ll give it a shot. Here are seven lessons I learned that I still strive to live by (I’m not listing these in any particular order of importance).
1. Value initiative. Initiative is the one word I associate most closely with my Marine Corps experience because such a high value was placed on taking initiative. I can’t emphasize this enough to pastor’s, lay leaders, to anyone really, ‘take the initiative!’ Don’t wait for someone else to do what you clearly see needs to be done!. Do it yourself. Even if it’s not your job. Even if you don’t think you have the authority. Take the initiative! And those in leadership should value this trait in others, especially in those they lead. When you find someone who takes initiative, do whatever you have to do to get them on your team. They’re invaluable, so many in our culture today just wait for someone else, they pass it off as ‘not my job.’ And when you find someone who bucks that trend…GET THEM ON THE TEAM! And Pastors, just a word for you, please stop blaming your church, your council, your denomination, your district superintendent, your bishop, for your own lack of initiative. For many of us, to value initiative is turn away from our own laziness.
2. Loyalty down = loyalty up. This is a bit of a shift in understanding for most of us. Real leadership starts with loyalty down not loyalty up. Every Marine knows which officers and NCO’s they can trust and which they can’t, guess who they work harder for? So many leaders wonder why they can’t trust their employees, their followers, etc . . . All the while they’re ‘throwing them under the bus.’ If employees and others don’t sense your loyalty to them, if it’s not explicit and consistent, you’ll never have their loyalty toward you or your organization. But if you are loyal to them, if you demonstrate that ‘you’ve got their backs,’ and you mean it, you live it, they’ll trust you, and when they trust you they’ll be loyal to you and to your organization. And yes, on occasion you’ll be taken advantage of, you’ll get betrayed, be loyal down anyway. Just a word of caution though, this can’t be faked. So don’t try to fake it. If you can’t be loyal down, then you need to find a new role because leadership isn’t for you.
3. Mission imperative. The mission is central to real leadership. And it was driven into us in the Marine Corps, “The Mission is the priority.” It’s easy, especially for those of us in church leadership, to get comfortable with where we are and forget the mission before us. We must keep the mission central to who we are and to what we are trying to do! This is a challenge. As we’ve all heard before, organizations and churches tend to experience mission drift. We drift away from our central mission and need to get back on course. Leaders who desire to lead prevailing organizations and churches will keep the Mission Imperative-Mission will be central to everything they do.
4. The power of history. To my knowledge the Marine Corps is still the only military service that requires every recruit to pass a history test prior to graduation from boot camp. They understand the power of history to shape identity. Do you know the history of your church? Your organization? Your denomination? The movement you are trying to lead is formed by a shared sense of history, it will shape the identity and the future of your organization. Know it! Share it! Often! Also, your organization is creating history right now. Record it, you’ll need it later!
5. Keep learning. Probably the least known secret of Marine Corps leadership is the immense number of learning opportunities they provide. I still have not encountered an organization that values continued learning like the USMC does! I’m sure you’ve heard the leadership maxim, “When you stop learning you stop leading.” That’s an absolute truth in my book. Yet I still encounter leaders, usually pastors, who simply won’t engage in continued learning. Frankly, they’ve abdicated their leadership. And you can see the evidence of it in their organizations and in their churches. I don’t know where I heard this, but I love it, “Real leaders are absolutely addicted to learning!”
6. You can delegate authority but not responsibility. In the Marine Corps the leader will be held responsible for the accomplishment of the mission. Always. The leader can, and must, delegate authority but never responsibility. Great leaders get this almost intuitively. They understand that for the mission to be accomplished the authority has to be delegated to the people who will actually be doing the work. Great leaders never micromanage. But, the great leader will naturally accept the responsibility for the failures and deflect the praise for the success. Jim Collins calls this “level five leadership.” The Marine Corps has been drilling this into their leaders for two centuries now. And we pastors especially (and not a few bishops) would do well to remember and practice this!
7. Be decisive. Indecision is not a problem with Marine Corps type leaders. The Marines drilled into us that “It is far worse to make no decision than to make a poor decision.” I think, and least within my own denomination-The United Methodist Church, we suffer from an epidemic of indecisiveness. We want all the information before making a decision. We want some assurance of success before making the decision to risk. And often, we end up making no decision at all, which of course is a decision to not engage in the mission. It would be better for us to make a quick decision, engage the risk, and fail, learn from it, and try again than to continue with our addiction to indecisiveness. Our indecisiveness leads to ineffectiveness. Be decisive!
So those are the seven lessons on leadership I learned in the Marine Corps that I still strive to live out today. What have you learned from the formative experiences of your life? What leadership lessons do you try to live by?
Grace and Peace,