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Leadership Lessons Series: Leadership Lessons from Making Marines
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United States Marine Corps recruit training (aka “boot camp”) is where Marines are made, where citizens are transformed into warriors. Most marines experience this rigorous rite of passage only once—but, trust me, once is more than enough! As a recruit training officer, however, I participated in 12 iterations of this life-changing process. Over three years, I led teams of drill instructors in converting hundreds of raw recruits into motivated marines. While we credited our success to our leadership abilities, the truth was that we inherited an amazingly efficient and effective behavioral change program.

Since its founding in 1775, the Marine Corps has continuously honed its recruit training program, yielding the three-phase, 12-week process used today (Table 1). From the minute the recruits race off the bus upon arrival to the moment they march onto the parade field for graduation, they undergo a progressive curriculum of orientation, indoctrination, and enculturation. Founded on a deep understanding of human nature and motivation, the program produces not just entry-level employees but “Marines for Life.” 



Receiving Week


Recruits arrive and begin in-processing to include haircuts, uniform and gear issue, and medical evaluations. They undergo a strength test to ensure they are prepared for training. At the end of the week, they are introduced to the drill instructors who are responsible for their training.



Phase I: Weeks 1 to 4


Recruits receive instruction on military history, customs, and courtesies; basic first aid; uniforms; leadership; and core values.They begin to learn discipline through close-order drill andhand-to-hand combat skills. They also learn basic water survival skills.



Phase II: Weeks 5 to 7


Recruits take a short break from nonstop training to provide support services across the base. They do laundry, stock supplies, and clean buildings. They then move to the rifle range to learn the fundamentals of rifle marksmanship.



Phase III: Weeks 8 to 12


Recruits are taught basic combat skillssuch ascombat marksmanship, land navigation, and maneuvering under fire. They then undergo various academic and physical exams. They complete the Crucible, a 54-hourfield event that tests the knowledge, skills, and values they have acquired during training. Finally, the new marines are inspected by their commanding officers and participate in a graduation ceremony.



















Table 1: Marine Corps Recruit Training Program

Given its sustained success, Marine Corps recruit training is an onboarding program any human resources department would envy. Although many organizations have attempted to emulate the program, few have replicated its amazing results—but they can, and you can too. The underlying concepts are not a military mystery; in fact, the management methods applied in boot camp are equally applicable in the corporate conference room. The boot camp experience consists of three critical components: (1) compassion, (2) courage, and (3) change. In the subsequent sections, I expose each component’s appearance during boot camp and assess its impact on the recruits. Citing contemporary leadership literature, I conclude by showing the effectiveness of these components in other organizational settings.


Compassion comes first! Surprised? Don’t be. Because of inaccurate media representations of military training, many people mistakenly believe that boot camp is all about tirades and threats. Granted, there is lot of shouting and racing from one activity to another, but that is the smoke, not the fire. The transformative process is ignited with compassion, not aggression. 

We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school. –Thucydides, Greeek historian

At the end of receiving week, the recruits assemble in the barracks to be introduced to their drill instructor (DI) team. In accordance with the DI Creed (below), these seasoned marines are responsible for the recruits’ care and training—in that order.

These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my abilities. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of the Corps and country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my own example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill. —The Drill Instructor Creed

Before describing the credibility or demonstrating the capabilities of the team, the senior DI stands before the recruits and pledges, “We will treat you as we do our fellow marines: with firmness, fairness, dignity, and compassion.” With these words, he identifies the DI team’s core values and acknowledges their commitment to the recruits’ development, specifically to produce basically trained marines who can survive the rigors of combat. Thus, from the outset of the program, the recruits learn that rigorous training and rough treatment are not hostile, but intentional and purposeful. The DIs’ subsequent actions—dramatic as they may seem—are not self-serving; rather, they are performed in service to the recruits, the Corps, and the country. With this understanding, the recruits willingly subject themselves to the most stringent standards and severest disciple as they strive to become marines. They accept hardship without hesitation and challenges without complaint; however, if a DI acts in a manner that violates this social contract, if the recruit deems the DI is not upholding the values espoused, then the recruit will immediately notify a senior leader of the alleged infraction.

The importance of leading with compassion before competence is not restricted to the military; in fact, it is a fundamental element of human history. Humans have always judged others on two criteria. The first is how “lovable” they are. When first meeting someone, we instinctively ask, “What is this person’s intention toward me?” We gauge the level of compassion and trustworthiness. Having assessed another’s aims, the second question is, “How ‘fearsome’ is this person?” We wonder, “Can this person act on his/her intentions?” Decades of research show that from an evolutionary perspective, this order is imperative to our survival. Before deciding how to react, we must know whether a person is a friend deserving of our trust or a foe and thus a threat. We are the descendants of those who assessed accurately and responded accordingly.

Extending this survival mechanism to leadership, behavioral scientists Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger discovered that “by first focusing on displaying warmth and then blending in demonstrations of competence, leaders will find a clearer path to influence.”i So, “although most of us strive to demonstrate our strength, warmth contributes significantly more to others’ evaluation of us—and is judged before competence.”ii  This finding dispels many of the leadership myths propagated in the media. The cold, calculating, yet extremely capable leader often portrayed in popular culture does not elicit trust; he merely enforces compliance by eliciting fear in the workforce. In fact, “putting competence first undermines leadership—without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately—to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way.”iii

Despite the myths, compliance is insufficient criteria for military service. The DI team has a greater responsibility—specifically, to indoctrinate in the recruits a love of the Corps and the country. So, while coercion can produce compliance, only compassion promotes the level of commitment needed to be live up to the Marine Corps’ motto semper fidelis (ever faithful). 


Not surprisingly, courage is the second critical component of boot camp. While physical courage is required, it is not the primary form of courage displayed. Instead, the more relevant forms of courage are those described by corporate consultant Bill Treasureriv  in his book Courage at Work. Treasurer catalogs three types of courage: (1) courage to try, (2) courage to trust, and (3) courage to tell.v These types emerge in this order and build on each other as training progresses.

The first form, the courage to try, is the confidence of initiative and action. It is daring to take the first step toward a desired objective, to take on a daunting challenge, to reach beyond one’s current grasp. This courage is not born in boot camp; instead, it begins when the individual first enters the recruiting office and commits to becoming a marine. This is a frightening task for most young men and women. First, they must demonstrate the courage to dedicate four years of their lives to the service of their country. Second, they must have the fortitude to inform their family and friends of this decision and, thus, of their confidence in their ability to complete this rigorous training. The courage to try next appears when the recruits arrive at the training depot and step off the bus and onto the famous golden footprints.vi This is when the commitment becomes real and the recruit begins the transformational journey. 

With each subsequent step, the pace of recruit training quickens. The recruits cannot reverse course, slow the pace, or stop in place. Instead, they are subjected to a series of new and more strenuous challenges. Their fate is never certain until they finally complete the Crucible. Only then are they assured of becoming a marine. Therefore, throughout training, the recruits must sustain the courage to continue to try and try and try again. The source of such tenacity is revealed in the sage counsel of Medal of Honor recipient Vice Admiral James Stockdale, United States Navy. Having survived the horrors of imprisonment as a prisoner of war, he advises those in difficult situations, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever they might be.”vii Thus, the courage to try flows from stoicism, not optimism; from confidently facing reality, not wishfully denying it. 

The next type of courage, the courage to trust, is the confidence to rely on others; that is, to accept the vulnerability of interdependence and release the need to control situations or outcomes. It is having faith in others and being receptive to direction and change. This courage emerges when the recruits first stand on the yellow footprints and form a platoon. With this simple act, they assume a unique identity that separates “us” from “them.” Despite this delineation, until they demonstrate the courage to trust—individually and collectively—they will remain an affiliated group of individuals vice a functional team. Fortunately, this bonding process begins immediately and expands exponentially. 

Following their formation as a unit, the new recruits are inundated with myriad menial tasks—too many to be performed perfectly or individually. Inventorying personal items, organizing issued equipment, preparing uniforms, making beds, and cleaning common areas exceed the time allotted, requiring recruits to work together to meet the DI’s strict standards. Out of necessity, the recruits begin experimenting with the courage to trust in ever widening pools of proximity. This process is expedited by the DI team’s propensity to dole out praise and punishment to the group or a subset thereof vice solely to an individual. With their fates tightly aligned, the recruits cautiously extend trust to their bunkmates, then the recruits on either side of them, next to their squad, and finally to the entire platoon. Gradually discerning the character and capabilities of their colleagues, they determine who can be trusted with what duties and to what degree.

What occurs initially in the barracks is soon replicated in the field, only with greater risks and rewards. As training progresses, menial chores are replaced by more daunting challenges. Individual ability alone is insufficient to successfully complete the Confidence Course, to march in formation, or to conduct combat maneuvers. Instead, the recruits must acknowledge their individual vulnerability and accept the risk of trusting others. As they do, the recruits learn to leverage each other’s strengths, achieve greater objectives, and receive increasing accolades. This group of disparate individuals transforms into a proud, purposeful, high-performing team, but the antecedent to this achievement is the courage to trust, to be vulnerable, and to rely on one another.

The third form of courage, the courage to tell, is the strength to give voice to your thoughts. It means raising difficult issues, providing critical feedback, and expressing unpopular opinions. This courage is easily overlooked during the early weeks of recruit training, when recruits respond to most commands with a rousing, “Yes, Senior Drill Instructor!” or “No, Senior Drill Instructor!” But, it emerges later in training, after the recruits are taught the Marine Corp leadership traits—specifically, the trait of integrity. The Marine Corps defines integrity as “uprightness of character and soundness of moral principles, the quality of truthfulness and honesty.”viii Thereafter, the recruits are expected to give honest, forthright responses without hesitation. 

Recognizing that the consequences of combat are too severe to tolerate inaccuracy or falsehoods, the Corps requires its marines to possess the courage to speak truth to power from the outset of their careers. To recruits, there is no more powerful force in the world than their drill instructors. Thus, it is an act of bravery when a recruit first admits to not knowing a fact and responds with a resounding, “This recruit does not know but will find out!” In that moment, the recruit embarrassingly admits individual fallibility while concurrently acknowledging the higher precedence of the common good. In this simple statement, the recruit demonstrates the willingness to put service above self, the common mission before self-interest.

Thereafter, as boot camp progresses, the recruits are increasingly invited into a deeper and more reciprocal dialogue with their drill instructors. The DIs recognize the recruits as future colleagues with whom they may serve in combat. Thus, they desire to develop fellow warriors on whom they can rely—namely, comrades who possess integrity, mental agility, and inquisitiveness to react appropriately in dynamic situations and not act as automatons who respond in a rote manner. This is why the DIs progressively require the recruits to answer with more authentic thoughts and less automatic responses; but to begin this conversion, the recruits must first demonstrate the courage to tell. 


The third and most pronounced component of boot camp is change. In his seminal book Leading Change, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter contends, “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”ix After studying hundreds of corporate change initiatives, he concluded that durable change does not occur because a leader presents new facts but because the leader shows the followers a new truth. The path to successful change, according to Kotter, proceeds from seeing a new truth, to feeling it, to achieving it. Thus, the leader’s role is not to mandate change but to encourage the followers to perceive a new reality—to motivate them to move from what is to what can be, from the past to a possible future.

Nowhere are Kotter’s lessons more evident than in the life-altering experience of boot camp. In a mere 12 weeks civilians are made into marines. But in such a short period, what can truly change? Shorter hair? Yes. Fitter bodies? Yes. More strength, endurance, and discipline? Yes, yes, and yes! What is less evident but even more impactful is the radically changed mind set of these recruits. Boot camp has shown them a new truth about themselves. First, they see themselves differently—adopting new identities and realizing that they can perform beyond their expectations. Second, they feel this new truth—experiencing powerful emotional reactions to the inspiration of their leaders, the camaraderie of their fellow recruits, and the motivation of Marine Corps history, traditions, and ceremonies. Third and finally, they truly change—transforming from civilians to marines, from independent individuals to interdependent comrades-in-arms. 

While the boot camp experience echoes the change theory of Kotter, it actively employs the techniques espoused by his intellectual predecessor, famed social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who determined that lasting change emerges in three stages. In stage 1, unfreeze, stability and the status quo are disrupted. The entity, whether an individual or an organization, becomes aware that existing behaviors, processes, or ways of thinking are no longer effective in achieving desired objectives. Next, in stage 2, change, the process of transition takes place. By learning new behaviors, processes, and ways of thinking, the entity moves toward a new state of being. Finally, in stage 3, refreeze, stability and the status quo are reestablished. The altered behaviors, processes, and ways of thinking now become the accepted norms. 

Marine Corps boot camp mirrors Lewin’s change model. In phase I, weeks 1 to 4, recruits undergo physical and mental conditioning, learn martial arts, and acquire basic military knowledge and skills. The objective is to “unfreeze” them, to show the recruits that their civilian norms may not be effective in their new military environment. There is little expectation that recruits will retain what they have learned; rather, the recruits are subjected to a rapid succession of activities designed to put them in a state of disequilibrium. They are inundated with disconfirming data that calls into question their prior behaviors and beliefs. In his memoir, Helmet for My Pillow, Robert Leckie described the turmoil of this first phase: “It is a process of surrender. At every turn, at every hour, it seemed, a habit or a preference had to be given up, an adjustment had to be made. Even in the mess hall we learned that nothing mattered so little as a man’s own likes or dislikes.”x

Now that recruits are ready to change, that change begins in phase II, weeks 5 to 9. The recruits begin to experience the Corps’ mantra: “Every marine a rifleman.” They move to the rifle range, where they practice marksmanship. The pace of training slackens so that recruits are afforded a more stable and supportive environment in which to demonstrate their proficiency. As Leckie noted of his experience, “If you are undone … taken apart in those first few weeks, it is at the rifle range that they start to put you together again”xi Each achievement is lauded and associated with a new behavior and belief. This positive affirmation increases the recruits’ commitment to the change, fosters pride, and fuels the drive to complete the final phase of training. 

In phase III, weeks 10 to 13, the recruits are further indoctrinated in the Corps’ warrior ethos as they learn basic combat and field skills. Increasingly, they adopt the Corps’ norms and are incrementally rewarded with greater autonomy. Dressed in spotless uniforms, they march confidently around the grounds, filled with self-pride—and with pity for the (less adept) phase I recruits who trail them in training by a mere three weeks! The 54-hour Crucible constitutes the culmination of the boot camp experience. Part competition, part ceremony, and part celebration, this capstone event validates how far the recruits have progressed during training. It proves the benefit of the physical, mental, and spiritual trials they endured over the preceding 11 weeks. Those who complete the challenge are awarded an eagle, globe, and anchor emblem, marking this transformation from recruit to marine. This symbolic act affirms the recruit’s willingness and worthiness to adopt the lifelong title of marine. 


As recent research shows, the three components—compassion, courage, and change— are as applicable in the conference room as in boot camp. The concepts used to mold marines can be effective in orienting, indoctrinating, and engaging new employees in any enterprise. 

The concepts are the same. First, lead with compassion before competence. In words and actions, demonstrate to new employees that senior leaders care for them and are dedicated to their development. Second, enable employees to progressively exercise the courage to try, to trust, and to tell. Afford them opportunities to take on new and novel challenges. Applaud them when they succeed and support them should they fail. Assign them increasingly more daunting tasks that exceed their individual capacity and, thereby, require them to trust others and build ever broader, more diverse teams. Expect them to openly and honestly address difficult subjects with other employees at all levels and encourage them to dissent when necessary. 

Third, to convert new personnel into engaged employees, appeal to their emotions rather than to their logic. Provide them a new truth, which shifts their thinking about themselves, the organization, and its mission. Then give them small doses of disequilibrium to detach them from their past behaviors and beliefs. Afford them the space and support to complete the conversion. Finally, recognize their efforts. Affirm the benefits of their new behaviors and beliefs, and highlight their alignment with the organization’s norms. 

When combined, compassion, courage, and change form a compelling force—one capable of unleashing what French general Ferdinand Foch called “the most powerful weapon on earth…the human soul on fire.” Once set aflame, such esprit de corps is hard to subdue. Just ask any marine, from the newest private to the most seasoned sergeant major: their boot camp experience burns brightly within them, forming their identity and guiding their behavior and beliefs. By following the Marine Corps’ model, you too can ignite your employees’ passions and convert your incoming corporate citizens into an indomitable warrior workforce.



i Cuddy, Amy, Kohut, Matthew, & Neffinger, John. (July 2013) “Connect, then Lead,” Harvard Business Review.
ii Ibid.
iii Ibid.
iv Bill Treasurer is the founder and chief executive officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building and leadership consulting firm. He is the author of five books that include Courage Goes to Work, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, and Leaders Open Doors.
Treasurer, Bill. (2008) Courage at Work. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
vi Yellow footprints are painted on the ground outside the Marine Corps recruiting depot’s receiving barrack. These footprints enable recruits to assemble into a platoon formation upon disembarking from the bus that transported them to the depot.
vii Collins, Jim. (2001) Good to Great. Harper Collins Publishers.
viii Available at: https://www.tecom.marines.mil/Portals/120/Docs/Student%20Materials/CREST%20Manual/RP0103.pdf.
ix Kotter, John. (1996) Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press.
x Leckie, Robert. (1957) Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific. Bantam Books. 
xi Ibid.



Author Biography

Colonel (Ret.) Michael F. Belcher, USMC, is on the faculty of the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, VA. During his 28-year military career he commanded at every level: from a rifle platoon to an infantry regiment. His last assignment was as director of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, VA. He can be contacted at Michael.belcher@opm.gov.


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