Love Your Neighbor: The Heart of Leadership in the Marine Corps

Marines SittingToday’s post was guest-written by my brother Lt. Cale Magnuson, a U.S. Marine currently assigned to the Marines Aviation Program. You can connect with Cale on LinkedIn.

I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard Captain Tucker tell us that he loved us. Captain Tucker was the platoon commander charged with instilling in us the art and science of becoming Officers in the Marine Corps. As you might imagine, this raised some eyebrows. Captain Tucker is still to this day the hardest Marine I have ever met. As a Purple Heart recipient, he could have ordered us to follow him to hell and back, and none of us would have hesitated. So why would such a man openly tell a bunch of new Lieutenants that he loved us?

When We Talk About Service and Sacrifice, We Really Mean Love

When one thinks of the military, the idea of service and sacrifice appropriately come to mind. Any Marine would quickly tell you that his motivation comes from a duty to serve his fellow Marines and fellow Americans. Love, however, is perhaps a more powerful and apt identifier of what it means to be a Marine – and also to be a leader. At its most fundamental level, love implies sacrifice, and conversely, genuine sacrifice or service cannot exist absent of love. What good are our claims of loving our neighbor (or followers) if they don’t translate into sacrifice?

Love very naturally translates into the core values on which our Marine ethos is built, that is: Honor, Courage, and Commitment. Honor recognizes, endorses, and protects the dignity inherent in every human being. Courage is the ability to act honorably, even when it seems impossible. Commitment is the resolve to hold on to the other two at all costs. For an elite warrior class where effective leadership is a matter of life and death, we sure do talk a lot about love.

Without Love, Effective Leadership Is Impossible

Anyone with more than a tertiary knowledge of leadership knows the value of servant leadership, which defines the most effective leader as the one who serves those he leads. This isn’t just “a” form of leadership, it is “the” form of leadership. A true leader isn’t driven by what’s in it for him. He cares about how he can develop those around him for their sake and for the team’s sake, rather than his own sake. The leader who cares more about what his men can do for him than what he can do for them isn’t a leader, he’s a manipulator. A non-servant leader does such things as lie, unjustly accuse, and cut corners in order to enhance his position for the most profitable gain – all at the expense of those he is supposed to lead. Unfortunately, in many occupations this is such a subtle deviation from true leadership that it has become normalized and acceptable. In my occupation, dishonesty, a lack of justice, and cutting corners means Marines die. In your occupation, inept leadership may not result in lost lives, but rather losing the breath of life that powers your organization. The price is simply too high not to love and sacrifice for those you lead.

True Leadership Isn’t About You

As an Officer of Marines, my sole purpose for existence is to accomplish the mission and to serve my Marines. Enlisted Marines (i.e. non-officers) are the ones who get stuff done. To not serve them undermines both justifications for my existence (i.e. the mission and my Marines). Ask any enlisted Marine and he will tell you that if you care about him, he’ll follow you to hell and back. My job as an officer is to set the parameters (e.g. timing, tactics, rules of engagement, etc…) within which they can work and then support them in every way possible. In the same way, a healthy organization doesn’t run simply on the competence of senior leadership. It runs because the average employees have enough buy-in to put their nose to the grindstone and get the job done. I promise you that if you let Joe Employee know you sincerely care about him (and by that I mean support as well as sentiment), you’ll see a level of buy-in and output that you never knew was possible.

True leadership isn’t about you. It’s about leveraging your influence to love and serve those you have the privilege to lead. Ruthlessly holding yourself to this standard is your duty to yourself, your coworkers, your family and your country. And it is the lifeblood that makes all of these institutions successful.

Semper Fidelis.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.