Leadership Is an Apprenticed Vocation

Leaders have followers but managers, generals, and CEO’s are not necessarily leaders. Leaders have followers because they inspire people to achieve. Thus, leadership is the action of a leader that inspires his followers to transcend to something greater than self.

Becoming a leader is a lifelong endeavor of study, action, reflection, and refinement. Furthermore, leadership is a vocation that is best learned in apprenticeship to a master. 

My intention with these video’s and the book is to help you optimize that apprenticeship

The Prime Imperative (The Leader's One Thing)

There is a leadership principle that underpins all others, so I call it the Prime Imperative or the One Thing. I said that leadership is taking actions to inspire people to transcend to something greater than self. So, it follows that a leader must acknowledge that every person in their organization has value. Somebody thought they had value and hired them.

Over the years, I have seen many Marines someone had labeled as “dirt-bags,” turn themselves around with just a little interest from a leader. Usually, they just needed to believe in themselves. Unfortunately, most people will accept their lot in life unless a challenge or a leader proves to them their worth.

These experiences caused me to realize that Marines would do anything for leaders they knew cared, and that I would never know who might be the hero that saves the day, so I had better treat them all like the heroes they might become. That is the prime imperative or one thing for a leader, to acknowledge that everyone in our organization has value. From there, our duty becomes to care for, train, and inspire them to be their best selves and transcend to something greater.

Learn Something and Teach Something Everyday

Leaders can only inspire people if they are competent. That’s the start. I would go further to say that you need to be proficient in both your technical specialty and leadership. To do so, you must be continually moving forward. That’s why I have two principles that I always speak of together, learn something every day, and teach something every day. While you can be an inspiring personality, you can’t lead if you aren’t proficient in your position in your organization. 

So, my preferred method is to start at my desk with my key tasks and learn all of the governing rules, standards, and processes that affect me most and then expand outward, and upward learning the jobs of my boss and his boss. This process includes finding the experts in each area and letting them teach me, even if they are my most junior teammate. Then as I gather knowledge, I share what I’ve learned where and with those who can benefit, teaching something daily. This continual exchange not only makes you smarter, it makes your people smarter and builds relationships with your people based on trust because they know you are bringing them along on your way to becoming better.

Leaders Know What They Believe

So, what are the principles that define your character? Many professions have codes, and leaders should have them as well. Those beliefs provide the waypoints as we navigate the challenges of life and define who we are or “objective self” we want to be. These beliefs are commonly called Unifying Principles because they unify our highest values of life, but you have to figure out yours.

If you haven’t, I suggest you start with the idea that we are all spiritual, physical, and intellectual beings, and we have social, financial, professional, and emotional aspects. Write them down, make them active like “I will live with integrity” and then write a few sentences about what that means.

Spend 15 minutes every morning working on defining them until they describe the objective you, and then you will have your code. With that done, you can start writing goals to become that person.

Leaders Live What They Believe

I firmly believe leaders understand that success and satisfaction are both the result of bringing their performance in line with their values. Goals help us do this by integrating our personal and professional life and aligning our actions with our values. By writing specific and measurable goals daily and prioritizing them, we commit to attacking a piece of who and what we want to become. 

So, our goals align with our unifying principles, and our goals direct our actions. That sounds easy, so how come less than 3 percent of people write goals and less than 1 percent review and rewrite them? Integrity is the word I use. While some define integrity as doing the right thing, I like the definition that says integrity is adhering to a code of values. Your code of values is your unifying principles and integrity is your “moral muscle,” and the more you exercise it, the stronger you will become. With each small victory, you become more prepared for the more significant challenges of life. So, don’t miss your “moral work out” whether that is planning your day, counseling your subordinate, or taking the bad news to your boss. 

However, don’t forget that integrity also means living the uplifting values like enjoying time with your wife, fishing with your son, and going to Church. As you live your beliefs daily, you build the habits that support your values and connect your personal and professional goals to the unifying principles that describe the objective you.

Leaders Own the Mission

Leaders own the mission. That starts with knowing the job you’re paid to perform. Just because you were hired and maybe even went to school, doesn’t mean you know the job. No two organizations are the same, even in the military. Until you stand in those footprints and sit at that desk, you don’t know the job. As a leader, you have at least two roles, the technical role, and the leadership role. You must become proficient in both. So, Make learning part of your daily goals. 

Learn and teach something every day, starting with your job description and your organization’s mission statement. Find the leaders to emulate and become their apprentice. If you’re a Marine learn to fight, your unit and individually. In business, learn what your company does in your industry and your role in its mission. 

No two jobs of the same title that I ever held were the same, and no two units I served in were the same. Because every organization is a living organism with its particular dynamics and culture. As leaders, we have to understand and be proficient in our responsibilities. Likewise, understanding the role we fulfill in our organization makes it possible for us to do what must be done.

Leaders Do What Must Be Done

Leaders do what must be done. My Dad used to say “son whatever you do give it 110%,” and my brothers taught me to “hustle between the white lines on the baseball diamond.” So, I learned to work hard and with intensity, but leaders also need to figure out what needs to be done. We don’t get to choose to do only the easy or fun tasks. Often what we must do is very messy and painful. Leaders don’t get to choose what kind of leader they are; they must be what their organization and their people need when they need it. We get to choose who we are but not what we are, beyond choosing to lead. We have to prioritize what needs doing and put our time and efforts into those tasks and take them to completion. 

Leadership is a 24/7 full-contact sport! Leaders must bring their “A Game” every day to create the best outcomes in every situation for your organization and your people. We must do what must be done.

Leaders Get More Done

Leaders get more done because leaders use time well. Leaders recognize that time is their most significant and most limited resource. They also acknowledge that they can’t control time, but they can prioritize events and organize resources to accomplish their goals. Likewise, they recognize that every challenge is not a crisis, and every event isn’t urgent. You see, time management is not doing more but doing more of the critical things. My definition of time management is the prioritizing and ordering of events to utilize the time available in pursuit of my goals best. 

So, leaders get more done by doing what’s important first by prioritizing and organizing. To make sure their people understand, they communicate using the appropriate assets and most effective methods. Creating Communication protocols that define when, what, and how to communicate vital information can make a difference. Having the world wide web, email, text, and phones in your pocket can be a great tool, but it can also distract you from what’s important. You can spend all day just managing your device and not accomplish anything, and your people are taking clues from you. 

I encourage you to figure out what’s important, do that first, organize what resources you need, and communicate the plan to your team. If you can do that in person, it will be more precise and better understood. Then establish how you will report back and follow up using text, email, phone, or in person. Remember, communication is a two-way street, and life is a team sport, so leadership requires cooperation and collaboration.

Leaders Cooperate and Collaborate

Leaders cooperate and collaborate because that’s how the mission gets done. In battle and other critical situations, a familiar voice is comforting on the other end of the call for assistance. We expect leaders to stand alone in battle and crisis to assess, decide, and act, but leaders know that they leverage the talents of their team through cooperation and collaboration. They learn this by putting away their ego and serving their team, learning to trust and support the units on the flanks and to accept and perform the missions assigned, even when they are undesirable. Leaders want to be the main effort, but there are many more supporting efforts, some are undesirable. In Iraq, 3d Bn, 11th Marines was assigned as the Division economy of force performing tasks and missions that would free up maneuver units. Assigned the inglorious and dangerous task of convoy security escort our Marines performed so well that a contract logistics company moving most of the food in the theater only moved with 3/11 escorting. Then, when our men needed fuel, ammo, or medical evacuation, everyone in the theater took excellent care of them. So, bloom where you’re planted, cooperate and collaborate to make the best of that assignment

Leaders Are Both Master & Apprentice

Leaders are both masters and apprentices. In the apprenticeship, we learn what it means to go the extra mile, and I don’t think anyone has ever defined the apprenticeship better than LtGen John Archer Lejeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps and the greatest Marine ever. In 1920 in the days of only male Marines, General Lejeune wrote to the Corps; “The relations between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar.” He goes on to say that the relationship should be like fathers to sons because leaders are responsible for the discipline, mental, moral, and physical training and welfare of their Marines. It is an apprenticeship much as sons are apprentices to their fathers. I would add that every leader is both an apprentice and a master with both seniors and subordinates. The apprenticeship entails a close personal relationship with some level of affection based on mutual respect and discipline. Leaders develop those relationships not by seeking popularity but by being firm, fair, and approachable or, as my brother taught me, be firm, fair, and friendly is optional.

Leaders Don't Worry About Being Popular

Leaders don’t worry about being popular. I support the “Firm, Fair, and Friendly is optional” Approach. I believe our people want to know where we stand and that we will consistently approach every challenge with sound judgment. They want to trust us. So how do we build trust? 

Leaders build trust by getting to know their people by building relationships with subordinates and seniors. 

Building relationships is especially important for young leaders as they are learning both leadership and technical knowledge. By being authentic; enduring the same challenges and learning from both the experienced veteran and the most junior teammate, they are building relationships built on trust and respect. 

Now having a happy hour drink with your people every so often has its place but your people don’t want to spend much free time with the boss and drinking a beer doesn’t make you “less the boss” or replace the value of challenges shared. 

So, take the time to get to know your team a little every day. Be approachable and a resource for their development, and you’ll build a culture of performance.

Leaders Hold Themselves & Their People Accountable

Leaders hold themselves and their people accountable. My dog Blue holds me accountable for our run every morning. You see, we are all accountable for what we do and fail to do. Modifying behavior and improving performance begins with accountability, usually in the form of punishment or reward. It must always be accompanied by counseling, either formal or informal, so that the actions are understood. In the Qualifications of A Naval Officer attributed to Revolutionary War Naval Hero John Paul Jones, he says of the leader: “No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its just reward, even if that reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though, at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.” Of the non-judicial punishment I imposed and the medals I awarded over 30 years, few were the result of a single action. Instead, they were the result of regular counseling and accountability or the failure to do so. If you want your people to be high achievers, counsel them regularly, and reward excellent performance as soon as you see it, even if it is only a word of approval. In doing so, you’re shaping the organizational culture.

Leaders Shape Organizational Culture

There is an old saying in the Marines that a unit takes on the personality of its commander. When I showed up to assume command of the Security Force Company in Keflavik, Iceland they were a good company, but it seemed that everyone had taken on the climate of Iceland. We seemed to have a lot of people committed to menial tasks and working long hours with little reward. For all of the amazing natural wonders outside the base, it was possible for a Marine to never leave the barracks with its gym and bar, except to go next door to the chow hall and for duties. 

In early fall as the days shortened quickly, I refused to become as dark as the days and started greeting Marines by saying “It’s a great day to be an Iceland Marine.” The Marines likely thought I was crazy, but I also began to look for ways to eliminate menial tasks, improve their training, facilitate excursions in town, and raise morale. My subordinate leaders were all about it as we assessed our mission and organization and made adjustments to the leadership. We set goals and priorities that realigned duties, and developed cooperative training with other organizations, and improved our own performance. It took some work, but I knew things had changed when the Marines began saying it was a great day to be an Iceland Marine. 

Remember that everything you say & do shapes the culture of your organization, so, consider what you want that culture to be when you’re assigned a new position.

Leaders Don't Fake It

Whether on the battlefield or in business, changes in the situation or your position bring new leadership challenges. Whether that’s a promotion, a change in the competition, or a change in your organization, any change creates new leadership challenges. 

How the leader responds can significantly change the outcome. So, instead of trying to fake your way through it:

-Be confident in your ability to find the answer, solve the problem, and accomplish the mission. Someone believes in you, or you wouldn’t have the job.

-Rely on your training. -Be logical and reason through.

-Emulate someone who has succeeded in a similar situation. Be the apprentice even when you’ve mastered other levels of leadership.

-Listen more and talk less. Leverage the power of the team around you. Listen to your people and leverage their abilities. They will carry you across the finish line.

-Make a decision, make a plan, and execute. The old Marine wisdom is that an 80% solution executed violently is better than a 100% solution too late.

-HUSTLE. If your people see you moving out on the plan, they will follow suit.

Now, you may have seconds or years, so use the time you have to contemplate possible situations and leave time for your people to prepare. In doing the mental reps you will make better decisions, you won’t be faking, and you will shape your roadmap.