Although another branch of the military provided my training for life, I have an affinity toward my brothers and sisters in the United States Marine Corps. Formed in 1775, as part of the U.S. Navy, they have served with distinction in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. As any Marine will tell you, “Once a Marine always a Marine.”
What is it about the training these young men and women receive that makes them different and sets them apart from the other branches of service? What can we as business people learn from their training? What is it about their brand that ensures they will always have distinction?
A recent book by Larry Smith, titled “The Few and the Proud: Marine Corps Drill Instructors in Their Own Words,” gives us some great insights. After reading the book, former Marine Walter S. Montano, now a writer and historian, observed that “the Marine spirit is thriving from generation to generation thanks to a legion of dedicated drill instructors.”
Just as people go into business for many different reasons, recruits end up in the Marines for many reasons as well — some join because they want to “escape,” while others want the experience, education and adventure. Whatever the reason for joining, the end results can be the same if the recruits take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. Of course, “Even when opportunity knocks a man still has to get up off his seat and open the door.” Whoever said that first could well have been a Marine.
Maj. Keith Burkepile, the director of the Drill Instructor School at Parris Island, S.C., says that the psychology of the Marine Corps is simple — to be an exceptional DI, you lead by example. And I feel sure that to become an exceptional DI, you are following the good examples that were set for you.
Sixty-two-year-old R. Lee Ermey “Gunny,” the drill instructor at the recruit depot in San Diego in the 1960s who is best known for his role as the D.I. in the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” told Larry Smith that the job of the DI is to be the “model for the best of the best.”
He also said, “I firmly believe that you live and learn, and if you don’t learn from past mistakes, then you need to be drug out and shot.” As much as I respect the man, I am not advocating such an extreme approach, but the point is well taken.
Being a “role-model” resonated with me. When I looked at my own business venture and the “role-models” who helped me, I came to realize that the Marines’ training and small business success have a great deal in common.
I started my business career as a 13-year-old at the Ben Franklin Dime Store where I swept and mopped floors, shoveled coal into a basement furnace, and stocked shelves. Mr. Joe Wilcox insisted that anything you did in his store be your best. I learned from his “white glove” inspections for a year until I had the idea that I wanted to be in the newspaper business.
I approached Mr. Gid Shelby Pool, the editor of the Caldwell County Times in Princeton, in September of 1964 and asked for a job. He was a benevolent man and he gave me one. I started in the back room cleaning presses, sweeping floors, picking up ads from merchants, delivering newspapers and answering the telephone. Eventually I got to write news stories, take photos, lay out pages, and be a reporter and editor. I was hooked. And I realized that newspapers were more just writing, photography and bylines ... newspapers could play a key role in education, informing and communicating.
My passion was writing and taking the pictures, which sometimes told the story even better than words. I was never a good editor, although I tried to remember these words attributed to a Texas editor, “A news story should be like a mini-skirt on a pretty woman ... long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.”
These first employers and job experiences taught me the very things that the drill instructors teach young Marine recruits. They led by example as they taught. They taught me responsibility for myself and others, the importance of learning skills from the ground up, obedience to a chain of command, and the importance of teamwork. They motivated me and taught me how to motivate others. I also learned to appreciate the importance and uniqueness of our society’s work ethic which celebrates hard work and achievement. “The world belongs to the energetic.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson said.
Mr. Gid Pool often worked late into the evenings at the newspaper office to ensure that the ballgame, the council meeting or whatever event he covered was ready for a looming deadline. He never insisted we follow that example; those of us who worked for him just did because we respected him and wanted him to respect us.
Mr. Lowell Hobby, who was Mr. Pool’s partner and the backroom genius of the pair, always impressed me, as well as his protégé Elbert Bennett (now a very successful civic leader, elected official and farmer in Fredonia), with the importance of responsibility. You met deadlines, you met the customer’s needs with the best possible product or service, and there was no room for compromise on those issues.
As a young manager at Land Between The Lakes in the 1970s, I recall one summer when I had a gaggle of interns from Western Kentucky University. They were Rebecca Bruce-Bourne (wife of nationally known outdoor writer Wade Bourne), Bob Skipper (media spokesman for Western Kentucky University), Tom Eblen (columnist and former editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader), and Mark Lyon (a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer).
These were but a few among the many outstanding young men and women who interned with us over the seven years I was there, but this team came to be the “best of the best.” They came to us as “new recruits”, and we worked hard to instill in them duty, honor and service. Their resulting teamwork in news and feature writing, documentary photography and customer service was and still is unparalleled.
I left Land Between The Lakes in 1979 and had the distinct privilege of working for Col. Robert K. Tener, district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Nashville, Tenn.
Although few men or women could inspire me to “storm the gates of hell,” this leader could do just that. Col. Tener took the time to inspire, motivate and encourage me. He was one of the first executives who took the time to listen to me and my ideas. The Colonel instilled in me the traditions of the Corps and the importance of teamwork. Col. Tener is now the executive director of the Charles Pankow Foundation in Ontario, Calif.
“You just don’t luck into things. You build them step by step, whether it’s friendships or opportunities,” said Barbara Bush, America’s first lady in the 1990s.
From these experiences, and many others not listed, I have learned so much.
Hopefully “Gunny” won’t feel that I need to be “drug out and shot!”
Our small business is successful not just financially, for which we are profoundly grateful, but also in building relationships with clients who are friends as well as business associates. I credit this success with the following lessons learned:
When you work hard to learn a skill and to become proficient at it, you build camaraderie with the people working with you. Teamwork comes from understanding the responsibility of taking care of one another and seeing the demonstrable and measurable benefits that accrue. As the state motto in the Commonwealth of Kentucky says, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Instead of procrastinating, when you focus on a task and complete it proficiently and timely, it becomes a rewarding experience not just financially but also psychologically. Take care of business and business will be abundantly yours.
Hard work prepares you for anything down the road — before I ever started the firm, I worked hard to set aside sufficient “boot-strap” funds so that, even if I had no work for a year, I would not be in financial distress. Plan your work, work your plan!
A work ethic, learned through drills, focus and practice, creates work habits that can benefit you in school, at work and in society.
Stay busy and you won’t have time for negative thoughts. When I am not working with a client, I write, speak and do photography to market our firm and our skills. One of my mentors, the late Howard Shenson, always said if you aren’t billing time, you should be marketing. I have never forgotten the spirit of that advice. It serves me well in my personal and professional life.
You are responsible for your attitude. If you have to do certain things in your business to be successful, even if those things are not fun, you may as well find a way to make the most out of the task. I take this a step further and apply it to exercise — if you want to get fit, find a way to make it fun. Wasn’t it President Abraham Lincoln who observed that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be?”
There is always tradition to be observed — if you believe in democracy and the free enterprise system, preservation of this way of life comes, as any Marine will tell you, from the blood, sweat and sometimes tears of those of us who also believe.
The hardest boss you will ever have, if you are to be successful in the small business world, will be yourself. Push yourself and you will discover strengths.
Know who you are, understand where you came from, and stay passionate about your beliefs. Focus on what you want to do. It may take time, but you will come to realize that you are part of a much larger something than just yourself.
From all this comes your “brand” and just like the U.S. Marines you also will be among “the few and the proud.” Semper fi.
Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong, Armstrong and Associates, is a consultant and counselor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 1-888-340-2006 or www.armstrongassociates.org.