Learning in US Marine Corps LO3889

lifvendahl thomas (CAPT=JAMES=G=MCGARRAHAN%MMEA-1%HQMC@mqg-smtp3.usmc.mil)
Fri, 24 Nov 95 7:47:07 -30000

Following up: Intro -- James McGarrahan LO3758
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In response to David Hurst and Jane Collins notes
and Tom Lifvendahl's

Dear Gentlemen and Lt Collins,

Thanks very sincerely for your comments. I'll try to address a few ideas
now, with the promise to return with more qualified findings at a later

I found a question which seemed common to each of your notes,
namely: "How can leaders in the modern Marine Corps (which historically
represents the epitome of a rigid, impersonal, "top down" hierarchical
structure) maintain the hallmarks of discipline, loyalty to the chain of
command, and almost blind devotion to idealized leadership (the things
that we believe distinguish us as Marines) and still create effective
learning organizations, which tend to deny each of those hallmarks?" Can
Marine leaders voluntarily give up some power and authority to accomplish
the LO?

First off, in re: Carlson's Raiders. Great example!! Carlson
clearly DEMANDED personal mastery from every member of his team, officers
and Marines alike, as well as the Navy corpsmen and coxswains who
accompanied them into combat. By its very design, the Raider Battalion
was intended to build shared mental models and shared vision, and maximize
team learning. I'm not sure that Carlson attempted any FORMAL systems
thinking, but I'll concede that he went about his task of forming and
training the team from a holistic "big-picture" methodology, with an
intuitive sense of systemic integrity. We could track through a long
checklist of items which would indicate that he generally succeeded in
creating a LO.

Carlson was truly a visionary; unfortunately for him, many of his
peers and "superiors" could not accept the underlying assumptions of the
model on which he crafted a successful unconventional warfare
organization. His radical egalitarianism was viewed with suspicion by
many who would later fuel such red-scare movements as McCarthyism. In
systems terms, the organization could not adapt far or fast enough to meet
the rapidly-changing pressures of the environment. But the germ of
destruction was not contained within the organization -- the unit was
military, but the environment was political. We all know these two don't

Next, let me turn specifically to Mr. Lifvendahl's question. The
modern Marine Corps currently has in place several means to ensure that
the senior leadership remains "open to the critique of the lowest ranking
enlisted personnel." We have long recognized that our uncompromising
demand for every Marine to be "technically and tactically competent," must
be accompanied by a certain degree of humility among our leaders. The new
second lieutenant may find that his corporals and privates know more about
how to get the job done, and he has to have the courage to ask them to
teach him (some folks, however, are better at that than others).

We have always had a high percentage in our officer corps of men
and women who rose from the enlisted ranks (Mustangs). We also have a
formal program whereby if a Marine has a good idea which results in a
costs savings, the Marine is entitled to an incentive payment of 10% of
the savings. And the current Commandant has recently implemented "Marine
Mail," which allows any Marine, regardless of rank or position, to send
comments, questions, & concerns directly to the Commandant, with the
guarantee of a thoughtful answer forthwith. To me, these (and other)
factors provide both the means and the incentives to overcome traditional
barriers to vertical communication. We're still Marines, and it's often
hard to make yourself heard through several layers of the hierarchy, but
we're evolving.

When you say, however, "integrate those opinions [of the lowest
ranking members] in ways that equally value them when compared to higher
ranking enlisted," I have to pause for clarification. To me, "integrate"
and "equally value" are two very different things, and I think we can do
both without subverting the ideal of the LO. "Integrate" is to connect an
individual object, regardless of its value, to the other parts of a larger
whole; "equally value" is to make each of the parts, regardless of their
connections, equally important to that whole.

"Where you sit determines what you see," or "when you ask a Private
a question, you get back a Private's answer. When you ask a Sergeant the
same question, you get a Sergeant answer." The difference is usually
maturity, experience, span of vision, and judgement. To value the two
opinions equally might not be wise -- decisions are made and action taken
based on more knowledge and experience than the most junior member could
possibly possess. It is arguable that the BEST decisions and actions
demand more knowledge and experience than even the most senior members
possess individually -- that in the wealth of corporate knowledge there is
a hidden answer that exceeds any individual's competence. That answer can
only be discovered by dialogue.

What is CRITICAL is that we continue to ask the questions and
solicit input, that we ask everyone up and down the hierarchy, that we
promote open and unfettered dialogue in responses and critiques, and that
we give honest "out of the box" thought to the suggestions that people
provide from different components or levels of the organization. [I try
often to sit down with my team and "take off my bars," (literally remove
my rank insignia, which means I'm now wearing a Private's uniform!) and
talk candidly about the challenges we face. I ask questions, and I take
notes. I like to think I learn something new from my folks every day.] We
have to break down the separate stovepipes (vertical as well as lateral)
that isolate and limit our ability to think in systems. We have to
honestly consider every member's input and evaluate it on merit and not
authorship. And the entire process MUST MUST MUST be based on total
absence of any form or recrimination. Senge's many thoughts on the
importance of DIALOGUE must be SOP.

YES, this poses a tremendous threat to power, control, and
authority. If you are not comfortable with informal power and authority
(inspirational leadership), you could never consider "taking the bars
off." The leader who can not submit to being a learner, or who can not
allow his organization to transform itself, must rely solely on the power
invested by his rank or position (tyrannical leadership). As long as we
continue to see the use of power as a "zero sum game," in which power is
held by individual players by virtue of their position, and used to
advance a limited agenda, we will never create an environment of LO. When
we learn to view power as a communal resource, invested in a reinforcing
loop (e.g. like compounding interest) shared by a team of players to
advance a systemic agenda, we have created fertile ground in which a LO
can take root.

The Marine Corps' historically preferred solution to the dilemma
of "chain of command" vs. "learning organization" has always been
Leadership training. We start formally training our Marines in
fundamentals of leadership as early as Boot Camp, and that process
continues both formally and informally all the way up the enlisted ranks
(even the Sergeant Major still goes to school), through the officer ranks,
all the way up including the Generals. The content of that training
continues to evolve and today includes many LO concepts. I recommend one
of our doctrinal publications "Warfighting" if anyone's interested in
reading it. And I challenge any one of my counterparts in the corporate
world to demonstrate that their company provides training in leadership
skills, principles, techniques, and values, to entry-level personnel in
the first month of their employment! That has been key to our success
over the last 220 years.

The question of whether we can only have a LO in peacetime is
important as well. Does combat require that we revert to authoritarian
leadership? If so, what value is the LO to an organization that is
focused almost exclusively on combat?

I maintain that the unit fights exactly as it has been trained;
combat merely adds a degree of urgency, and the stakes go up
significantly! But if you have incorporated the disciplines of the LO
into your training and daily routines in peacetime, you gain a significant
combat advantage: i.e. the fighting organization that operates as a LO in
peacetime will enter combat better equipped to learn more and learn
faster, to share information faster both up-down and laterally, to make
sound decisions based on shared mental models, and to provide broad,
systemic responses to the changing contingencies of the battlefield. In
Army terms, they can move, shoot, and communicate faster than the bad guy.
In anyone's terms, that means a combat LO will take fewer casualties and
win more battles.

How do we get from here to there? I look forward to working on
that with help from you.

Semper Fi
James McGarrahan

e-mail: CAPT JAMES G MCGARRAHAN@MMEA-1@HQMC@mqg-smtp3.usmc.mil DSN 224-8706 COMM (703) 614-8706 FAX (703) 614-2973