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Service-Based Leadership Lessons from the U.S. Marines

Lead Star, February 13, 2017


This piece has been adapted from a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

Most of us feel that we’re completely stretched to capacity at work and have nothing left to give. But according to a recent Gallup poll, 70% of the workforce is either “actively disengaged” or “not engaged,” meaning there are millions of professionals who have discretionary effort — effort they could give if they felt motivated and inspired. Gallup estimates that this disengagement costs the U.S. $450–$550 billion in lost productivity each year, which doesn’t even account for opportunity costs. When employees are busy and disengaged, businesses are missing out on cost-saving ideas and innovations that could be developed from the bottom up. We believe that one of the ways managers can tap into this discretionary effort is the practice of service-based leadership.

The two of us learned about this approach in the United States Marine Corps. The basis of service-based leadership is prioritizing your team’s needs before your own. As Marine officers, we always ate last, ensuring others had food on their plates before ours were filled. During down time, we kept our teams busy with training opportunities so they could broaden their skills, which also curtailed complacency. When it was dark and cold in the field, we made a point of being present on the lines (not hiding out in a warm tent) to show our teams we were right there with them. Through our actions, we demonstrated that we were willing to go without food, free time, and comfort to ensure our people knew they were supported.

The result? Our teams felt cared for and valued, and they demonstrated their loyalty through their initiative and engagement. While we never used an employee survey to measure the impact of service-based leadership, anecdotally it was clear: A majority of our team members had the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on their bodies. This was a strong symbol of the deep connection people felt between themselves and the team they were a part of — a connection so strong that individuals wanted to maintain it for the rest of their lives.

When we left active duty for the business world, it was surprising to see how few managers knew about, and understood the merits of, service-based leadership. We met managers who regularly undermined their own efforts to build loyalty and connection on their teams. Rather than holding career discussions with their team members, they would do things such as flaunt the perks of their position, emphasizing the privileges associated with their role, which sent a signal that their team’s future wasn’t their priority.

If managers want to get the most out of every team member, they can adopt many of the Marine Corps’s service-based leadership practices. Understanding the concept isn’t enough; they must overcome the three common barriers that prevent managers from putting the needs of their employees first: awareness, time, and unhealthy competition.

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