A report this week in Marine Corps Times details a new leadership initiative designed to deter a rise in bad behavior as the military transitions away from the battlefield. This "reawakening" initiative, announced Oct. 16 by Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, aims to reinforce standards and improve discipline. The report, however, has also sparked controversy on Facebook among some Marines who question whether the new leadership approach is a sign the service is going soft.
As concerns grow about child and domestic abuse, substance abuse, hazing and suicide—and as more and more Marines transition into peacetime service—the Corps is overhauling its approach to mentoring by emphasizing a far more personal, engaged and relational style of leadership, the publication reports.
One officer in the report described the new order, which is expected to be formalized in the coming weeks and was previewed by the same publication in another controversial report earlier this year, as "kneecap-to-kneecap leadership." In a nutshell, it's a way to get leaders more involved with what's going on in both the work and personal lives of their Marines, rather than enforcing discipline with screaming and threatening gestures or instilling values through auditorium-sized events and checklist-style leadership programs.
The initiative has grown out of several grassroots efforts, according to the report. Officers testing the program have held breakfasts and lunches in their homes, involved junior service members in implementing their ideas, and allowed younger members to organize base ceremonies. Leaders in the test were given a lot of leeway in how they carried out the initiative and how they documented it, with a focus on making time for one-on-one conversations.
If that sounds like the most basic nuts and bolts of leadership, it is—but it represents a big change for the Marine Corps. For 12 years, Marines have been engaged in wartime conflicts that necessitate a different kind of leadership, one that focused on a streamlined, hierarchical approach. It's also an organizational environment where fear and intimidation have long been a common leadership tactic.
But with about 30 percent of Marines dissatisfied with the leadership of their superiors, according to a retention survey obtained by the Marine Corps Times, and at a time when service members are returning home to a starkly different reality, it makes sense for the approach to change. Marine Corps leaders will need to find a way to keep service members engaged after years of the adrenaline rush and the greater decision-making responsibility that the battlefield can produce. And they will need to find a way to instill a new type of discipline without disrespecting the Corps' traditions or the junior members it stands to lose in the transition. There's no reason good leaders can't do both.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.