. Motivation Lessons from a Marine | Northstar Meetings Group

Motivation Lessons from a Marine

A retired lieutenant colonel's leadership advice

Justin Constantine Marine

In any discussion about leadership, we have to start with the premise that it is not just about effective management, but that a great leader puts his employees' needs first and empowers them to perform at their highest levels. It is great to have lofty goals and great expectations for people who report to you. However, if those employees do not feel that the objectives are attainable or that you will not do all you can to help them achieve them, then they will experience a great deal of frustration. When that happens on a prolonged basis, frustration turns into counterproductivity.

When I was in Iraq, I made it a priority to lead our team on every night mission, every patrol, and in every aspect of our training. I also pushed some of that responsibility down to the lower levels of my command to help develop others as leaders, too. However, I would never ask any of my Marines to do something that I was not willing to do. In my summers during college, I worked for Fairfax City, Virginia, on an asphalt crew paving roads and conducting other repairs. I learned that when the city manager had first started working there, he spent a whole day on the back end of a trash truck. That was not easy work for him, but he wanted to experience a day in the lives of some of his employees so he could better understand their perspective.

That idea is especially valuable in other industries, and in your operating space, no doubt. You cannot expect the supervisors below you to properly learn all they need to know about working with their people if you yourself are not willing to practice "management by walking around" and showing genuine interest in your people. Getting your hands dirty and "walking the walk" will truly affect your team's loyalty, which will affect every aspect of their performance, including their customer service, from which higher profits will naturally follow. Despite our differences in rank and responsibility, I often worked side by side with my Marines, even if the task was something mundane such as cleaning a warehouse. By doing so, I developed a deep camaraderie with my team, based primarily on spending time together and demonstrating my commitment to them.

Your concern and interest in your employees has to be real. In 1980, the comedian George Burns published a memoir titled The Third Time Around. In that memoir, he included a chapter about his late-blooming career in motion pictures. He offered the following advice to young performers: "To be a fine actor, when you're playing a role, you've got to be honest. And if you can fake that, you've got it made." That works in the movies. That works on the television screen. That does not work in real life. If you cannot muster true empathy and pride for the people who report to you, then you are not going to go as far as you think you should in your company. It may even be time to consider another position or occupation.

When it comes to customer service, you cannot expect your employees to treat each customer with the highest level of respect if you do not do the same thing for them. Many companies provide the same or similar products and services. Unless your price is so much less for the same quality of goods than the price at another company, the only place you can really distinguish your business is in customer service. If a customer perceives bad treatment from the company he is buying from, then he is going to look for a company where he can have a better experience and will spend his money there instead. If a manager spends a meeting yelling and cursing at his staff, they are not going to be smiling on the phone when they talk to a customer. I am not talking about one bad day here or there. I am talking about where the work environment or command climate is consistently negative and contentious. Like it or not, that is what is going to filter down to the customer. So do not start the attitude and do not allow that attitude. 

In a military engagement, a group of Marines is going to respond better when they have the utmost confidence and respect for their leader. That is what I saw from my leaders in the Marine Corps, and that is how I wanted others to perceive me, too. I am alive and writing today because this style of leadership meant that everyone I came into contact with immediately after I was shot did their job to the best of their ability. Corpsman George Grant reacted from training, without thought to his own life. Lieutenant Colonel Desgrosseilliers' command decisions were immediate and saved my life. Drs. Bilski, Christopher, and Blankenship each reacted immediately -- after some shock over hearing that a JAG officer had been shot through the head (Dr. Bilski recalled saying aloud, "Are you kidding me?!") -- and perfectly to stop my incredible bleeding and prep me for the helo ride to Balad. That series of perfect, synchronized actions does not happen by accident. 

It comes from example, from training, and from a conscientious effort to have each individual want to do the best they can, no matter the situation they may be thrown into. Lieutenant Colonel Desgrosseilliers's reaction was not only incredible, but displayed the true spirit of leading from the front and taking care of those around you. But more about that in chapter 6.

You cannot expect your staff to live and breathe your vision for your team unless you live and breathe that vision yourself. You must effectively communicate that vision to them through many different channels. We viewed leading Marines as a privilege -- not a right or just some other job -- and it is a privilege you have to earn every day. The same is true in the workplace. Working with others carries the same challenges in any relationship. It is a matter of respect and communication. You have to respect those who report to you as individuals, and you cannot take them for granted. They are not pawns on a chessboard, but people, complex and deep. For most employees, if you are fair with them and let them know what is going on and why, many of them will run through brick walls for you. It is not because you screamed and ordered them to, but because they want to do it.

Leadership is not only having the proper knowledge of how to lead people, but the right attitude in doing it. There is a story about a stranger who is approaching the outskirts of a town. An old man is sitting on a chair in front of his house and asks the stranger why he is coming into town. The stranger says, "I got tired of where I was living. The people were mean-spirited. They were always gossiping and picking fights. Nothing ever went right and nobody liked each other. I had to get out of there and thought I would try this place." 

The old man said, "Just as you found things there, so you will find here." A couple hours later, another stranger approached town and the old man asked the same question. This stranger replied, "I come from a place that was terrific. It seemed like the sun was always out, even on a stormy day. Everybody got along, and worked and played together. I wanted to explore the rest of the area so I wanted to come spend some time here."

The old man said, "Just as you found things there, so you will find here." As the story illustrates, how we think and act is going to affect the environment we are in. A manager is the driving force in determining how her employees will think of their work. If you are a manager, you set the atmosphere of the workplace. It is your leadership and your example that sets the stage for success or failure. To some people, this may sound like an awesome bit of responsibility. And you know what? It is! There are not too many better feelings in the world than knowing that you led others to be successful, and that those people would do anything for you.

Leadership starts from the top. At this point in my life, I have talked with many mid-level managers who did not exactly have great examples to learn from in those above them. While that is surely a shame, I counsel them that they can be the ones to break the negative leadership model in their company. They can be the change they want to see. Just like the parent who does not want to repeat the bad parenting they had, any manager can decide to set a better example than that set for them to date. Remember, success breeds imitation. If your department shows significant progress, then the company is going to ask you what you are doing differently. The company may then start to adapt your lessons for the rest of the organization -- giving you another nice byproduct, pretty good stock with others in the company.

Justin Constantine is author of the new book My Battlefield, Your Office, from which this selection is excerpted, now available on Amazon. He is an inspirational speaker, leadership consultant, entrepreneur, and a TED speaker who serves as a liaison between the military and corporate communities. A Presidential Leadership Scholar, Constantine is also a senior advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes campaign and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He sits on the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project, as well as several other national nonprofits, and co-founded the Veteran Success Resource Group. Justin received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.