11 Essential Leadership Principles And How To Develop Them

The Marines develop leaders and leadership in the Corps on these principles. You can, too.


“Leadership is intangible, hard to measure, and difficult to describe. Its quality would seem to stem from many factors. But certainly they must include a measure of inherent ability to control and direct, self-confidence based on expert knowledge, initiative, loyalty, pride and sense of responsibility. Inherent ability cannot be instilled, but that which is latent or dormant can be developed. Other ingredients can be acquired. They are not easily learned. But leaders can be and are made.”

– General C. B. Cates, 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Training for leadership is fundamental to the Marine Corps. There are 14 leadership traits and 11 leadership principles listed in training lessons given to recruits in the Corps. Given the reams of leadership books and the millions of words written on leadership for modern business, I thought it would be worthwhile to re-visit how the Marine Corps trains for life and death leadership in the field.

The modern corporate version of leadership feels like a watered-down version of first principles. Those first principles are qualities we can feel from people who we would say demonstrate leadership abilities. From the time we’re young, we run into these inherently able leaders who exude leadership qualities that seem to be inherent to their character and not learned. As General Cates said, “inherent ability cannot be instilled, but that which is latent or dormant can be developed. Other ingredients can be acquired. They are not easily learned. But leaders can be and are made.” Here are the most important leadership qualities according to the Marines, and how they shape recruits for leadership from day one.

The 14 leadership traits laid out for Marines can be remembered with the acronym JJDIDTIEBUCKLE:

– Justice
– Judgement
– Dependability
– Initiative
– Decisiveness
– Tact
– Integrity
– Enthusiasm
– Bearing
– Unselfishness
– Courage
– Knowledge
– Loyalty
– Endurance

How many times have you heard ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ as part of leadership culture in a corporate setting? Or ‘loyalty’? Or ‘enthusiasm’? Probably never. But when added into the mix these characteristics, one can see, takes leadership and the responsibility of leadership to a new level.

The Essential 11 Leadership Principles for a Marine, from Marine Corps Values: Appendix A, B, revised 2008:

1. Know Yourself and Seek Self Improvement. This principle of leadership should be developed by the use of leadership traits. Evaluate yourself by using the leadership traits and determine your strengths and weaknesses. You can improve yourself in many ways. To develop the techniques of this principle:

– Make an honest evaluation of yourself to determine your strong and weak personal qualities
– Seek the honest opinions of your friends or superiors
– Learn by studying the causes for the success and failures of others
– Develop a genuine interest in people
– Master the art of effective writing and speech
– Have a definite plan to achieve your goal

– Consider taking a personality assessment that will identify your leadership qualities and opportunity for development, such as ProFound Talent’s Harrison assessment.

2. Be Technically And Tactically Proficient. A person who knows their job thoroughly and possesses a wide field of knowledge. Before you can lead, you must be able to do the job. Tactical and technical competence can be learned from books and from on the job training. To develop this leadership principle of being technically and tactically proficient, you should:

– Know what is expected of you then expend time and energy on becoming proficient at those things
– Form an attitude early on of seeking to learn more than is necessary
– Observe and study the actions of capable leaders
– Spend time with those people who are recognized as technically and tactically proficient at those things
– Prepare yourself for the job of the leader at the next higher rank
– Seek feedback from superiors, peers and subordinates

3. Know Your People And Look Out For Their Welfare. This is one of the most important of the leadership principles. A leader must make a conscientious effort to observe his Marines and how they react to different situations. A Marine who is nervous and lacks self-confidence should never be put in a situation where an important decision must be made. This knowledge will enable you as the leader to determine when close supervision is required. To put this principle in to practice successfully you should:

– Put your Marines welfare before your own
– Be approachable
– Encourage individual development
– Know your unit’s mental attitude; keep in touch with their thoughts
– Ensure fair and equal distribution of rewards
– Provide sufficient recreational time and insist on participation

4. Keep Your Personnel Informed. Marines by nature are inquisitive. To promote efficiency and morale, a leader should inform the Marines in his unit of all happenings and give reasons why things are to be done. This is accomplished only if time and security permits. Informing your Marines of the situation makes them feel that they are a part of the team and not just a cog in a wheel. Informed Marines perform better. The key to giving out information is to be sure that the Marines have enough information to do their job intelligently and to inspire their initiative, enthusiasm, loyalty, and convictions. Techniques to apply this principle are:

– Whenever possible, explain why tasks must be done and the plan to accomplish a task
– Be alert to detect the spread of rumors. Stop rumors by replacing them with the truth
– Build morale and espirit de corps by publicizing information concerning successes of your unit
– Keep your unit informed about current legislation and regulations affecting their pay, promotion, privileges, and other benefits.

5. Set The Example. A leader who shows professional competence, courage and integrity sets high personal standards for himself before he can rightfully demand it from others. Your appearance, attitude, physical fitness and personal example are all on display daily for the Marines and Sailors in your unit. Remember, your Marines and Sailors reflect your image! Techniques for setting the example are to:

– Show your subordinates that you are willing to do the same things you ask them to do
– Maintain an optimistic outlook
– Conduct yourself so that your personal habits are not open to criticism
– Avoid showing favoritism to any subordinate
– Delegate authority and avoid over supervision, in order to develop leadership among subordinates
– Leadership is taught by example

6. Ensure That The Task Is Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished. Leaders must give clear, concise orders that cannot be misunderstood, and then by close supervision, ensure that these orders are properly executed. Before you can expect your men to perform, they must know what is expected of them. The most important part of this principle is the accomplishment of the mission. In order to develop this principle you should:

– Issue every order as if it were your own
– Use the established chain of command
– Encourage subordinates to ask questions concerning any point in your orders or directives they do not understand
– Question subordinates to determine if there is any doubt or misunderstanding in regard to the task to be accomplished
– Supervise the execution of your orders
– Exercise care and thought in supervision; over supervision will hurt initiative and create resentment, while under supervision will not get the job done

7. Train Your Marines And Sailors As A Team. Teamwork is the key to successful operations. Teamwork is essential from the smallest unit to the entire Marine Corps. As a leader, you must insist on teamwork from your Marines. Train, play and operate as a team. Be sure that each Marine knows his/her position and responsibilities within the team framework. To develop the techniques of this principle you should:

– Stay sharp by continuously studying and training
– Encourage unit participation in recreational and military events
– Do not publicly blame an individual for the team’s failure or praise just an individual for the team’s success
– Ensure that training is meaningful, and that the purpose is clear to all members of the command
– Train your team based on realistic conditions
– Insist that every person understands the functions of the other members of the team and the function of the team as part of the unit

8. Make Sound And Timely Decisions. The leader must be able to rapidly estimate a situation and make a sound decision based on that estimation. Hesitation or a reluctance to make a decision leads subordinates to lose confidence in your abilities as a leader. Loss of confidence in turn creates confusion and hesitation within the unit. Techniques to develop this principle include:

– Developing a logical and orderly thought process by practicing objective estimates of the situation
– When time and situation permit planning for every possible event that can reasonably be foreseen
– Considering the advice and suggestions of your subordinates before making decisions
– Considering the effects of your decisions on all members of your unit

9. Develop A Sense Of Responsibility Among Your Subordinates. Another way to show your Marines you are interested in their welfare is to give them the opportunity for professional development. Assigning tasks and delegating authority promotes mutual confidence and respect between leader and subordinates. It also encourages subordinates to exercise initiative and to give wholehearted cooperation in accomplishment of unit tasks. When you properly delegate authority, you demonstrate faith in your Marines and increase authority, and increase their desire for greater responsibilities. To develop this principle you should:

– Operate through the chain of command
– Provide clear, well thought out directions
– Give your subordinates frequent opportunities to perform duties normally performed by senior personnel
– Be quick to recognize your subordinates’ accomplishments when they demonstrate initiative and resourcefulness
– Correct errors in judgment and initiative in a way, which will encourage the individual to try harder
– Give advice and assistance freely when your subordinates request it
– Resist the urge to micro manage
– Be prompt and fair in backing subordinates
– Accept responsibility willingly and insist that your subordinates live by the same standard

10. Employ Your Command Within its Capabilities. A leader must have a thorough knowledge of the tactical and technical capabilities of the command. Successful completion of a task depends upon how well you know your unit’s capabilities. If the task assigned is one that your unit has not been trained to do, failure is very likely to occur. Failures lower your unit’s morale and self esteem. Seek out challenging tasks for your unit but be sure that your unit is prepared for and has the ability to successfully complete the mission. Techniques for development of this principle are to:

– Avoid volunteering your unit for tasks that are beyond their capabilities
– Be sure that tasks assigned to subordinates are reasonable
– Assign tasks equally among your subordinates
– Use the full capabilities of your unit before requesting assistance

11. Seek Responsibilities And Take Responsibility. For professional development, you must actively seek out challenging assignments. You must use initiative and sound judgment when trying to accomplish jobs that are required by your grade. Seeking responsibilities also means that you take responsibility for your actions. Regardless of the actions of your subordinates, the responsibility for decisions and their application falls on you. Techniques in developing this principle are to:

– Learn the duties of your immediate senior, and be prepared to accept the responsibilities of these duties
– Seek a variety of leadership positions that will give you experience in accepting responsibility in different fields
– Take every opportunity that offers increased responsibility
– Perform every task, no matter whether it is top secret or seemingly trivial, to the best of your ability
– Stand up for what you think is right. Have courage in your convictions
– Carefully evaluate a subordinate’s failure before taking action against that subordinate
– In the absence of orders, take the initiative to perform the actions you believe your senior would direct you to perform if present