The U.S. Marine Corps, Discipline and Success

The Success Margin

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


A reader asks, “What role did your tour of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps have to do with formulating your success plans?”

The answer is–an enormous amount.

When I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19 for a two-year tour, I was an independent, somewhat rebellious young man.

Frankly, a big reason to join was to challenge myself. I wanted to see if I could make it through the incredibly tough, physical and psychological experience I’d heard so much about.

After joining I was sent to boot camp for basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina.

My fellow enlistees were primarily from the New York City area. Nearly all of them were gang members and very street tough. Or they fancied themselves as real he-men, at least in the beginning.

From the very first moment of arriving in Parris Island, I knew that it was possible not to make it through the 12 weeks. But I also knew that if we survived the experience, none of our lives would ever be the same.

First our heads were shaved. All of us, especially the New York gang members, looked like we were from another planet. Then we were issued uniforms including every article of clothing, underwear, shoes, socks, etc. Then toiletries, toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream, soap, towels etc.

Next I was issued what we would soon be expected to treat like a part of us–an M-1 rifle.

From day one we began learning how to march all together for untold miles. The goal was to have every heel hit the deck at the same time.

Boy, we were so bad at marching in the beginning.And sore feet, calluses and bloody socks were common.

But a brief visit to see some experienced marines marching enabled us to see what was possible.

We were taken past a graduation ceremony of marines who were in training for 12 weeks and about to complete their boot camp training. They were just fantastic. As they marched every heel was in perfect rhythm with the other 70 odd Marines in each platoon.

The nights were the most revealing part of the day. Each evening when we went to our barracks I would see many of the former New York gang members crying themselves to sleep. Incredibly these tough guys were scared to death. And very homesick.

A few of them initially had tried to defy our drill instructors (DIs). These young recruits immediately learned where they stood. The DIs were trained experts in judo and karate. In case there were any initial doubts, these soon ended.

I was the platoon boxing champion during our weekly competition with other platoons. But none of us had a chance of succeeding in any physical confrontation with the DIs. I certainly never considered it.

One of our physical exercises was “duck walking” and push ups. This punishing maneuver was used for fitness as well as disciplinary reasons.At any given moment we got used to being ordered to immediately begin doing these exercises, “Give me 20” they would shout. This was even more effective than getting beaten and thrown on theground by a judo expert.

**Six lessons the Marines taught me about success**

  1. Discipline of the U.S. Marine Corp is unsurpassed.

    Discipline is the most important factor I learned about success.

    The discipline level of the Marine Corps is a true wonder of the world.

    Unlike other organizations, businesses and even many military services, when a Marine is given an order you don’t question it. You just carry it out without question. Without hesitation.

    Discipline is a big reason for the outstanding track record of the U.S. Marines during wartime.

    I’m certain I could not have succeeded in business to the present level without the high level of discipline I discovered in the “Corps.”

    But I also believe that discipline, while crucially important, is vastly misunderstood and overrated by most people. It’s perceived as very hard to achieve.

    Discipline is about building good habits. Once you start doing positive things in your life such as writing, studying, reading, working, exercising, they become a habit. Then it becomes relatively easy to pursue your habits on a regular basis. Often it easier to do what’s good for you than to skip it. And others will perceive you as highly disciplined.

    I’ve seen that to succeed in life in any worthwhile endeavor requires all of us to experience some pain.We can choose the pain of discipline. Or the pain of regret. We all have a choice.

  2. The importance of a great unique selling proposition (USP) for any organization, whether business, military or government etc.

    This may surprise you but the U.S. Marines have one of the world’s great USPs. Over and over again you learn this, “You are a member of the greatest fighting outfit in the world.” And, by God, you soon accept this into your belief system. This belief governs all your actions.

    Everyone wants to be part of something great. Recognizing this fact and creating powerful USPs has helped me build numerous teams and business organizations of my own.

  3. The importance of storytelling.

    As a Marine you attend classes where you learn about the tradition and history of the “Corps.”

    The colorful and true stories about battles such as these: Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Korea,Wake Island, etc. make an indelible and unforgettable impression.

    All of us learn any subject best through the telling of stories. This has been proven for centuries.

  4. Teamwork.

    In every successful business organization, to achieve big goals you must have a good team who supports each other and works together harmoniously.

    In the U.S. Marine Corps you learn to depend on your comrades. You also learn what it’s like to be counted on by others. In wartime you discover your fellow Marine may even be willing to take the bullet meant for you.

    Plus, I also learned an important lesson not commonly known. Great leaders must first become great followers. This is best learned by being part of a well-functioning team.

  5. The importance of constantly building your skills.

    Each of us learned to become a competent rifleman,team leader and proficient in hand-to-hand combat.

    To achieve outstanding business success, you must relentlessly become better and better at all your skills, especially marketing.

  6. Physical fitness can be achieved by any willing soul.

    Fat people got thin, skinny people gained weight.The out of shape people slowly but surely became extremely fit.

    During our 12 weeks of boot camp a remarkable physical change took place in every single marine.

    I had a double dose of physical training. Having tried out for and making the base basketball team I thought that might excuse me from some of the daily long marches. But this was not to be.

    Basketball practice was late at night after marching for 10 to 20 miles!

    But having the chance to play on the basketball team was worth it all. I even had the chance to play against several NBA stars who were Marines.

    As a 19 year-old private I was nominated for a meritorious promotion to corporal for appreciation of my hard work. This is very unusual during peacetime. (I worked in the disbursing office finance and had to put in many extra hours to keep up.) I learned that individual efforts, even in a military organization, can often be recognized and rewarded.

    The foregoing are some of the contributions the U.S. Marines have made to my career and my success.

    I’m very proud of my tour of duty and my honorable discharge.

    I’d be pleased to hear from any former U.S. Marines who would like to share how their experience helped shape the rest of their life.

Your correspondent,

Ted Nicholas

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