Threads Executive Coaching: U.S. Marine Corps Case Study

By Sean Abbas on July 19, 2013

The morning after high school graduation I headed to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (“MCRD”) in San Diego, CA for Basic Training.  I was 18 years old, confident and in complete control… least for the next 36 hours.  I landed at San Diego International Airport at 10:30 PM and what happened next changed my life forever.

As I walked through the terminal, a smallish man in a Marine Corps class C uniform signaled me towards an open door. As I approached, he smiled and said “Welcome to San Diego.”  I was just about to say thanks, when he extended his hand, snatched my arm in a vise like grip and proceeded to drag me into the open door with force.  I did not appreciate it one bit, but before I could respond in anyway, 3 other Marines cornered me and began screaming in a language I could not understand. I was forced to the ground, and told to keep my head down and eyes closed.  What had I signed up for?  This is all wrong!


After a short bus ride we arrived at MCRD, ran from the bus and took our places on the famous “yellow footprints.”  What had seemed like hours, actually had been only a couple of minutes. We were informed of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and taught how to stand at attention.  We turned in our personal effects.  We were broken down and essentially re-booted. The Marines shut the power off and erased what we knew.  Then they began the process of building United States Marines.

A Culture Built in 96 Days


The U.S. Marine Corps culture is worth studying for Executive Coaching because they build a culture that is second to none among military organizations and they accomplish this feat in only 96 days.

The Marines take young men with a wide variety of abilities, backgrounds and belief structures.  These individuals are turned into a cohesive unit, bonded by the Marines Corp core values and possessing the skills required to produce results as United States Marines.  Here’s how they do it.

Marine Corps Core Values


Honor.  Courage.  Commitment.   The Marines engage recruits with the clear communication (verbal, physical and emotional) of their value system.  Every Marine recruit not only learns the values of the Marine Corps, but they know how and why these core values are important.

Mike Strank.  Chesty Puller.  Ask any Marine and they will be able to tell you how these Marines exemplified the core values on the battlefield.

Marine recruits are instilled with pride from this education.  You learn that there is nothing better, no greater sense of accomplishment than to be a Marine.  You develop a deep sense of appreciation for those who went before you and are privileged to be joining an elite community with a history of overcoming in the face of anything. 

Marine Corps Producing Results


When you enter basic training, you quickly learn that you don’t know how to do anything the Marine way.  Even if it’s something you have done a 1,000 times before, you relearn it.  The drill instructors teach you the Marine way for brushing your teeth, showering, making your bed, eating, speaking, standing, thinking, shooting, reacting…..everything you do in your daily life.

They Marines are highly specific about the results they want in every area of your training.  Then they hold you 100% accountable to producing those results regardless of the difficulties you face or the challenges they create for you during basic training.

Lessons for Executives

It’s pretty clear that you are not about to leap from your chair and start painting yellow footprints on the floor of your business. There will be no screaming, physical and emotional intimidation. Your business is not life and death, but it’s important to you and your employees. Here are three takeaways for you organization based on how the U.S. Marine Corps builds its culture.

1.) To build culture, your people first need to understand your culture.  Most people have a good understanding of the results required by their jobs.  But if you asked people in your organization what your core values are would they be able to answer?  Would they know why your core values were chosen and why each one is specifically important to your success?  Would they have examples of people in your organization living the values so they could apply the values to their work?  Find ways as a leader to communicate your core values and instill pride in people for being a part of your team.

2.) When it comes to culture 90% isn’t good enough.  To have the best team you need 100% of your people contributing to culture by producing results and working with your organization’s core values in mind.  The Marines quickly identify recruits with issues in either area.  They attack the problems immediately and head on during basic training.  When things get difficult a Marine platoon is ready to achieve its objectives as a unit with no weak links.

Is your organization ready to thrive during a period of adversity with 100% of your people contributing? Or does your organization have people in it right now that are damaging your culture?  If so, identify why this is happening and develop a plan of action for each person.  Address these issues proactively.

3.) Culture comes first.  Team building comes after.  Often leaders today look to quick and easy fixes for their cultures.  Things like team building exercises can have value, but only after you have done the hard work required to build your culture.

 The Marines have team building events like the Smoker, but they do this towards the end of basic training.  Every recruit is living the Marine Corps values at this point and well on their way to being proficient in the basic skill set of a U.S. Marine.  After the Marines culture is firmly in place, team building bonds the individuals together as a platoon and as Marines.


If you have also served as a U.S. Marine and are now in the business world, I would love to hear your thoughts on the Marine Corps culture and how it relates to how you lead your team.