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What I Learned From the Marines

I had the great pleasure last week of being invited, along with some other local media and social media mavens, to get a ride in an MV-22 Osprey, the Marine Corps' VTOL transport aircraft. The reason? Marine Week Boston 2010.

What I expected was a highly choreographed, "by the book" process with very little flexibility (but plenty of "hurry up and wait"). Marines have a reputation for taking orders and taking them well, after all. What I got, however, was in many ways very different.

It was far from the top-down, command-and-control exercise I was expecting. What we got instead was a case study in (extremely successful) organization chaos. This was, after all, only the second Marine Week ever held, and the first one in Boston, and trying to account for every last variable when planning an event is next to impossible, especially when you're trying to keep a bunch of social media mavens happy and out of trouble (read, "herd cats"), move multi-million dollar equipment around and showcase what is probably the most misunderstood branch of the military.

Marine Week Boston 2010 was successful not only due to the amazing planning of the organizing team; it was successful because the Marines have built a culture that survives -- and indeed thrives -- in the most difficult of environments and circumstances. From the ground up, the Marine culture (surprisingly only to those who don't hang around Marines much) encourages discourse, independent thought and initiative; while still respecting authority and the dignity of everyone (you will never meet a more polite, respectful American than a Marine).

So how can we, as communicators, learn from this event, and from the Marine Corps in general? Here are a few takeaway lessons for all communicators, whether you're planning a big event or not:

  1. Prepare yourself for change. Marine aren't born, they're reborn. They are pulled from the undisciplined herd and introduced, through a rigorous process, to the Marine culture. They learn not only to shoot and swim like a Marine, but most importantly to think like a Marine. Just like every single graduate of MCRD Parris Island or MCRD San Diego, we as business leaders and communicators must relearn everything we know about business communications before we can continue to succeed.
  2. Sweat the small stuff. Marine Week Boston wasn't successful because of the masterful planning of the organizers (though they did a great job), it was successful because the Marines involved were detail oriented. From they day a recruit trainee has to break down and rebuild his or her M16, Marines learn that big tasks can be accomplished in small steps.
  3. Command-and-control doesn't scale. Marine culture can surprise many people. Far from being unthinking killing machines, Marines are taught to think independently -- to follow orders but not be afraid to question them if they go against Marine Corps values or their code of conduct. The Marine Corps functions in chaos because every Marine is trained and empowered to be able to step up to the plate and assume the mantle of leadership. Similarly, we as communicators and business leaders must make sure everyone in our organization is ready to do the same. Which brings me to #4:
  4. Trust me. Just like a Marine must be able to trust every other Marine in his or her platoon, you must learn to trust that not only the members of your marketing, communications and PR teams, but every employee, and ultimately, every customer understands and is empowered to be able to spread the word about your organization. Sure, the recruiters are the bread and butter when it comes to getting the word out about the Marine Corps, but Marines are learning to trust all of their Marines with communicating to the public, going so far as to recently lift the ban on social media.

Thank you to everyone involved for giving me the flight of a lifetime (500 feet over Boston with the back door open!) and reminding me of some important life and business lessons.

Oh, here's the best video of the trip, recorded and edited by Eric Schwartzman:

And my longer video:

See other writeups from our adventure below:

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