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Leadership Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Part I

This widely circulated after-action report prepared by a 1stSgt Paul Berry, USMC following Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 offers priceless leadership advice for business owners and managers. While much of this may seem obscure or even irrelevant for people not making a career in the Marine Corps, looking after your people, coaching top performance, cutting through red tape, and letting savvy middle managers make the calls, are sound business leadership practices and managerial common sense in anyone’s book.

After almost a month of successfully conducting raids, convoys, civil affairs and other missions as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, members of Battalion Landing Team 2/2 ("The Warlords"), attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), boarded ships and began the long journey home. On their first night at sea, 1stSgt Paul Berry, 34, of the battalion's Weapons Company, received an e-mail from his former battalion commander, who asked him to record his observations about the experience. “From the Warlords,” details Berry’s concerns as a Marine Corps Staff NCO: caring for his Marines and ensuring the appropriate use of force.

In those details, a sense of what it means to be a combat Marine with small-unit leadership responsibilities comes through loud and clear. But this remarkable document can also teach business owners and managers priceless lessons about coaching, mentoring, leadership, and managerial common sense. Read on…

“From the Warlords” -- Real-Life Applications of Management Principles

At first blush, much of the information in 1stSgt Berry’s after-action report may seem obscure or even irrelevant for anyone not making a career in the Marine Corps. But think about it. Aren’t the hard-earned lessons Berry describes actually real-world applications of standard business practices and management principles and philosophies?

Sir, without making a big formal list at this time:

  • Logistics drove operations…We made some long moves, as long as 15 hours on the road at a time. Plan your supplies. Fuel was the key more than water. There is always room for some chow.
  • NVGs [night-vision goggles] work. Use them. All night devices worked great. Batteries can be an issue. Plan!
  • A combat load is heavy on the Marines and the vehicles. Take only what you need.
  • A clean weapon is a happy weapon. Plan for it. Inspect them.
  • Always plan fire support. We held a major road intersection in the middle of nowhere. We used Mortars as security and, out of the blue, we needed mortar fire: Plan for it. Lay guns in all four directions for 360 coverage. Plan on call targets. Plan for and use illum.
  • Plan for medevacs. On foot, vehicles and air. Don't count on the air. Look for LZs [landing zones] at all times.
  • Plan for a react force for any major event. Have that reserve ready. We used it several times. CAAT, LAR, JAV [anti-tank missiles], even five trucks of HQ-type guys with SAWS [Squad Automatic Weapons] is better than nothing.
  • Plan for where you put your heads. It's a big deal with over 200 Marines in a matter of hours.
  • PM [preventive maintenance] everything as time permits. Our vehicles never ran better because the Marines did not want to get stuck on the side of the road.
  • Spread your MT Mechs [Motor Transport mechanics] all over the BLT [Battalion Landing Team]. These guys saved us everyday.

Take Care of Your People and They’ll Take Care of You!

  • Start a sleep plan before you go ashore and ensure your Marines sleep…Look at your Marines daily if you can. Ask questions. Marines will not tell you they are sick until they go down hard. They are a proud bunch.
  • Know first aid. Make it a top training event. Get medical supplies and put them in each vehicle. We used an ammo can with pressure dressings and IVs. Teach your Marines how to give IVs.
  • Ensure your Marines write letters on anything they can get their hands on. MRE [Meals Ready-to-Eat, field rations] boxes work great. I put an ammo can on my vehicle for outgoing mail. Get the mail out. There is always a way. Pass if off to other units if you have to. Find a helo and give him your mail. Give him a can of dip to do it for you.
  • Training in combat? You bet. Talk through it; walk through it. Use sticks and rocks. Get the Cpl [Corporal] up there to brief what is going on; he knows more than most. Immediate action drills for everything.

Planning for the unexpected…preparing for the worst…taking care of details! That’s the kind of managerial common sense (or parental advice!) business owners can go to school on and readily apply. And Berry, a native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a Marine since 1986, has probably never been anywhere near the Harvard Business School!

Want More? Send questions and comments to


  • “From the Warlords,” 1stSgt. Paul Berry, USMC,
  • “A First Sergeant's Timeless Advice To Fellow Marines,” By David Wood, Newhouse News Service, 2003
  • “Corps Values,” David H. Freeman, Inc. Magazine, April 2001
  • Assistance with acronyms provided by 1st Lt. William L. WillardFree Articles, Jr. USMC

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Bill Willard has also been writing high-impact marketing and sales training primarily for the financial services industry for 30 years—but as Will Rogers put it: "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.” Through interactive, Web-based "Do-While-Learning™" programs, enewsletters and straight-talking articles.

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