I’m not sure why I picked W.E.B Griffin’s “Semper Fi” off my bookshelf recently, but I’m glad that I did. It is the first in a 10 book series called “The Corps” that follows a young Marine throughout a wild career that spans tours of duty in China through to the Korean War. As I thumbed through the first couple pages, I was reminded of what a fun read it was for me 20 years ago, when I was a young Marine. So I decided to keep reading the fact-based fiction hoping to relive some of the excitement I felt then. Well, two days later I had ripped through its 344 pages ready to dive into Book II.
Looking back, I can say with confidence that I originally consumed “The Corps” series so voraciously because of how purely entertaining it is. Webb expertly captured the Marines’ matter-of-fact language and he nailed the military humor. For a book about Marines and war, he does a great job making even the love story woven throughout the plot interesting. He also masterfully developed the characters. I experienced all of that the second time around. But with a couple of decades more experience as a Marine under my belt, another theme emerged for me: talent recognition, appreciation, and enablement.
Throughout the novel, Kenneth “Killer” McCoy is thought of as a special talent by some and a menace by others. At a few milestones in the story, McCoy could have just as easily been the subject of a court martial as promoted in rank. If left only to the judgement of unimaginative bureaucrats, McCoy’s intrapreneurship and enterprising exploits would have guaranteed his swift departure from the Corps. Thankfully, McCoy had patient and curious leaders that recognized the value in nurturing a free spirted innovator, or what Secretary of Defense Mattis called “mavericks.” McCoy’s leaders made moves behind the scenes to ensure that he had the maneuver space to execute missions ideally suited for his special talents. His leaders had the courage to accept the risk of turning loose a gifted Marine maverick to tackle tough problems in nontraditional ways.
I’ve seen these types of courageous leaders throughout my career and I’ve been fortunate to know and work with many mavericks. For example, the signals intelligence captain that created an applied research cell for AI and ML that nobody asked for, but the Marine Corps needed. The infantry corporal that devised a novel way to black out the mobile tactical command post for his battalion landing team. The communications lieutenant colonel that created a new business model for researching and developing emerging technologies for the Department of Defense. The Marine captain judge advocate that started a revolution in training that spread human centered design and scrum principles across the entire Defense Department.
All of these heroes had what Griffin called a “rabbi” – a champion, mentor, watchful eye. A leader that could remove barriers if need be, but at a minimum, listen with patience and observe with curiosity as these mavericks made positive change inside their organization.
I encourage leaders at all levels and across every profession to empower the special people in your workforce to do the things only those special people can do. Enable those mavericks in your organization by releasing them from owning or performing mundane routine processes and you may find them creatively solving problems that have long term strategic impact.
Organizations are sometimes more concerned with equity and uniformity than with enabling special people to be special. You can force an entire workforce to be mediocre, but you cannot make every individual great. You achieve workforce and organizational greatness by sending your mavericks to the fringe to do the things only they can do. And if you don’t enable the mavericks to be special inside your organization, you run the risk of losing them to an organization that will. Or worse, they become jaded and add to the growing pool of apathetic employees just clocking in for a paycheck.
Leaders, find your “Killer” McCoys and empower them to make positive change for your organization.