Knife hands — they'll cut you to the quick. Junior Marines identify the crisp, flat-palmed, vaguely threatening gesture as one of the first signs of discipline they see in the Corps.
Drill instructors use them as a point of emphasis as they try to get new recruits to do things the right way, the only way, the Marine way. They inspire fear, intimidation and respect for authority.
Years later, Marines say they know that when a leader slices the air with that knife hand, things are serious.
The fear, intimidation and authority represented by knife hands are widely viewed as acceptable when drill instructors are trying to break down unruly, unfit, unschooled recruits and build them back up into Marines. But what about later, after they've left the yellow footprints behind?
There are certainly examples throughout the Corps of senior enlisted Marines and officers who rely on fear and intimidation as a leadership tool. But a growing chorus of staff noncommissioned officers — and some senior leaders, as well — say it's not a particularly effective tool and may even be counterproductive. The best leaders, they say, engage their junior Marines with a personal mentoring style. The way to develop future staff NCOs, they say, is to encourage them, understand what they are going through — personally and professionally — on a day-to-day basis, and build a level of trust so they know they can come forward with questions, problems, maybe even solutions.
There may be situations when instilling the fear of God is the right answer. But as 10-plus years of war slowly wind to an end and Marines return to garrison, the debate over knife hands — over what's acceptable, and what's over the top — is widening. Which way Marines will fall on either side of the growing divide is likely to shape the Corps for years to come.
Marine Corps officials have spent the past months evaluating how leadership principles are taught and what can be done better. A new “Leadership Development Program” is scheduled to debut in November with publication of a fresh Marine Corps order, said Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, director of the Marine Corps Staff at the Pentagon. It will replace an existing MCO covering the service's mentoring program, he said.
This effort is tied to a broader initiative aimed at ensuring Marines are given consistently sound professional guidance so they can be successful and maximize career opportunities. One focus of that broader initiative will be leadership, accountability and mentoring.
Brig. Gen. William Mullen, commanding general of Education Command and president of the Marine Corps University, said Marines aren't using the old mentoring order, which is a bit of an administrative headache. But as he listened to the commandant give his “Heritage Brief,” which emphasized a return to the service's core values, he said he knew reviving the order — and making it usable and relevant — is a necessity.
“It's somebody taking these young knuckleheads under their wing and saying, ‘You know, here's the right approach'” Mullen said. “‘Here's what you should be doing in your spare time. Here's how you should be developing yourself,' instead of leaving it to them to figure out what they should be doing.”
Officials with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., have launched a separate campaign aimed at getting their leaders more engaged. Sgt. Maj. Anthony Spadaro, the top enlisted Marine with 3rd MAW, said he'd like to see Marines replace knife hands with discussion and solid mentoring.
Disrespect — rampant, contagious
“You're fat. Don't try and sugarcoat it because you'll eat that, too.”
Many Marines might say the poster next to a scale in a logistics company's office at Camp Lejeune, N.C., hung there by the company first sergeant and gunnery sergeant, is disrespectful. Whether it's motivating would likely stir a lively debate.
But the poster is symptomatic of larger problems within the unit.
One Marine there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of getting into trouble with his command, said junior enlisted members in his company are treated so poorly by their leaders that they want out of the Corps. Disrespect and abusive language are common.
Marines in the Body Composition Program have it especially bad, he said.
“They'll tell them they're pieces of s---, that they're fat and disgusting,” he said.
The consequences of a leadership style based on fear and intimidation have led some leaders to say this type of behavior needs to go. It is not particularly effective as a motivational tool and damages morale, they argue. But just as concerning is the effect it has on other young Marines who observe it.
If junior Marines see knife-hand wielding gunnies and red-faced, swearing first sergeants, it's contagious. “Other Marines will emulate that behavior and say the same things,” said the logistics company Marine. “It's a trickle-down effect.”
Not everyone will react that way, however. Some will simply come to regard leadership in a negative light, and unless they find more positive examples in a subsequent assignment, they are likely to leave the Corps at the first opportunity.
Data suggests the Lejeune logisticians aren't alone in feeling disrespected.
Of the more than 10,500 enlisted Marines in the process of deciding whether to stay in the Corps or get out who answered the service's 2012 retention survey, nearly 25 percent said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the degree of respect and fair treatment they receive from superiors.
And when asked to rank their satisfaction with the leadership provided by superiors, an even higher percentage indicated discontent. About 30 percent of Marines who answered that question checked “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.”
Marine Corps Times obtained the results of that retention survey through the Freedom of Information Act. While Marine officials say it is used exclusively to formulate selective retention bonuses and not as a climate survey, it does provide insight into how a large cross section of the ranks feels on a multitude of issues in any given year.
Dissatisfaction was highest among the most junior enlisted troops, and lowest among the most senior. But perhaps most alarming are the numbers for corporals and sergeants, who as NCOs are thought of as the “backbone” of the Corps. Combined, more than 25 percent of these NCOs answered they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with leadership provided by their superiors. Similarly about 20 percent said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the degree of respect and fair treatment they receive from superiors.
The 2013 Military Times Poll data suggests similar trends across the services. More than 2,100 active-duty troops and mobilized reservists completed the poll, and about a quarter of enlisted respondents labeled their military officers “fair” or “poor.” And the enlisted troops weren't just biased against those who are commissioned. About one in five rated their enlisted leaders “fair” or “poor” as well.
Young noncommissioned officers have spent the past 12 years making a lot of decisions as they worked on a dispersed battlefield, without direct input from more senior leaders. Now the Corps has to figure out how to keep them feeling empowered as they come home — and during a time many already indicate they don't feel respected by their superiors.
Sheathe your knife hands
When Spadaro recalls his leadership style as a young corporal, he said he wanted to be a hard-charging devil dog. And that meant “utilizing the knife hand,” he said.
“But no one was going to follow me,” Spadaro said of his tough tactics. “They were going to follow me because they had to, because it was mandated. But were they following me for the right reasons?”
A sergeant pulled him aside and told him to think about doing things differently, which Spadaro notes as a pivotal moment in the development of his leadership style. The knife hands weren't him, the sergeant told him.
Having someone he respected, and who was close in rank, challenge him to think about leading differently changed everything, he said.
Junior Marines joke a lot about knife hands. Maximilian Uriarte, creator of the Marine Corps-themed comic strip “Terminal Lance,” has a book named after the gesture. And former Sgt. Paul Szoldra, who heads the satirical news site “The Duffel Blog,” regularly posts stories from his team about knife hands.
“Every Marine knows what a knife hand is because they are often the only ‘weapon' drill instructors have at the recruit depots,” Szoldra said. “They can't hit you … but they can throw a mean knife hand.”
Beyond boot camp, Uriarte said you might see a knife hand when a Marine gets chewed out.
But Spadaro said constantly using knife hands — and the yelling that often accompanies them — are only going to make Marines tune out.
Two-thirds of communication is nonverbal, Spadaro said. “So realizing when you get up there and throw out those knife hands, you're not going to get every point across correctly because Marines are going to lose the listening part.”
Sgt. Maj. Steve Soha, with the Wounded Warrior Regiment, agrees. Barking orders in place of earning the Marines' respect doesn't help to win their loyalty, which makes all the difference in good leadership, he said.
“When you're doing those knife hands and you're in their faces straightening them out, all they're thinking is ‘I have got to get out of here,'” he said. “They just want it to end.”
In January, a corporal with 2nd Tank Battalion out of Camp Lejeune posted a video to YouTube after he placed a hidden camera in his barracks room during a field day inspection. His gunnery sergeant went on a near-10-minute tirade about how messy the room was. The corporal implied at the end of the video that his gunny flew off the handle over a minor transgression.
The gunny, of course, saw things differently. His point was that he relies on his NCOs to be squared away because the lance corporals look to them for guidance. But his delivery, stern and profane, swearing roughly two or three times in every sentence, may have undercut his message in a teachable moment.
When you have Marines who are showing an effort, Soha said, it's better to take a different approach. If the logistics company Marines on the BCP wolf down cheeseburgers and doughnuts after they complete their physical training, someone might need to get in their face and straighten them out, he said. But it should never be the go-to.
“If you've got somebody who has let himself go, but is trying, then you don't say ‘Come here you disgusting pig,'” Soha said. “You say, ‘You were rock-hard once before, and we're going to get you there again.'”
Sgt. Josh McGraw, a linguist with 1st Radio Battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said during his two-and-a-half years as an NCO, he has learned that different approaches yield different results when dealing with junior Marines.
“I keep my knife hands sheathed because I can get more from my juniors that way,” he said.
McGraw said Marines whose leaders tend to knife-hand will come to him because they feel more comfortable approaching him. He calls it a “relational leadership style,” and his junior Marines have told him they'd be more bothered if they knew he was disappointed in them than if he did nothing but yell.
Spadaro agrees. Walking up to a Marine and telling him or her you're disappointed is far more effective than invading their space and going on a screaming rant.
Consistency is the leadership quality that really matters, Spadaro said, which is why he and 3rd MAW's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Steven Busby, want to see their leaders out in front of Marines. Leaders must know that they're always being watched, that they're always on display, Spadaro said, so it's important for them to constantly review their own behavior.
“There can be no bad days,” Spadaro said. “Marines and sailors don't deserve that.”
Staff Sgt. Jessie McDonald, a drafting and surveying chief with Marine Wing Support Squadron 271, was named the 2012 Marine Corps Times Marine of the Year. He was nominated largely for his leadership style, which his Marines described as tough but fair.
McDonald said he developed that style by watching his own leaders and seeing what worked and what didn't. Mixing that with his own brand of humor helps junior Marines relate to him and view him as approachable, he said.
Certain issues like discipline or safety might require a tougher style, McDonald said. When he took that approach, though, he would circle back to that Marine and explain why he was so upset. That, Soha said, is one of the biggest components of good leadership.
“That's what I call ‘bandaging the wounds.' You may have to break some fingers, but coming back — not right away, but coming back — and bandaging those wounds and explaining why, that is huge,” Soha said. “That is going to be where you get your credibility, and that is where the real learning takes place.”
The new challenges
As the Corps shifts away from a decade-plus of war, things like uniform inspections and close-quarter drills will become renewed priorities. Like 3rd MAW's leadership campaign, these aren't things that have gone away. They're just going to be re-emphasized, Spadaro said.
Spadaro said he has come down hard on 3rd MAW Marines who cite the transition from combat deployments to a garrison environment as rationale for bad behavior.
“You demonstrate excellence in combat all the time — the same sergeants and corporals — why can't you do it here in garrison?” Spadaro said he asks of his NCOs.
But Everett Sharpe, of Winkelman, Ariz., a retired sergeant major who served during the Vietnam War, said fighting in lengthy conflicts with no end in sight, like Vietnam or Afghanistan, takes a toll.
“They see all the corruption in the place they're fighting, and they're just asked to go again and again and again,” Sharpe said. “It starts wearing on people.”
Now that there is an end in sight in Afghanistan, he said the Corps will have to go through the same kind of transition he saw happen after Vietnam.
“In a combat situation … a lot of things get put to the wayside,” Sharpe said. “You deal with Marines who have not spent any time taking care of their uniform. Things don't seem as important to them in garrison when [before] they were worried about just taking care of their lives.”
The key now will be to make sure Marines understand that uniform inspections and reaffirming ethics are as important, in their own way, as the things they did overseas, he said. And that requires leaders who can convey to their Marines why these things are important.
Mullen, Spadaro and other senior leaders are trying to figure out how to get that message across at a time when Marines are tuned in 24 hours a day and communicate constantly.
If the commandant says something, Marines hear about it five minutes later, Spadaro said. That means leaders need to stay ahead of them, which means they need to get out from behind their computers and explain the nuances of new policies to their Marines, he said.
“Nothing will ever replace getting in front of Marines, looking them in their eyes and telling them something and explaining something,” Spadaro said.
If Marines are feeling bored, disempowered or unmotivated, leaders must engage them directly, he added.
In addition to the differences in technological prowess, this new generation of Marines was raised to “ask why,” Soha said. Leaders his age must understand such independent thinking requires a different approach.
Gone are the days when leaders could expect junior Marines to adjust to their leadership style, he said. With such a wide range of information literally at their fingertips, they want to understand why they're asked to do something.
“My generation and generations before me, if we asked our dad or our senior leaders why, we'd be told, ‘Because I effing told you so,'” Soha said. “We have to work much harder to get junior Marines to follow us now — you have to earn it. Senior leaders especially can't just come in once a day or once a week and make demands.”
Good leadership transcends generational differences, however.
“These are things that have always been there,” Spadaro said. “It's nothing glossy and nothing new. … It's just reinvigorating good leadership.”
That will mean leaders must pay attention and be a part of their Marines' lives during the transition from combat to garrison, Soha said, since the most combat-tested Marines in decades will be required to fill new roles at home.
“There's nothing you can ever compare to that personal satisfaction of being tested in combat,” he said. “I think leaders are going to have to be a lot more aware that [their Marines] will be looking for that adrenaline rush somewhere else, like on a crotch-rocket motorcycle going 120 miles per hour.”
Post-combat life might not be for everyone — and that includes bad leaders. As the Corps built up to 202,000 troops during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen said, a lot of people stayed in who shouldn't have. Now as the service draws down, shedding 5,000 positions each year over the next several years, the Corps can get rid of people who don't want to follow the rules or who can't motivate the young people in their charge.
“I think it's an opportunity to shake some of the folks that really needed to find another job,” Mullen said.
Staff writers James K. Sanborn and Andrew deGrandpré contributed to this report.