What Professional Reading Lists Should Be: A Book Review of Marine Maxims by Col. Thomas J. Gordon
By Franklin Annis
Bottom Line Up Front
Marine Maxims by Col. Thomas Gordon is an exceptional resource for military self-development. Its short insightful chapters are filled with valuable leadership lessons suitable for junior noncommissioned officers to field grade leaders. Col. Gordon shapes what may normally be considered as cliché leadership lessons and gives them new life by discussing how these lessons impacted his career and how these issues will continue to impact the military profession in the future. In many ways, the way Col. Gordon has structured this book is how I wish every professional reading list should be presented. He briefly discusses the 50 valuable leadership lessons and how each impacted his own career and why these lessons will be important in the future before giving the reader at least one future book or resource to further explore the topic. I would highly recommend this book for military leaders and will likely be giving copies of this work to my supervisors and subordinates to help further spread the important lessons within these pages.
I was first introduced to Col. Gordon when he was still the Director of the Marine Corps University Command & Staff College. The Army National Guard Chief Surgeon was hosting a conference on the use of Stoic philosophy to improve psychological resilience. Col. Gordon was kind enough to talk about the use of Stoicism within the Marine Corps and provided some insights on the self-study of this philosophy. His lecture from this conference is available on the Modern Stoicism YouTube channel. Needless to say I was very impressed by his presentation as he laid out how elements of Stoic philosophy could be used to re-enforce personal value systems within the military to build resiliency and resolve. With his vast knowledge of history and philosophy and their relation to the profession of arms, he clearly embodies the warrior-scholar mentality. He is the type of leader that you want to hang around just to hear his “war stories.” When I heard he was publishing a book on leadership lessons I jumped at the chance to take an early look.
For more than a decade I have been working to improve the use of self-development within the US Army. It was even the topic of my doctoral dissertation. It is unfortunate that there are few well-designed supports for military self-development. Col. Gordon’s work is a shining example of what a good guide for self-development should look like. Even though he warns in the forward of his book that many of his topics would be cliché leadership advice, I found his approach far from empty platitudes. Writing in short chapters, he introduces 50 leadership topics and discusses how they impacted his own career. His writing is open and honest recounting both successes and failures of his past. Utilizing this approach, this “well-worn ground” seems new. He further explains how these topics will continue to impact the profession before providing more sources for further investigation. He writes to a level where his point is easily understood but not to the extent one might conclude they can walk away from the chapter with definitive answers or approaches. By highlighting the topic’s importance and providing additional materials, he provides motivation for his readers to seek answers outside of this work.
In many ways, this is the way I wish senior leaders would write their recommended reading lists. While some reading lists might provide major themes of the books they recommend, they don’t always place in context what lessons should be learned from the book and how it will be applicable for the future. Given reading for professional development is considerably different than reading books for academic goals, providing better context of what is supposed to be learned from the book and how these lessons might be employed by service members in the future would go far in improving what can be gained through self-development.
As a side note the short lengths of the chapters in Marine Maxims, would make this book a useful tool to enable small group discussions among squads or teams. Reading a chapter a week and having a discussion might be a powerful way of introducing more leadership development into your unit’s schedule. However, I caution leaders to understand this approach is not self-development and learning by mandate often destroys the internal motivation required to enable the self-learning service members needed on future battlefields.
Reviewing a book tends to be a fairly easy task. Read the book and write down some key points as they come up. Usually two or three really stick out that you can build a review around. However, reading Marine Maxims, I found myself looking down at more than a page of densely packed notes with too many important topics to try to cover them all. I found valuable insights in each of the 50 topics that Col. Gordon addresses. After fifteen years of service and being a field grade officer, I would have thought I personally would not have discovered so many new leadership lessons within this work but I did. Here are a couple point that had the most impact on me.
The eight year rule. One of the hardest chapters to read in Marine Maxims was a challenge to imagine yourself eight years into the future and how you would evaluate your current activities. For some, that might be a post-military self reflecting back on the time in uniform. It brings up the legitimate question about a work-life balance, if there is such a thing, and how we manage our other life priorities such as marriage partners and children. As a staff officer, maybe this hit a little hard moving from one intense assignment to the next and mixing in Professional Military Education and graduate school. It has been a few years of telling my wife that “it will be easier next year.” The question is, will it? While I don’t have the answers for a perfect life balance, I certainly think this is an important thought to reflect on. If nothing else, it might challenge you to ask where are you going to ground your “mission” or meaning of life after your military career.
Improvement to punishment. It is not uncommon to have a highly-motivated service member find a way to improve the organization. But there is often a problem when permission to make changes are passed up the chain of command. There is a temptation by leadership to improve upon the idea. However, this often significantly changes the original concept and removes the “ownership” of the idea from the originator. When the “improved” idea is passed back down, often the motivation to improve is lost and the new process becomes more of a punishment than a reward. This situation can be incredibly damaging in several ways. First, it can strip the important elements of ownership and motivation from those truly seeking to improve their organization. Second, it can discourage others from trying to come up with new ideas. Finally, denying a chance to implement an imperfect solution can also rob valuable learning lessons from those seeking to improve their organizations. Col. Gordon warns against the temptation to improve upon everything that comes across your desk. I know from first-hand experience how honest proposals to make improvements can be “improved” by others until they become a punishment to execute.
Marine Maxims is filled with incredibly useful leadership lessons that could enlighten military leaders at all levels. Col. Gordon not only presents valuable lessons in leadership but does so in a format that will continue to drive self-development. I must commend Col. Gordon for his dedication to leadership and education. The lessons contained within this book and his approach to improving his skills and abilities undoubtedly improved the US Marine Corps. As his book continues to spread within the military community, I have little doubt that this warrior-scholar will continue to help support and improve the leadership of the US Military well into the future.
Marine Maxims is available through the US Naval Institute and other major retailers.