GSU's Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility visits Parris Island to bring U.S. Marine training to the business world
By Kathleen Poe Ross
Steven Olson, director of the Center of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility, negotiates an obstacle on the confidence course during a two-day seminar on Marine Corps leadership development and ethics training at Parris Island, S.C.
Camouflage-clad figures stalk across a field still wet with dew, pausing every 20 yards or so to slash and jab with their bayonets one of the dozen dummies scattered about and unleash a guttural battle cry. It’s barely 8 a.m., but the recruits have been drilling for hours already. Choruses of “Aye, Sir!” echo across Leatherneck Square, where all the martial arts training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., takes place.
Observing these exercises is a clutch of civilians, conspicuous in polo shirts, khaki shorts and tennis shoes. They’re visiting the depot with Georgia State University’s Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility, housed in the Robinson College of Business, for a two-day summer seminar on Marine Corps leadership development and ethics training. One member of the group actually went through recruit training at Parris Island back in 1956; the other 10 come from non-military backgrounds in business, nonprofits and academia. Yesterday they listened and discussed, but today, they’re getting their hands dirty.
This isn’t the type of fieldwork typically associated with these professions, but that’s exactly the point.
“You can learn a lot by analogy with really stark, clear examples that are unlike your organization, by getting out of your industry and seeing something different,” says Steven Olson, director of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility. Olson himself had never visited the Marines until he led the first trip to Parris Island last year; he got the idea for the seminar from a colleague whose Marine training repeatedly came up as they discussed questions of leadership and values in organizations.
The first thing visitors to Parris Island see beyond the front gate is a sprawling marsh, then ranks of grand oak trees hung with Spanish moss. This quaint picture soon gives way to a campus of low brick buildings and streets bordered by above-ground pipes. At the center of the depot, near the parade deck and a scaled-down replica of the famous Iwo Jima memorial, a banner on a metal truss spanning the Boulevard de France proclaims: WE MAKE MARINES.
Since late 1996, the process of making Marines has entailed rigorous ethics training. It was then that Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak established the Marine Corps Values Program, recommitting the organization to its foundational values of honor, courage and commitment in response to changes both in society and on the battlefield. Formal courses teaching and reinforcing the core values became part of every level of training and education within the Corps. The most recent iteration of the curriculum they now call Values Based Training, or VBT, was implemented in 2007.
“The emphasis on ethics and values training was very unique to the Marines at the recruit level,” Olson says. “Other service branches do it at the officer level, but not necessarily at the recruit level, and not with the kind of discipline and the explicit attention to the ethical and value dimensions of it. We talked to people in different services, and they said the Marines really do do this better than everybody else.”
The seminar begins at 3 p.m. in a lounge at Traditions – Parris Island’s fine-dining establishment for Marines, civilian employees and their guests – with a video detailing the transformation from recruit to Marine that takes place over 13 weeks there at the recruit depot. Maj. Chad Craven gives an overview of the recruit training regimen and the drill instructor school. “Values-based training,” he explains, “is how we thread our Marine Corps values through everything we do at recruit training, and in follow-on schools as well.” Every recruit is indoctrinated to honor, courage and commitment from the moment they step off the bus.
At a break in the presentation, Lt. Col. Joseph W. Jones steps up from the back of the room to introduce himself. He had heard a group from GSU was visiting and, as a 1994 finance graduate of the Robinson College of Business, wanted to welcome his fellow Panthers. Were it not for a Marine recruiter in the student center who sold him on officer candidacy school the summer before he graduated, he says, he probably would have ended up working at NationsBank.
The most stunning revelation of the afternoon stems from the briefing on drill instructor (DI) school. All of the non-Marines in the room are flabbergasted to learn that the Corps culls the top 10 percent of its troops and sends them to DI school in order to provide recruits with the best possible training. While it’s considered an honor, it can be difficult to convince some Marines to leave the field and take part. “You can volunteer or be volun-told,” says 1st Sgt. Everett Skanes, who with Maj. Craven leads the DI school here.
At 0700 the next morning, the cohort’s Marine boot camp experience begins where every recruit’s does: on the famous yellow footprints, painted on the pavement in 15 rows of four sets each that demonstrate how to stand at attention. (Heels together, feet forming a 45-degree angle.) Sgt. Dylan Theberge, the group’s guide for the day, explains that when recruits hit the yellow footprints, they give up their individuality to become part of a unit. “We joke that by the 10th week [of training], we want robots,” he says; in the last few weeks of boot camp, he explains, drill instructors ease up on their recruits as they transition to Marines.
Theberge and a fellow drill instructor walk the group through the confidence course at Leatherneck Square, a run of 15 oversized obstacles that simulate conditions Marines might encounter in the field. Olson and a few others attempt the least intimidating of the obstacles – “run jump swing” and “cargo net climb” among them – but leave the really challenging ones to the sergeants to demonstrate. Later on, everybody takes a turn on an indoor target-shooting simulator. In the last round on the range, one of the businessmen outshoots not only the former Marine, but also Sgt. Theberge and his colleague.
The boot camp experience for recruits culminates in an intense multiday test of physical and mental fortitude called the Crucible. For 54 hours, they are faced with long marches, nighttime movements, simulated combat, resupply and evacuation scenarios, and obstacles that must be negotiated as a team. Each event recalls and bears the name of a heroic Marine or key battle in Marine history: in the afternoon, the group from GSU watches recruits complete the Battle of Fallujah exercise from the shade alongside a combat assault course bisected by a huge coil of barbed wire. Sleep and food are minimal, pushing the recruits to the limits of fatigue. The core values are invoked constantly throughout these exercises, and, as the troops catch their breath between activities, the drill instructors lead their squads in discussions on honor, courage and commitment and how these principles were deployed in the field. Once they have conquered the Crucible, recruits can stand side by side with their drill instructors as Marines.
Seated around a long table in a conference room with five sergeants major a few hours later, the participants have the opportunity, after day in the classroom and a day in the field, for a core values discussion of their own before piling back into the van to return to Atlanta. Here, they start to process what they’ve seen and try to discern what elements of this unique values-based training regimen can possibly carry over to the civilian arenas of business and education.
The most immediate lesson – and perhaps the simplest – is the importance of leading by example. “You can have all the strategy in the world, but if you don’t create the culture with the people to literally model it, then it means nothing,” Marine curriculum developer Andy Cooper tells the group. “You have a lot of form but no essence, so to speak; the modeling piece is what gives essence to the form.”
Two weeks have gone by, and about two-thirds of the group reconvenes at GSU to debrief their Parris Island experience. Olson acknowledges early in the conversation that there are many aspects of the Marine Corps’ ethics and values training that simply don’t translate to business – unabashed indoctrination and tightly controlled, high-pressure environments tend not to be good for morale. As the discussion opens up, the list of applicable takeaways begins to grow: Telling stories of valor and success fosters a culture of pride. Having clear expectations and accountability at all levels creates trust and respect among the ranks. Supporting continuing training for employees is a worthy investment. Teaching and consistently upholding company values should be a priority. Cultivating ethical leadership through mentoring can only serve to strengthen an organization.
Along with these lessons come challenges yet to be worked out. “Everybody remarked about the extent to which the Marines understand and then operationalize the principle that if training is not done in something that approaches the condition under which that training will be needed in real life, then that training is not available when it’s needed,” Olson says. “By analogy, we’ve been thinking about what would it mean for us to train ethical and responsible business leaders knowing that we have to put them under conditions that are going to be similar to when they really need it in business.”
The Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility plans to make the Parris Island seminar an annual excursion, and might even offer it to RCB graduate students next year. In the meantime, Olson and his colleagues will continue to explore the non-military applications of the Marines’ immersive ethics training. They’re taking another group to Marine Corps Base Quantico on Virginia’s coast, home to the Corps’ Officer Candidacy School, this October.
“[The Marines] are so explicit, and they remind people of [ethics] at every juncture. The values get invoked for everything,” Olson says. “Our actions speak the loudest, full stop. So the Marine Corps not only says it, but these drill instructors and the people who are responsible for the training of these recruits, they try to live up to it to the Nth degree and embody those ideals. My own belief is that if you’re not humbled by that, then you probably need to be a Marine yourself.”
For more information about the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility, visit http://robinson.gsu.edu/ethics.