It’s Not All Dress Blues and Parades

How do you prepare yourself to make the tough calls?

Leaders sometimes struggle to make a clear decision on workplace discipline issues. I saw that from time to time over the course of my Marine career, even in cases that seemed straightforward. This became particularly challenging when the person facing discipline was talented, well-liked, or had a champion that spoke for him or her.

In September 2010, shortly after I took command of 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, we sent a group of Marines from Camp Pendleton to the major training base in 29 Palms, California. They were our “advanced party,” a group of about 30 who were getting things prepared for when we would bring about 500 more from the battalion to 29 Palms for a big training exercise. The group did a good job and achieved their goals ahead of schedule. It was over the Labor Day weekend, so the officers in charge took the Marines to a free concert the base was hosting. The officers were clear in their instructions to basically stay out of trouble and be on time for the bus that would take them back to their lodging that evening.

One young Marine violated those instructions in spectacular fashion. He became gloriously drunk and then picked a fight with the military police who were supervising the event. Then he picked a fight with the NCOs who brought him back to the barracks. This young man, who was 19 years old at the time, had a serious problem with alcohol.

A short time later, the young Marine came to see me for non-judicial punishment (an administrative proceeding commanding officers can use to administer discipline). I learned he had previous alcohol-related discipline issues, so in addition to the NJP penalties, we assigned him to in-patient alcohol rehabilitation and processed him for discharge.

It turned out, however, that his father was a senior chief petty officer in the Navy. Dad called the battalion several times to try and intercede on his son’s behalf, because he knew his son was essentially getting fired from the Marine Corps due to his actions. Our talented battalion sergeant major dealt with the angry father beautifully and we stayed on course with the decisions we had made in the case.

Right before the new year, the young man in question asked to meet with me. He was about a week away from being separated from the Marine Corps and he had completed his rehabilitation. I wasn’t excited about the meeting but agreed to it since I regularly met with Marines right before their discharge. I steeled myself for either complaints about his situation or pleas to try and stay in the Marine Corps (or for more phone calls from his father).

How did it turn out? The Marine had come to thank me. He said that he’d been an alcoholic since he was 14 years old, he needed the rehabilitation, and he definitely needed to be held accountable for his actions. He saw the situation as a great opportunity to reset his life. I was stunned by his message, while being sincerely grateful that he came to deliver it. I wished him well, then we said our goodbyes.

The situation got me thinking. Even though this was a straightforward case, how did our group of decision-makers arrive at the choices we made? And how did we stay the course even though a fairly senior person tried to intercede? And how did we seemingly get it right, to the point it even appeared to benefit the penalized individual?

Getting thanked after applying discipline is pretty rare in my experience, but I think it’s one of the reasons this makes it a good case study. Up to that point in my career, I had often made comments like, “take action on the little things so you’re ready when the big things come.” This event really made me think it through at a deeper level.

Here are some ideas from that reflection that might be useful for other leaders:

1. “The unit gets a vote.” Forever after this event I used this phrase. In this instance I needed to keep faith with the other Marines who went to the concert and did the right thing. The event made me realize that in any organization, discipline isn’t binary, it’s systemic. There are other eyes watching the outcome and that needs to be appropriately considered.

2. Your actions teach the next generation of leaders how to properly handle disciplinary matters. I realized I had absorbed a lot from watching my seniors, and now it was my obligation to serve as a model for others.

3. Make thinking about workplace discipline part of your intentional practice of self-awareness. Develop the habit of making sure expectations are clear, and then help people correct the small deviations they make from them. Consciously thinking about it on a regular basis is the practice leaders need to make confident disciplinary decisions when the big challenges arrive.

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