It’s Not Rocket Science – But it is Neuroscience: Using Rituals as Leadership Tools

13th Commandant of the Marine Corps MajGen John A. Lejeune (courtesy US Postal Service)

Now that the cake is gone, what can we learn from celebrating the Marine Corps’ birthday?

This time of year especially, I think about it all the time. The second battle of Fallujah had begun a few days before. On 10 November 2004 (the 229th birthday of the Marine Corps), I was working the night shift in the madhouse known as Regimental Combat Team 7’s operations center.

The chaos was controlled, we all had a laser-like focus on supporting the Marines as they fought their way through the city. There was twice the usual number of people in our small space. It also felt like there was four times the usual amount of phones ringing, radios squawking, computer screens blinking, video feeds flashing, et cetera, et cetera.

I started my shift that evening at 1800. In what I thought was five minutes later (we were so incredibly busy, it actually turned out to be around 2200) I looked up and saw the RCT executive officer standing in the doorway. I don’t know how, but he quieted the noise and then read the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ birthday message, which is part of the tradition. I started to feel emotion surge through my body.

Though I didn’t notice him standing in the middle of the crowded operations center until that very instant, the RCT CO started reading Major General John Lejeune’s birthday message (General Lejeune was the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps and he’s the one who originated the Marines’ birthday rituals back in 1921). As all Marines know, reading his message is also a big part of the tradition.

When the CO finished reading General Lejeune’s message, he popped to attention and started singing The Marines Hymn. We all jumped to our feet and sang along with him at the top of our lungs. Right then, the booms of outgoing artillery reverberated all around us. I felt the chills. We all did. What a moment.

As moving as that experience was for me, this article is not just an anecdote from my past. This is about leaders understanding the power of rituals as tools to help their organizations scale new heights.

Major General Lejeune took over as Commandant in June of 1920, and it was tough times. The Marine Corps had just completed rapid demobilization following World War I and had gone too far, there were insufficient enlisted Marines. He wrote in his memoirs about the low morale of the officers as well, due to uncertainty about the future direction of the Marine Corps and about their own personal careers.

General Lejeune also wrote about the need to reduce bloated headquarters staffs (now that the Marine Corps had been reduced to peacetime strength), along with a “material reduction” in the number of civilian employees. He highlighted many of the other challenges he faced as he reoriented the Marine Corps from looking back at WW I to looking forward to their new and different future. It wasn’t called that back in 1920, but today we’d say he was embarking on a change management initiative.

That he was technically competent and bureaucratically skilled is beyond question. He was a decorated war hero, the only Marine to ever command a US Army division in combat. He solved his 1920 enlisted manpower problem by Christmas of that year. He built positive relationships with Congress and inside the executive branch that made a difference. And, he put the Marine Corps on a path that led them to become the storied amphibious juggernaut we think of from World War II.

General Lejeune also astutely energized the emotional part of what it means to be a Marine. He did things like creating a forum for professional discourse in the Marine Corps Gazette, he installed new guidelines for the relationship between officer and enlisted that are still in use today, and he established the historical section at Headquarters Marine Corps. All of these contributed to the notion of what it means to be a Marine.

Major Edwin McClellan was the first head of the historical section and he sent a memo to General Lejeune in 1921 about the Marine Corps’ birthday. To that point in time, the Marine Corps informally celebrated 11 July 1798 as its birthday (if they celebrated at all), which was the date President John Adams signed the act establishing the Marine Corps (the Continental Marines were disestablished in 1783 following the Revolutionary War). General Lejeune accepted Major McClellan’s recommendation and then issued the stirring message that is now read every year.

Within a few years the pageantry and formality that now accompanies the birthday celebration started to emerge. Today, the central act of the ceremony usually revolves around the birthday cake. The oldest Marine present is handed a piece of cake, takes a bite, and then hands it to the youngest Marine present so that he or she can take a bite. This signifies the passing of traditions from one generation to the next. The subtext is clear, it’s also about keeping the indomitable Marine spirit alive, to take strength from those who came before, and to rededicate oneself to maintaining the famous legacy.

General Lejeune understood the power of rituals. It wasn’t rocket science, he knew his audience. He knew they felt deep emotions about the experiences they had recently lived through in World War I. He knew that he would risk losing large numbers of his internal audience if he discounted those memories as he pivoted the Marine Corps toward a new future.

General Lejeune changed the strategic direction of the Marine Corps early in his tenure. At the same time, he brought to life a ritual that celebrated those who came before, one that honored the searing experiences that many had recently lived. It may not have been rocket science, but it was definitely neuroscience.

We know we need not just reason but also emotion to move people to action. Marketers call it the emotional selling proposition. Research into how the human brain works tells me people usually want to know the logic behind their choices but they are motivated to take action when their emotions are engaged. This is the neuroscience, and it’s what General Lejeune intuitively understood.

Rituals like the birthday celebration helped General Lejeune cement people’s identity to the Marine Corps. His emotional selling proposition was the intangibles of what it meant to be a Marine. His celebration of history made Marines understand that they were part of something much larger than themselves.

I think my CO in Fallujah understood this, too. We participated in the bare minimum of a birthday ritual but it was more than enough. The emotional connection we felt toward the Marine Corps and our fellow Marines was renewed in a visceral way and it propelled us forward during the challenging weeks ahead of us.

Today I feel incredibly fortunate. I got to be part of that moment and feel a connection to something larger than myself, something that went back to the founding of our nation. I’ve gotten to study leadership in the years since, which has increased my comprehension of what was at work that day. Now as a leadership coach I get to sharpen my understanding as I try to impart it all to my clients.

General Lejeune’s example can teach us a lot about leadership. Today, here are some things I think all aspiring leaders can learn from him about the power of rituals:

1. You can start your own rituals. From 1798 to 1920 the US Marine Corps informally thought of July 11th as its birthday and didn’t do much about it. General Lejeune shifted it to 10 November 1775 and made it a big idea. He ended up striking a cultural match in 1921 that turned into a wild fire today. Leaders with a finger-tip feel for the culture of their organization can do something similar.

2. Remember the power of stories. Everything related to the Marine Corps birthday celebration is just a big story, the main points get repeated every year. Stories are made to move people. They are the most powerful emotional selling propositions of all.

3. If you’re making a change, use your past to explain why you’re going to be successful in the future. General Lejeune seemed to say, remember who we were and remember who we are. It’s important, even as we make the changes needed so we can compete – and win – in the future.

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