Marine Corps Leadership Principles for Local Government Leaders

Marine Corps Leadership Principles

for Local Government Leaders
Mayors, City Council Members, 
City Managers, and Planners

Craig Hulllinger Colonel Marine Corps Reserve Retired

The Marine Corps motivates American teenagers to wake up at 5:00 am, work hard, and charge machine guns uphill, all for minimum wage. The Corps trains effective and dynamic leaders who ensure top performance.

Mayors, City Council Members, City Managers, and Planners often reach their offices without formal leadership training. They learn to be leaders on the job. Understanding effective and proven leadership principles developed over many years by the Marine Corps can help officials improve their leadership performance.

I have served as a City Planner / Manager and as a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve over the past 45 years, including service in Vietnam. In this article we focus on the leadership principles and traits developed by the Marine Corps and discuss how these qualities could and should be incorporated into local governmental leadership.

Marine Corps Leadership Principles are stated below. All of them are appropriate for local government leaders. Following these principles will help improve your performance as a leader. Substitute citizens and employees for Marines.

  • Know yourself and seek self-improvement.
  • Be technically and tactically proficient.
  • Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates.
  • Make sound and timely decisions.
  • Set the example.
  • Know your Marines (citizens, employees) and look out for their welfare.
  • Keep your Marines informed.
  • Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.
  • Ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised, and accomplished.
  • Train your employees as a team.
  • Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities.

The Marine Corps leadership traits are qualities of thought and action which help Marines earn the respect, confidence, and loyal cooperation of other Marines. They apply to local government leadership.

Definition: Justice is defined as the practice of being fair and consistent. A just person gives consideration to each side of a situation and bases rewards or punishments on merit.

Suggestions for Improvement: Be honest with yourself about why you make a particular decision. Avoid favoritism. Try to be fair at all times and treat all things and people in an equal manner.

This is a very important trait for an effective local governmental leader. An effective leader must ensure that all functions in a city are just. A local governmental leader must be fair and consistent in dealing with all people. Justice and perception of a “fair” deal for all citizens regardless of race, creed, or social standing is vital for the maintenance of a safe quality community. If a segment of your community believes that the odds are stacked against them they will be unhappy, unproductive, and dangerous. Make sure all the actions of your community are fair to all concerned.


Definition: Judgment is your ability to think about things clearly, calmly, and in an orderly fashion so that you can make good decisions.

Suggestions for Improvement: You can improve your judgment if you avoid making rash decisions. Approach problems with a common sense attitude.

In local government leaders should strive to reach a consensus among citizens and the City Council.  A City Council should reach decisions after open discussion and careful deliberation. Difficult controversial decisions should be carefully and clearly explained to constituents. Appointed officials should ensure that they understand and follow the direction of the elected officials and citizenry. And of course the decision should be the correct one - which is not easy, given the enormous variance of opinions among our citizenry.


Definition: Dependability means that you can be relied upon to perform your duties properly. It means that you can be trusted to complete a job. It is the willing and voluntary support of the policies and orders of the chain of command. Dependability also means consistently putting forth your best effort in an attempt to achieve the highest standards of performance.

Suggestions for Improvement: You can increase your dependability by forming the habit of being where you're supposed to be on time, by not making excuses and by carrying out every task to the best of your ability regardless of whether you like it or agree with it.

Local officials should work to make sure that city services are dependable.  Your citizens should be confident about the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of government. And city employees and officials should ensure that citizens, leaders and appointed officials can depend on an effective and efficient government that does what it says and says what it does.


Definition: Initiative is taking action even though you haven't been given orders. It means meeting new and unexpected situations with prompt action. It includes using resourcefulness to get something done without the normal material or methods being available to you.

Suggestions for Improvement: To improve your initiative, work on staying mentally and physically alert. Be aware of things that need to be done and then to do them without having to be told.

Elected and appointed city officials should study new technologies and procedures, and incorporate them where appropriate. Innovation can save money and improve the effectiveness of government. And city leaders should take the lead in adopting new technologies and procedures that make government more “lean”, with lower costs and higher productivity. City leaders should be proactive, figuring out what needs to be done in the city and then getting it done.


Definition: Decisiveness means that you are able to make good decisions without delay. Get all the facts and weight them against each other. By acting calmly and quickly, you should arrive at a sound decision. You announce your decisions in a clear, firm, professional manner.

]Suggestions for Improvement: Practice being positive in your actions instead of acting half-heartedly or changing your mind on an issue.

Decisiveness is very difficult for local government leaders.  These jokes apply – “Show me which way the people are going, and I will lead them.”; "Why plan, when you can react?”; and “Leading a city is a lot like herding cats.” Still, local officials should work towards being decisive after first carefully considering the decision. Make a decision and then stick with it through implementation.  This points out the need for developing and adopting plans and budgets that clearly lay out governmental decisions, and then following those plans.


Definition: Tact means that you can deal with people in a manner that will maintain good relations and avoid problems. It means that you are polite, calm, and firm.

Suggestions for Improvement: 
Following the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is an important trait for local governmental leaders. Tact is a very important trait for an effective governmental leader. Many local issues are very divisive and make people very angry. Informing citizens about why the city is taking action against their will is hard.  Tact and respect for those holding different views is critical. How a new program is presented is almost as important as how it is administered. Effective communication to and among citizens is an art. Tact and civility are important.


Definition: Integrity means that you are honest and truthful in what you say or do. You put honesty, sense of duty, and sound moral principles above all else.

Suggestions for Improvement: Be absolutely honest and truthful at all times. Stand up for what you believe to be right.

This is critical in government at all levels. Our trust in government is lowered each time a governmental criminal steals from its citizens. Make sure you are ethical in all your actions, and make sure that all officials and employees of the city act with honesty and integrity. When an official violates that trust they must be removed from office and appropriate legal steps taken to prevent further violations.


Definition: Enthusiasm is defined as a sincere interest and exuberance in the performance of your duties. If you are enthusiastic, you are optimistic, cheerful, and willing to accept the challenges.

Suggestions for Improvement: Understanding and belief in your mission will add to your enthusiasm for your job. Try to understand why even uninteresting jobs must be done.

Positive mental attitude is an important force multiplier for local governmental leaders. “Can Do” is a Marine principle and it should be part of the outlook of any local government official, elected or appointed. So many people are cynical or discouraged. An effective leader projects confidence, and inspires citizens and employees to do a better and more effective job.


Definition: Bearing is the way you conduct and carry yourself. Your manner should reflect alertness, competence, confidence, and control.

Suggestions for Improvement: To develop bearing, you should hold yourself to the highest standards of personal conduct. Never be content with meeting only the minimum requirements.

Local government leaders should ensure that they and their subordinates comport themselves well. The perception of the citizens of your community about your government is critical – do they see city employees working hard and carefully, or do they perceive that they are lazy. Governmental leaders should “look the part”, and act properly and with dignity.


Definition: Unselfishness means that you avoid making yourself comfortable at the expense of others. Be considerate of others. Give credit to those who deserve it.

Suggestions for Improvement: Avoid using your position or rank for personal gain, safety, or pleasure at the expensive of others. Be considerate of others.

Some recent scandals about “perks” and retirement benefits for local officials point out the need for unselfishness among local leaders. The Marine principle of “Officers eat last after all the troops have been fed” is a principle that should be followed in local government. Local governmental leaders should care first for their citizens. They should avoid taking advantage of their office for personal gain.


Definition: Courage is what allows you to remain calm while recognizing fear. Moral courage means having the inner strength to stand up for what is right and to accept blame when something is your fault. Physical courage means that you can continue to function effectively when there is physical danger present.

Suggestions for Improvement: You can begin to control fear by practicing self-discipline and calmness. If you fear doing certain things required in your daily life, force yourself to do them until you can control your reaction.

Courage is also required in local government. Police and Fire services often represent 2/3 of local government and it is obvious to all that courage is required in the performance of their duties. But moral courage is also required for other officials and employees. Admitting mistakes and honestly dealing with difficult situations requires moral courage. Harry Truman was famous and respected for saying “The Buck Stops Here”, and our governments would be better if officials took responsibility for mistakes.


Definition: Knowledge is the understanding of a science or art. Knowledge means that you have acquired information and that you understand people. Your knowledge should be broad, and in addition to knowing your job, you should know your unit's policies and keep up with current events.

Suggestions for Improvement: Suggestions for Improvement: Increase your knowledge by remaining alert. Listen, observe, and find out about things you don't understand. Study field manuals and other military literature.

Local officials should strive to continually improve their knowledge and understanding of governance. Our larger society and our government is complex, and getting more complicated all the time. Continual study to improve our understanding of how things work and how they can be improved is a requirement to be an effective leader.


Definition: Loyalty means that you are devoted to your country, the Corps, and to your seniors, peers, and subordinates. The motto of our Corps is Semper Fidelis!, (Always Faithful). You owe unwavering loyalty up and down the chain of command, to seniors, subordinates, and peers.

Suggestions for Improvement: To improve your loyalty you should show your loyalty by never discussing the problems of the Marine Corps or your unit with outsiders. Never talk about seniors unfavorably in front of your subordinates. Once a decision is made and the order is given to execute it, carry out that order willingly as if it were your own.

Loyalty is important in human relationships and in government. This is very difficult, since many people will spread rumours and innuendo. An effective governmental leader avoids gossip, and stays loyal to other officials and to citizens. 


Definition: Endurance is the mental and physical stamina that is measured by your ability to withstand pain, fatigue, stress, and hardship. For example, enduring pain during a conditioning march in order to improve stamina is crucial in the development of leadership.

Suggestions for Improvement: Develop your endurance by engaging in physical training that will strengthen your body. Finish every task to the best of your ability by forcing yourself to continue when you are physically tired and your mind is sluggish.

Being an effective leader means knowing your citizens. It is not a 9 to 5 job. Numerous tiring meetings in the evenings and weekends are required to be effective. You have to stay in shape to be able to maintain this pace. 


The Marine Corps acronym "J.J. DID TIE BUCKLE" is used to help remember the 14 leadership traits. Each letter in the acronym corresponds to the first letter of one of the traits. By remembering the acronym, you will be better able to recall the traits.


Following the leadership traits developed by the Marine Corps would help any elected or appointed local governmental official improve their leadership skills.  We recommend that Mayors, City Council Members, City Managers, Planners, and other employees and citizens follow these principles and traits into their leadership efforts.

Semper Fi