Robert Chen, WG’19, reflects on leadership lessons learned from the Marine Officer Candidate School.
Students in Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives have several opportunities to participate in Wharton Leadership Ventures. Some students spend an immersive day on the Gettysburg Battlefield while others learn about leadership in the wild of Alaska or from the FBI. Robert Chen, WG’19, participated in a 1.5-day Wharton Leadership Venture at the Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico, VA. We asked him to share some of his takeaways from the program. Here is what he said.

The Quantico Leadership Venture was extremely rewarding. It was one of the toughest experiences I’ve gone through both physically and mentally. It’s clear why the U.S. military is one of the best institutions for developing real leaders. This Venture challenged me on a different level, and through that pressure, I learned about myself and what it takes to be effective.

Here are a few lessons that stood out:

1. Discipline Matters

Upon our arrival at Quantico, we experienced “transition,” which is what you typically imagine when you picture joining the military. Drill sergeants yell at you and are sticklers about minutiae, like the way you fold the corners of your bed or report back facts. As a civilian, I immediately discounted this approach as unreasonable hazing. However, over the course of just 30 minutes, I saw our group transform from smirking at each other to following orders.

I began to understand that “transition” is to help us build discipline and to understand the seriousness of what is at stake. I also realized that it’s not about making the bed right or blindly following orders, but rather about doing the daily detailed prep work so you can guarantee the win. It’s easy for “who cares about folding the corners of my bed” to bleed into “who cares if I don’t clean my gun out every time.” The details matter because if you cut corners, your gun may jam in a life or death situation; when you don’t guarantee the win, the loss is high. Discipline to do what is right matters a lot.

2. Decisiveness Matters

After rotating fire watch duty throughout the night, our first challenge the next day was to tackle the Leadership Reaction Course (LRC). These are mini-challenges that must be completed within 10 minutes with a team of four people. In each challenge, a member of the group is assigned as the leader and gets a two-minute briefing about the scenario. For example, your team might need to rescue an unconscious hostage on the other side of a sewage tunnel, or you may have to retrieve ammunition from a two-story building.

Once you receive the briefing, you must come up with a plan and communicate it with your team. It became immediately clear that our first natural tendency was to debate and undermine the leader’s plan if we didn’t think it made sense. This resulted in our group barely starting the challenge before time was up.

I learned that it’s critical for leaders to take control and commit to a course of action, even if it may not be the best course of action. We only had a two-minute briefing and the situation was uncertain, so challenging our leader without a better course of action wasted time. This reinforced why the “transition” training is so important. To have a chance at completing these leadership challenges, the leader must commit to a course of action and take command. Failure to do so is a direct failure of leadership.

We failed at almost every challenge. I saw that even with the right plan, if you’re not working together as a team or if you’re not in peak physical condition, you can’t execute on the plan. This was a blunt reminder that it’s important to continue strengthening your team and your mind and body so you can properly execute your plan.

3. Detachment Matters

The last part of our experience was to complete an obstacle course by navigating rope bridges through tree lines, wading through the freezing water, and crawling through mud and fields.

Looking back on this experience, I realize how easy it is to fall into tunnel vision when you’re stressed and trying to get through a difficult part of the course. You lose sight of the overall context, and you’re just in execution mode. As a leader, it’s important to detach from the moment to stop and assess whether your original strategy is still a good one. Has anything changed that may need a different course of action?  

4. Ductus Exemplo Matters

Another lesson was the importance of “Ductus Exemplo,” which means leading by example. Our Marine guide led us through the obstacle course and did every challenge before asking us to go through it. He could have easily just walked along the side instead of jumping into the freezing water and waiting for us at the other end. During one moment on the course, as we were waiting for other members of our team to complete the water portion, I was uncontrollably shaking from being soaked and waiting in the cold. I turned and looked at our Marine guide, who just stood there equally soaked but completely stoic, and asked: “You’re not cold?” His reply struck me as the perfect example of detachment: “I’m cold, but I don’t see the purpose of shaking. It’s all in your mind.”

In addition to learning about myself as a leader, this experience further enhanced my appreciation of and admiration for the men and women who serve our country. The typical Marine Officer Candidate School is 10 weeks, and we only experienced 1.5 days of that. This experience at Quantico set a new bar for what it means to be a leader and to be physically and mentally tough.

— Meghan Laska

Posted: May 21, 2019

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