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U.S. Marines Know How to Build Tribes


Recent years of military softness to cope with millennial recruits have not changed the Marine Corps approach to basic training.  I recently interviewed several Marine Corps recruiters to find out what they are seeing when it comes to the modern candidate for membership in the U.S. Marines.  The Marines are currently fighting the tendencies of most military organizations to change the expectations for new members of this tribe.  I was told that the Marines have not lessened the training intensity required to make young men and women into Marines as is the case in other branches of service.  This approach may be having the desired impact on strengthening rather than weakening the draw of young patriots to the world of military service.

When asked, one recruiter averaged about six new recruits per month.  Of the six, he estimated that two were coming in for patriotic reasons and four desired a path to a college education.  I see no problems with either reason for military service as neither are mutually exclusive and many combinations of both can exist.  However, it gets very interesting when you examine the allure of patriotism from a tribal perspective. 

While patriotism may not be the reason for service, I was told that recruits become patriotic once they start the training to become a Marine.  The intensity of the training creates bonds and being patriotic grows out of a sense of duty.  This sense of belonging that comes with becoming a Marine can hold the key to stronger tribes in other organizations. 

Placing the good of a team over ourselves feeds into the premise that we are indeed wired for tribalism.  Generations of humans existed in groups to survive.  This adversity experienced together bonded us as tribes.  In his book “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger shared research from the period when settlers began crossing the west and experiencing the indigenous North American Indian population.  After being captured by the Indian tribes in the mid to late 1700s, many white settlers became a part of the tribe’s culture and refused to go back to their lives once given the opportunity.  He stated the sense of belonging was intense compared to the modern alternative of the individual English settler.

Looking at the modern organization through these two independent perspectives can be quite interesting.  The question most managers need to ask is whether or not the organization creates a sense of common duty for a purpose.  The Marines are very tribal and profess a mantra that once a Marine always a Marine.  Clear and simplistic individual roles to sustain survival by members of Indian tribes support the human desire to belong.

Each of these examples also refutes the myth that the easy experience is preferred over a difficult challenge.  Shared stress can bond humans together into tribes.  Junger also shared research from interviews with World War Two survivors during the German bombing of London.  He stated that many of these survivors recount the months of miserable existence in cramped bomb shelters as the best time of their lives.  While surrounded with death and destruction, these people came together as tribes.

Organizations that build a culture of belonging are and will be preferred by members.  As we move forward into the generational change we are experiencing, managers must create a common sense of purpose for team members.  This purpose can vary and manifest itself in many different ways.  It can be an important project or a value such as safety or quality.  Regardless of the purpose, it must be rooted in both contribution and belonging.  The shared passion for a common existence is biological in that our brain appeals to the desire for a greater purpose that can only be created in the tribes we belong to during our lives.  The need for tribal leaders will become greater as the employee of the future will become more and more nomadic as they move from job to job in search of that belonging.