By Latayne C. Scott

It’s not every day two former Marine Corps captains snag the attention of both a prestigious industry publication like the Harvard Business Review and make The New York Times’ best-seller list, but when Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch did, it was because they leveraged their Corps experience to fill a big gap in leadership training in many corporations.

What was their secret? Something that is second nature in the military: service-based leadership. During their time as Marines, that meant, as leaders, Lynch and Morgan ate last, made a point to be visible in inclement weather operations and other situations that challenged their servicemembers, and brainstormed and introduced activities to combat complacency and improve skills and alertness. 

For them, it was about putting the team above the individual, working together for common goals. Was it effective? The majority of their team members had the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on their bodies: commitment to its ideals, for life.

Both women left the Corps with a sense of completion and excitement in what they’d learned about leadership and how it could be applied in this next phase of their lives. Morgan had never intended to be career military but found its values went with her when she left it. “Like many Marines, I’m a challenge junkie,” says Morgan. “I was ready to test myself in a new environment.” 

Morgan and Lynch found, to their surprise, the service leadership that had become a natural, acquired habit for them was like a foreign language to many people in business management. “Most businesses don’t start developing leadership skills in their employees until they hit the management ranks,” says Lynch, “so when they get to these positions, they begin learning some of the ‘troop leading skills,’ like giving feedback and the importance of setting a strong example.” 

The two found most business schools, even those that emphasize leadership, don’t include service-based leadership in their curricula. As a result, Lynch and Morgan often saw managers who routinely undermined their own effectiveness by flaunting their positions and perks, demoralizing their subordinates, and fostering squabbles and unhealthy competitions between peers rather than building teams. Innovative ideas from the ranks were squelched, and productive dynamics became stagnation.

“What surprised us was how different our understanding of the word “leadership” was as compared to how it was used in the private sector,” Morgan says. “We learned in the Marine Corps that leadership was a behavior, one in which anyone — regardless of rank — could express. 

“In this new environment, ‘leadership’ meant positional authority,” Morgan continues. Our ‘management team’ was referred to as our ‘leadership team.’ If you were a manager, you were assumed to be a leader. After working with — and for — a few managers who hadn’t developed their leadership skills, it was pretty clear to both of us that there was an opportunity to refresh the business world’s understanding of what real leadership is.” 

Service-based leadership makes dollars and sense for corporations. Lynch and Morgan document that 70 percent of American workers don’t feel involvement, enthusiasm, or commitment to their workplaces. In fact, a recent Gallup poll states that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity each year. 

Morgan experienced more than the normal culture shock when she went from well-oiled Corps team dynamics into the dog-eat-dog world of corporate sales. “I was proud of being a Marine,” she says. “When I left active duty and started in sales, there wasn’t a lot of pride in telling people that I was now a sales representative. I had to work hard to figure out who I was in this new world.”

Both Morgan and Lynch believe their success in the business world also is because of another kind of teamwork that relies on past and present relationships. “Networking is key for anyone in the military seeking a career outside the armed forces,” Morgan says. “Our guidance is pretty simple: Seek out as many mentors as you can. If it weren’t for a few key mentors to help guide us, we would have been lost.” (Read more about the value of mentors.

They found their way in a big way. Today, their consulting firm, Lead Star, specializes in helping small to mid-sized businesses develop leaders at every employment level. They’ve written two books, including the best-seller SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But they always can look back to what the Corps gave them.

“One of the best things about being out of the military is having the opportunity to connect with private-sector professionals and share my military experiences in a relatable way,” Lynch says. “Today, only 1 percent of our population serves in the military, so I am honored to share what my time in uniform was like so that business leaders can gain perspective on the value of military service.”  

Though Morgan and Lynch don’t teach business leaders to create a boot camp workplace experience, they do show what putting the team first looks like. For instance, they encourage corporations to make it possible for employees to share extra paid sick leave and vacation time with coworkers who have family emergencies. They advise management to provide free meals for front-line workers and spend time with them, and most of all, to encourage mentoring. 

Lynch says though her military service ended, the relationships have endured. “Hands down, the best thing about being in the military is the people,” she says. “You meet amazing, dedicated leaders who value being of service. I met lifelong friends in the Corps.”

Morgan says: “I also love that people reach out to me and ask me to mentor their children who are considering joining the Marines. In fact, I’m helping prepare a woman right now for boot camp this August.” 

Morgan has put the young woman on a training plan to help her achieve her pull-up goals. “She says she only needs to do two before she ships,” Morgan says, “I’m motivated to get her to doing 10!”