Cover Story
The U.S. Marines are looking for the few, the proud--people who can scale walls, strike hard with lightning speed, and make life-or-death decisions in the heat of battle. You want a fast-reacting, adaptable organization? Look no further than the marines

The wind rips through the open bays of the CH-53E Super Stallion; the crumpled-tinfoil, cloud-shadow-burnished ocean streaks by below. Conversation is impossible over the thunderous drone of the convenience-store-sized helicopter, and it's beside the point, anyway. Seated shoulder to shoulder in two facing rows are 15 mostly young people in casually neat dress, looking as if they're on a trip to a museum, though that wouldn't explain the several duffel bags stuffed with assault rifles. The job in front of them is a delicate one: upon landing, they will have to thread their way to the U.S. embassy without attracting the attention of unruly mobs and set up a communications center that will support the deployment of a few hundred of their colleagues.

At this moment many of those colleagues are just below decks from the helicopter's departure point on the USS Tarawa. Some are trying on the black ski masks they will wear when they storm a terrorist weapons cache. Others are checking the mortars they will use, if necessary, to defend a food supply intended for the starving locals. Still others are going over the maps that will help them locate and rescue the pilot of a downed jet.

The marines are coming.

It's only an exercise--these marines are invading a portion of the vast tracts of Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego. But no one is taking the missions lightly. For one thing, many of the marines have been up half the night making plans and preparations. For another, this exercise will provide the challenges of a real mission, down to the smallest detail. The marines don't know what awaits them on shore, but they are confident that six hours of planning and preparing have left them better equipped to face it than most military units would be after six months. If past experience is any guide, they're right.

The art of a hard strike drawn up and delivered at lightning speed may once have seemed as far removed from the domain of business as a moon shot. But with monthlong high-tech-product life cycles, just-in-time manufacturing operations, and overnight global currency crashes, the business world might just be coming around to the marines' point of view. Conventional business processes and management practices can be fatally logy on the new high-speed playing field.

Can the marines provide clues to forging a faster-reacting, more adaptable organization? The military, with its legendary hidebound command-and-control habits, might strike some as the last place to look for nimbleness. As any marine will tell you, though, the U.S. Marines are different.

Robert E. Lee (no relation) was a second lieutenant in the marines in 1975, when he was shipped over to Vietnam during the end-of-the-war evacuation, a month before the fall of Saigon. His first order: to take a dozen marines, board one of the merchant ships packed with refugees, and secure it from the bands of deserting South Vietnamese soldiers who were seizing ships and killing the crews. He was given no word on how he was supposed to go about boarding and securing a ship, something the marines hadn't made part of their repertoire for about a hundred years. Just do it, he was told. After necessarily brief reflection, Lee hit upon the following insight: the ship had several decks, so why not treat it like a big building with many floors? That he had been taught to secure: you start at the top, so that gravity works in your favor--you can drop down on opponents faster than they can climb up to you, and you don't have to worry about hand grenades bouncing back down. Deck by deck, he and his men secured the ship.

Lee, now a trim, blue-eyed colonel, might be considered the marines' top trainer. He tells this story, among many others, to the hundreds of newly minted, twentysomething second lieutenants who come under his care and feeding each year. It's what the marines call a "sea story," and it is their preferred means for transferring wisdom. This particular story is especially useful, not because it teaches young officers how to command a boarding party but rather because it gets straight at two of the marines' most closely held beliefs. Namely:

1. War is chaos, confusion, and the unexpected.

2. Because of that difficult fact, the only way to succeed as an organization is to push the ability and authority for decision making down to the marines who are on the spot.

Decentralization: The Rule of Three
In business, decentralization and organizational flattening typically involve gutting several layers of management, often leaving managers overwhelmed with as many as a dozen direct subordinates. The marines, on the other hand, have pushed out decision-making authority while retaining a simple hierarchical structure designed to keep everyone's job manageable. In a nutshell, the rule is this: each marine has three things to worry about. In terms of organizational structure, the "rule of three" means a corporal has a three-person fire team; a sergeant has a squad of three fire teams; a lieutenant and a staff sergeant have a platoon of three squads; and so on, up to generals.

The functional version of the rule dictates that a person should limit his or her attention to three tasks or goals. When applied to strategizing, the rule prescribes boiling a world of infinite possibilities down to three alternative courses of action. Anything more, and a marine can become overextended and confused. The marines experimented with a rule of four and found that effectiveness plummeted.

Of course, the rule leads to an organizational hierarchy that might seem appallingly narrow and tall: there are typically six full layers of management in between an infantry private and the colonel commanding his regiment. But when the action starts, the layers collapse on an as-needed basis. Marines at all levels start making decisions in response to fast-changing situations, without so much as consulting the chain of command; even privates know they're expected to take whatever initiative is necessary to complete a mission. "If your decision-making loop is more streamlined than your enemy's, then you set the pace and course of the battle," says Major General John Admire, who commands an infantry division at Camp Pendleton.

Hiring: Hands-On Group Brainteasers
Entrusting mid- and low-rank officers with critical battle decisions forces the marines to pay close attention to the skills of the people they invest with responsibility. Installing effective decision makers at lower levels is a requisite when pushing down authority in any organization, but even companies that consider themselves committed to decentralization rarely make the hiring and training of managers as high a priority as the marines do. At large companies human-resource departments are typically disdained; at small companies hiring tends to be hit-or-miss, and training, if there's any at all, is usually an afterthought. In contrast, the most prestigious slot for a marine officer of almost any rank--the job that is hardest to get and that most clearly marks you for a likely rise to the top--is one in which he or she is entrusted with the selection and training of other marines.

Many of those slots are at the marine camp in Quantico, Va. Driving down the long Quantico camp road, you first pass through a country-club-like sprawl of lush, rolling hills. But these gradually give way to flatter, harsher-looking terrain composed of a thousand shades of drab, until you finally find yourself surrounded by barrackslike buildings. But Quantico never quite descends to the scoured-out look of a military base; rather, it resembles an unusually uncharming college campus, which in some ways it is.

A marine officer candidate's first Quantico experience--unless he or she is among that minority who've attended the Naval Academy--is the unique hell known as the Officer Candidate School (OCS). "School" is a misnomer; marine OCS doesn't exist to teach or impart anything to its hapless victims. Its role is to screen out those who might lack the right stuff; it is essentially a 10-week, 7-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job interview. OCS commander Colonel John Lehockey is the first to admit that that is a ridiculous amount of time to spend evaluating a prospective manager. "It's not nearly long enough," he says with a sigh. Though the already carefully screened candidates are put through a grueling treadmill of physical and academic challenges at OCS, the most-scrutinized quality is what the marines constantly and almost casually refer to as "leadership." "It has no exact definition," says Lehockey, shrugging. "It's our job to recognize it."

Whatever it is, OCS brings leadership to the fore by, among other things, subjecting candidates to a series of what might loosely be called brainteasers. A growing number of businesses, Microsoft most famously among them, have made posing difficult riddles and problem-solving scenarios a part of their job interviews. The marines up the ante, though, by making the problems intensely hands-on. In one exercise the candidates are told to get a wounded comrade across an ostensibly mined artificial stream using a rope and boards. In another they have to get themselves over a seemingly unscalable tall wall. Instructors watch dispassionately from catwalks above. "Which ones step up to take the lead?" asks Lehockey. "Who asks for input from the others? Who recognizes when a plan is failing and backs off to try another?" Solving the problem or not doesn't even enter into the grade. When the smoke clears, roughly 25% of the candidates are washed out.

The Marine M.B.A.: High-Speed, Chaos-Proof Leadership
The ones that make it become the property of Colonel Lee. Lee has a rÉsumÉ that seems to encompass the military careers of 10 busy men. And he is keenly aware that of the dozen or so schools that marine officers might attend in a full career, he has been given command of what marine officers seem to concur is the corps' most important: the Basic School, a six-month course that turns raw lieutenants into functioning marine officers. "There is no school like this in the other services," he says. "Or anywhere else in the world."

What sets the Basic School apart from other training institutions--and in particular, from an M.B.A. program, to which the Basic School in some ways roughly corresponds--is that it unabashedly favors breeding generic, high-speed, chaos-proof leadership over imparting specific skills. "Experts and specialists are a dime a dozen," sniffs Lee, dismissing in one fell swoop a century of business-management theory. "What the world needs is someone who can grasp the workings of an entire organization, understand people, and motivate them." This point of view is reflected in the way the corps embraces cross training. In the business world a company might make a point of having managers sit on assembly lines or take customer complaints a few days a year. In the marines, no matter what an officer's area of expertise, he or she can expect to be transferred periodically into a position entirely outside that area. Marine lawyers are given infantry units to command; infantry commanders are placed in charge of supply units. In the short term, concedes Lee, the almost-random shuffling around robs an organization of the efficiencies that would be obtained by allowing people to develop better skills in one job. In the long term, though, he says, the organization gains because it will have developed a body of plug-and-play managers capable of joining any team in almost any role in response to almost any crisis.

How do you teach generic leadership? There are no rules, no checklists, no set processes that apply to any but the most rote of situations, says Lee. Instead, the Basic School tries to hone decision making the way a chess master does: through exposure to as many scenarios as possible, so that the brain learns to recognize patterns it can apply to entirely new situations. That's how Lee solved his ship-securing problem, and that, claims Lee, is how all good managers solve the toughest challenges. Sea stories are the very best way to get those scenarios across, he says. At the Basic School, nearly 300 hours over the six months are set aside for captain instructors to break off with small groups of lieutenants specifically for the purpose of sharing such stories. Call it an oral, informal case-study method, in which people's lives are staked on the outcome.

Extreme Training
"The fight's on," rumbles Colonel Thomas Moore as he surveys the cramped, rocking room. "How're y'all doin'?" The responses, and Moore's responses to the responses, vary from sounds that approximate, variously, a seal bark, a warthog growl, a foghorn, and, most frequently and rather loudly, "hoo-rah." Apparently, the meeting is in order.

We are in the bowels of the amphibious-assault ship Tarawa, where many of the marines' theories on decentralization and decision making are about to be put to the test in the time-honored tradition of a full-scale exercise. The players are the members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), or MEU(SOC), under Moore's command.

In direct contrast to the classic image of military organizations as rigid bureaucracies, the Marine Corps' working structure is in fact vastly more malleable than those of most businesses. Though like any military service, the marines are broken down for administrative purposes into divisions and battalions and the like, such traditional segmentations rarely seem to come up in conversations about how the marines function. Instead, the marines think in terms of more-fluid, customizable groupings. At the heart of the groupings is the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), a unit of no set size that draws together various marine groups into a tightly integrated force capable of carrying out a major operation, be it an invasion, an evacuation, or a relief mission. As a practical matter, the smallest MAGTF is a MEU, which generally consists of about three (of course) ships' worth of marines, jets, helicopters, weapons, and supplies. MEUs are floating crisis-reaction forces; stationed in the western Pacific and the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, they can be on the scene and in full action within hours of a summons for help. Colonel Moore's MEU is one of three (of course) 2,200-person West Coast MEUs that are constantly being reorganized using the pool of marines at Camp Pendleton and at Camp LeJeune, in North Carolina. Marines in MEUs like to call themselves "the pointy tip of the spear."

Before Moore's MEU can be deployed, it has to get through two days of evaluation exercises, during which it will have to carry out a staggering 27 missions, ranging from assaults to airlifts to humanitarian assistance. The goal is to make the exercises more demanding than anything these marines are likely to see in a real crisis. The marines know roughly what sort of tasks the exercises will address, but until the exercises begin they are clueless about the exact missions, the order in which the missions will hit, and the obstacles that will be thrown at them.

It is 8 p.m., just after the first three mission orders have been radioed to the Tarawa. One order calls for the marines to set up a humanitarian-aid operation in a poor country that has been devastated by floods, leading to starvation and disease. A second order calls for seizing a heavily guarded cache of weapons kept by terrorists, and a third directs the marines to recover a downed pilot. Each order has been parceled out to a separate, quickly thrown together "crisis action team" consisting of about 12 people. Moore, who drops in on the teams in turn, is currently visiting the humanitarian-assistance team.

Moore's role as a colonel is probably the most closely analogous in the marines to that of a CEO. Marine generals are in some ways more like members of a company's board of directors, focusing on broader, long-term issues and leaving day-to-day management to the line executives. Moore's authority in the MEU is absolute. "I own everyone in this MEU," he says matter-of-factly. And yet he seems more comfortable with his charges than most CEOs do with their employees. An observer unaware of Moore's rank might easily mistake him for an unusually forceful and charismatic enlisted man as he strides through the Tarawa's maze of narrow steel corridors, bellowing encouragement and mild jibes to almost everyone he encounters. He wears the same standard-issue camouflage field outfit as everyone else. No one salutes him. (Though by tradition, the marines would salute him when they're off the ship.)

Moore's first order of business in the planning session is to ask why there are so many damned people in the room. Unlike most organizations, the marines tend to inversely correlate the number of people on a task with the likelihood of the task's successful completion. What's more, every single body beyond the absolute minimum number required means that some other job isn't getting done as quickly as it could--a key consideration when your organization is trying to accomplish more in two days than most companies would in two months. This evening the overpopulation problem is solved when Moore discovers that a marine escort and I are sitting in as observers. As another officer presents the known details of the mission, a marine types the main points into a laptop computer running Microsoft PowerPoint presentation software, and that information is projected onto a screen at the front of the room and to a similar room in each of the two other ships in the MEU, where other officers are participating via videoconference in the meeting.

Whatever mission the marines put together in response to the order to provide humanitarian aid, they have three hours to decide on and plan it and three hours to prepare for it. If they're lucky, they'll get a few hours of sleep before they have to execute it. There is little wasted time. The mission order is thrown up on the screen, and then the group works to state the order's "essence"--that is, to put it in the clearest, most succinct and relevant terms possible. In this case, the group decides that the mission is to provide food and medical aid to a starving and sick population. The group quickly determines the mission team's potential strength (knowledge of the terrain), potential weakness (susceptibility to disease), assumptions being factored into the decisions (they do not face nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons), things they must not do (damage property, which would lead to loss of popular support), the principle information requirements, high-value targets, and so on through a checklist of easily overlooked considerations. For example, when trying to decide how to feed the population, the group at first quickly gravitates to the obvious solution: distribute the large store of their own field rations, known as meals ready to eat, or MREs. But a consideration of medical issues brings up the point that the somewhat-rich MREs could easily overwhelm the digestive system of a person suffering from severe malnutrition, and a consideration of the population's unique characteristics leads to the concern that the MREs may be incompatible with ethnic and religious dietary restrictions.

Next the group determines those aspects of the mission that require clarification from headquarters. For example, is the mission supposed to provide a range of medical treatment or just enough to keep the sickest people alive? Will more food be shipped to the group? Are the rains that produced the flooding likely to continue? There are a number of such key questions. But the group isn't going to wait for the answers, because they could be a long time in coming, and the team needs to start drawing up detailed mission plans in an hour. If and when the answers eventually come in, the marines will adjust their mission on the fly.

The End State
Making decisions in the face of incomplete information is especially discomfiting when you know a mistake can cost lives. But marines get used to it, says Moore. "Everyone is always looking for the perfect truth, but you never have it," he says. "Even if you did have it, the other guy is up to something, so by the time you execute it, your truth isn't perfect anymore." Marines speak of the "70%" solution, by which they mean an imperfect decision whose saving grace is that it can be made right now. In an environment where the opposition can regroup and take the advantage in a heartbeat, indecisiveness is considered a fatal flaw--worse than making a mediocre decision, because a mediocre decision, especially if swiftly rendered and executed, at least stands a chance.

The group, now close to the end of the process, determines a mission "end state"--a reasonable and measurably achievable goal that reflects the team's capabilities and understanding of the obstacles. The end state the group agrees on is to get MREs into the hands of as many starving people as possible and to provide at least minimal medical aid to the sickest members of the population. True, the MREs are a far-less-than-ideal food, and the medical aid will be inadequate--but it's better than nothing, and there's the hope that better resources will become available soon.

The end state is a critical concept for the marines because outside of training, marines don't as a rule tell their subordinates how to do things; they merely specify what the situation is now and how they want it to end up, leaving the details of the execution up to the doers. If a corporal wants a private to stack a bunch of pallets, the corporal won't tell him or her to get a forklift or grab two other privates; the corporal will simply say to make sure the pallets get stacked. The reason is that in an environment where events unfold quickly and unpredictably, a particular means to an end can suddenly become unfeasible; but if the end is well understood, then other means can be enlisted.

Most business managers, of course, prefer to spell out exactly how they want employees to do a task, and with good reason: if you don't, you face the risk of having the employee carry it out in an inefficient or even disastrous fashion. That's a risk the marines take consciously. Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to a marine, and it's not even necessarily treated as a bad thing. True, managers like to say they give their subordinates a certain measure of room to fail, but the marines practice failure tolerance to a degree that would raise most managers' hair.

One marine told me how shortly after being promoted to corporal, he took a squad out on a live-fire drill, in which he decided on the spur of the moment to let a relatively inexperienced private run one of the teams. But the private promptly missed a cease-fire signal, and in the few horrifying moments before the corporal realized the slipup, the private's group continued to fire, while other marines had put down their weapons and were preparing to come out from their cover. There are few mistakes that have more serious repercussions in training; marines are injured or killed every year in accidents. The corporal quickly found himself explaining to his lieutenant what had happened, even while picturing his career going down the drain. But the lieutenant said that since no one had gotten hurt, it was a good learning experience. The corporal went to the private and told him much the same.

Having specified an end state, the group's last responsibility is to propose three (of course) alternative missions that might achieve the end state. Moore will make the final decision among the three, though he not only allows disagreement but practically demands it. This is standard marine thinking; enlisted men and women and officers alike are expected to express concern about questionable decisions and orders, and one of the biggest mistakes an officer can make is to ignore or squelch such questioning. Moore recounts the time a second lieutenant pointed out during one exercise-planning session that the plan Moore had picked would subject a covert landing party to a high risk of discovery. Moore acknowledged the concern but overruled him; what Moore couldn't explain was that as one of the people who had devised the exercise, he knew that the landing party wouldn't be discovered at that point. The second lieutenant objected again, and Moore again overruled him, but more brusquely. When the second lieutenant objected yet a third time, Moore finally realized that the young man was right. "I had been 'fairy-dusting' the exercise--using information I wouldn't have had in the real world to make decisions," Moore says. "I was wrong, and here was a second lieutenant calling a full-bird colonel on it in front of the entire group." Moore let the landing party use a different approach.

Pushing the Envelope
The marines' commitment to decentralized management and bottom-up thinking has evolved gradually over the corps' more-than-200-year-old existence. It's come about for a simple reason: high-risk, high-speed, high-focus assaults tend to be unforgiving on bureaucratic or autocratic management styles. The pressure to decentralize has increased in recent years as the shadow of military downsizing has forced the marines to further differentiate themselves from the army to stave off steep cuts--and that means gearing up for even faster, more-effective responses to an ever-wider range of scenarios.

To do it, the marines are trying to invent entirely new forms of decentralization based on new technologies. One series of experiments run by the two-year-old Marine Warfighting Laboratory, in Quantico, had 18 squads of marines fanning out over 1,500 square miles of desert. Normally, squads remain within sight and radio range of one another, avoiding the disaster of inadvertently calling in artillery fire on another squad's position. But these squads were equipped with handheld computers into which enemy positions could be typed, as well as global positioning systems to track their own locations. The data from each squad were sent to a single command post, where officers could put together a coherent picture of the entire battle scene. The goal of a new computer system, says experiment leader Colonel James Lasswell, is to get enough of this information back to the squads so they can make better decisions about where to call in fire. "It allows the squads to act like ground sensors for all the precision weapons we have coming on line," he says.

Lasswell has also arranged for officers to visit traders on Wall Street to get a lesson in how to make fast decisions based on information flowing in through banks of monitors--which may be exactly the way colonels operate in future conflicts. While the experience has been helpful, Lasswell notes there's a limit to how much the marines want to emulate the traders, given a fundamental difference in the way they view end states. "The traders are happy as long as they win more than they lose," he says. "When losing means you bring home bodies, that's not good enough."

One idea being tossed around is a return to the World War II practice of bringing civilian business managers into the marines as instant colonels or other high-ranking officers. While such managers wouldn't have the benefit of such unique experiences as OCS and the Basic School, the marines are quick to admit that the outside world may have expertise and management solutions that can be translated to meet their own needs--and they don't necessarily want to wait to grow such capabilities on their own. Besides, notes General Admire, the marines and the business world have at least one thing in common. "Whether you're pursuing peace or profit," he says, "there's a lot of tough competition out there."

David H. Freedman is a contributing writer at Inc.

Dispatches: I'm sorry, Mr. Freedman
When I got to Camp Pendleton, I was met by my escort, a captain. He took me out to the helicopter landing pad. The helicopter came flying in. These are big helicopters, too. They just come bombing in, coming down fast and hard, and there's this thunderous noise. So this helicopter lands, and they motion for me to get on, when all of a sudden this guy comes running up. He's sprinting. And he grabs my escort and says, "Wait, you can't let Mr. Freedman on. There's been a screwup. Clearance hasn't come through yet." And the captain turns to the guy--who was a sergeant--and says, "Well, you know, he's about to step on the helicopter--maybe the message just didn't get here in time." And the sergeant says, "Sir, do not ask me to be a liar." Realize, this is a guy talking to his boss. And the captain says to him, "All right, OK, you're right," and tells me I can't get on this flight. Clearance came through about a half hour later; in the meantime, I got to listen to the captain politely try to go up the chain. --D. F.

Dispatches: Full-Metal Jacket
There was a tenth of a second when I thought I'd been shot. Well, not really, but here's what happened: On the ship the marines were going to do firing practice, and they said, "C'mon, we want you to see how much fun this is!" Marines love any chance to hold and shoot a rifle. So they took me out, and all the marines took turns firing their rifles in a certain kind of drill. And then, when they got near the end, someone came over and put what felt like an 80-pound flak jacket on me, handed me an M16 rifle, and said, "OK, you're up." And I said, "What?

Excuse me? What?" And they're shoving earplugs into my ears, and the next thing I know, sergeants are yelling at me, "You do this. You pull this thing back. You ready? Fire." So I'm firing away, and there are people firing next to me, and something smacked into my face. In that tenth of a second, you're there firing a gun, and people are firing around you, and suddenly you get a hot smack on the side of the face. And your first thought is "Oh, I've been shot." But then you realize it's just a cartridge. These guns eject the cartridges at high speeds, and one caught me square in the face. They're very hot, and they leave a tiny burn. These burns are not that uncommon, as it turns out. Most marines have cartridge-ejection scars. Apparently, it's cool to have a certain number of cartridge burns. --D. F.

Dispatches: Stroke
I've never encountered such levels of enthusiasm. When I first arrived at Camp Pendleton, I heard a sergeant talking to two privates. He was starting them on a painting job. And the sergeant said to the guys, "Come here. Look at this. This, right here, is crummy painting. Now come here; I want you to look at this. This is an excellent paint job. Look at the attention to detail this person did. This is the difference between a good paint job and a bad paint job. Do you understand the difference?" And the privates said, "We get it." And he said, "Good. OK. Good luck." And then he left them. And two hours later I came by and those two guys were there painting away. They couldn't have been more enthusiastic or more focused on it than if they were actually in a live-fire drill. --D. F.

The Few, the Proud, the CEOs
Former grunts on the Marine Corps way of doing business

Nothing can quite compare with Marine Corps training and combat service to stretch your leadership skills in bringing people together to accomplish a mission," says Phillip Rooney, vice-chairman of the ServiceMaster Co., a building-maintenance-and-service company based in Downers Grove, Ill. Rooney, whose company employs 50,000, not only endured Officer Candidate School but was one of the select few who returned to teach there. For him and countless other ex-marines, there is no better preparation for the rigors of running a business than the intense training of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Douglas Peterson, the CEO and founder of Pete's Lights, in Elk Grove, Ill., can quickly rattle off the 11 leadership principles he had to memorize as a new marine recruit. He goes so far as to distribute old leadership manuals from his boot camp to the crew chiefs of his 15-employee, $2-million company, which stages lighting shows for concerts and corporate events. "When one of the chiefs complains that something isn't getting done, I will say, 'The private's ninth leadership principle is to ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.' Did you do that?" explains former sergeant Peterson.

"The Marines Corps allowed us to make sure we could understand the worst- and best-case scenarios, take care of everyone else first, and accomplish the mission with minimum casualties," says James Warren, founder of the Warren Financial Group, an investment-advisory firm in Kansas City, Mo. "Those are the same principles we consider when doing investment planning: How can we accomplish what we want to do with minimum risk in relationship to the return?" As a marine reconnaissance officer in Vietnam, Warren also learned the value of leadership by persuasion, not dictatorship. "There's a real power of presence when you can influence people not by order but by saying, 'Join me now. We're stronger together than if we stand on our own.' That sense of commitment can't be learned in a textbook."

Ex-marine and Quaker Oats CEO Robert Morrison recalls, "There were clear parameters that were instilled in everybody's mind, but in an actual battle situation, within those parameters, people had incredible freedom to act." Morrison, who earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam, has found the marines' principle of decentralization "tremendously important in business. Senior management can instill principles and guidelines, but you can't do people's jobs for them."

Dan Caulfield, founder of Hire Quality Inc., a $2.3-million Chicago job-placement company for honorably discharged military personnel, embraces the marines' "rule of three" to run his company. "I have a chief operating officer reporting to me, he has three people reporting to him, and so on down the line," he says. But the battle-plan mentality the marines taught him has made the most difference in his business. "Whatever your environment is, it will change. In business it will change fast. You learn to make quick decisions without all the information; you're tolerant of those who make mistakes but intolerant of those who can't act fast." --Karen Dillon and Joshua Macht

For starters, check out the marines' Web site. Jammed with hundreds of pages of general information and news about the marines, as well as marine history, it also offers a virtual "tour" of the corps and its missions.

The marines have issued a series of handbooks that spell out their ideas in no-nonsense yet highly readable form, much of it made lively with quotes and anecdotes from the corps' 222-year history. Warfighting is the first and most-often-quoted member of the series; it's in so much demand by marines and their friends that some officers carry dog-eared copies of it. Others include Leading Marines, Logistics, Tactics, and Intelligence. The books are available through the marines' public-affairs office at the Pentagon, at 703-614-6251. Warfighting is also available in a paperback edition (Doubleday/Currency, 800-223-6834, 1995, $10).

Here are two nonfiction books that are popular with marines themselves:

In Making the Corps (Scribner, 800-223-2336, 1997, $24), Wall Street Journal defense correspondent Thomas E. Ricks follows a group of raw recruits as they struggle through boot camp. Ricks argues that there is a growing gulf between the marines' values and those of the public at large.

Tom Clancy's Marine: A Guided Tour of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (Berkley, 800-631-8571, 1996, $16) has the king of the techno-thriller telling you everything you might possibly want to know, with a special eye for weaponry and vehicles.