Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs

Warriors Publishing Group
7 min readSep 6, 2017

by Julia Dye

One of the best books ever written about leadership, with powerful, riveting examples and direct application to the business world, or any other field of endeavor.
— LtCol Dave Grossman, USA (ret.), author of On Killing and On Combat

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Noncommissioned officers stand as the backbone of the United States Marine Corps. The Corps is among the most lasting institutions in America, though few understand what makes it so strong and how that understanding can be applied effectively in today’s world. In Backbone, Julia Dye, Ph.D., explores the cadre of noncommissioned officers that make up the Marine Corps’ system of small-unit leadership. To help us better understand what makes these extraordinary men and women such effective leaders, Dye examines the fourteen leadership traits embraced by every NCO, one at a time.

Excerpted from Backbone’s chapter on “Bearing”. . . .

For navigators or aviators, the term “bearing” means a direction or heading. For Marine NCOs, the word has a different connotation exemplified by people like Donald MacGregor.

Sergeant Donald MacGregor is a man with bearing. He doesn’t as much meet you as he confronts you. His eyes twinkle. His hands shake a bit due to recently-diagnosed Parkinson’s disease, but that doesn’t bother him and it certainly doesn’t lessen his impact on those who can get him to talk about his days as a U.S. Marine. He still has a powerful presence. “I write a little slower than before, that’s all. Of course, I do everything slower these days,” he said with a chuckle.

MacGregor’s youthful attitude and energy belie the fact that he’s been alive for about a third of the entire history of the Marine Corps. The many fantastic events of which he has been a part — filled with extraordinary men, softened around the edges by the lives of glorious women — live in his attitude as much as his memory. His bearing today reflects a distinguished past.

MacGregor was one of the fighting Marines in the Pacific during World War II. He was a tough, courageous man in those days, and he still looks the part. The man has bearing in spades, but that’s a difficult quality to define.

In military circles bearing has more than one definition, all of which are closely related. Bearing is generally credited to someone who looks good in uniform; who has a certain presence, charisma, or aura; one who shows grace and poise through posture and gestures. But bearing goes well beyond surface appearances. Other definitions point to direction or position, as in “the pilot headed toward a new bearing.” That sense of the word points to someone who has a sense of direction: a goal or a purpose guides his behavior. This sense of movement toward a goal and the ability to inspire others to follow along the path is the gut-level sense of the word. The leader who seems to be heading somewhere important and interesting has more followers than the person wandering aimlessly. That aimless Marine may have a goal, but without a sense of direction to travel in reaching that goal, he lacks the ability to inspire others to follow their path. He lacks bearing.

The Marine with bearing is driven. An NCO with bearing is driven toward a goal with purpose, jumping at opportunities for self-improvement that increase his ability to reach that goal. These leaders know their own strengths and weaknesses. They know which opportunities will be most important and which will help them be better leaders. Bearing is also about channeling that drive to other people. Leaders who channel stress and anxiety actually repel other people. Leaders who channel a sense of determination and purpose will attract people who want to emulate that dynamic behavior. That’s where bearing pays huge dividends in effective leadership.

Bearing also involves having a deep awareness of situational and human environments. NCOs with effective bearing know where they stand and they understand the environment in which they work. They know the Marines around them and are sensitive to their needs. They have a sense of humor, when appropriate, to reduce stress levels when a situation requires that. They see what needs to be done, and they do it in the best manner possible, thus setting an example for others to follow in both attitude and behavior. Sergeant Donald MacGregor’s experiences in World War II taught him about bearing — through a very tough education.

MacGregor’s path into the Marine Corps was rather twisted. He was driven to excel even as a young man and had hopes of becoming an officer. While in high school, he was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps for three years, ending up with the rank of cadet captain. He apprenticed as a machinist and became a journeyman at an unusually young age. He even completed a couple of years of chiropractic college in his spare time. When he decided to join the military in 1943 to help the war effort, he expected to join the Army and apply what he had learned from ROTC. But that didn’t happen.

When he arrived at the enlistment center in Los Angeles, he was told to take off all his clothes except his socks and stand in line. In 1943, enlistment levels were high due to increasing military manpower requirements being met both by volunteers and by those being processed through the draft, so lines were long. It was a weird experience to stand among a gaggle of mostly naked men, and MacGregor was beginning to wonder if he was making a wise choice. There were curious blanks in the line: a group of guys, then no one, then another line of guys, then no one in front of them.

As he progressed through the line, he understood the reason for its staccato rhythm. The line moved next to a wall, and at regular intervals, knee-high windows provided excellent viewing of the men without trousers to the staff of the offices on the other side of the glass. The viewers were delighted with the show. The men in line, however, were not enjoying their immodest display. So the line would pause right before the windows, and when there was room on the other side, they would run as fast as they could past their civilian audience.

After receiving his paperwork, MacGregor endured the usual routine of “turn your head to the right and cough — bend over grab hold of your ankles — and smile.” Finally, he was allowed to get dressed, take his paperwork, and head over to where the Army was processing enlistees.

Along the way, a Navy chief petty officer sitting at a desk asked MacGregor for his paperwork, which he passed along. At this point, MacGregor had his introduction to military bearing. Looking over MacGregor’s papers, the chief said, “We need you in the Navy. You got a machinist background, and we need machinists.” MacGregor wavered, still thinking of a possible Army commission. But the chief was persuasive. With very few words exchanged, MacGregor found himself following the chief’s guidance and moving through the double doors to where the other Navy recruits were waiting.

MacGregor was not sure what they would have done had he refused to go. By following the chief’s will, he was on his way to becoming a Seabee in one of the Navy’s Construction Battalions. Seabees were a priority, so candidates were processed more quickly than the other recruits. But then MacGregor got another switch. The Navy discovered that through his chiropractic education, he had studied biology, physiology, toxicology, and diagnostic medicine. Now, he was going to be a corpsman. Hospital corpsmen serve as enlisted medical specialists serving the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, a job similar to the Army’s medics.

MacGregor recalled what happened next:

“They shipped us out to Quonset Point, Rhode Island. None of us had ever heard of it. We got six weeks training. Period. They put us through battle dressings, wounds; everything was included during those six weeks, including their obstacle course.”

The Marine Corps uses obstacle courses to build the confidence necessary to develop bearing. These courses also develop the ability to think and remain focused while under pressure. MacGregor can still remember the pressure:

“And this was dead of winter. Part of the course included one of those metal-link bridges. That bridge was impressive to me because it didn’t have any railings on the side. It had rained and turned icy, and we had to run across it. I made it; several guys didn’t — but you didn’t fall but about fifteen feet. At least you fell onto an ice pond.”

After training, the young sailors were put aboard a train and told they were heading to Florida. All the windows were covered. Then the train turned and they found themselves headed for California. Their final stop: Port Hueneme, where MacGregor got hit with another switch in his military fortunes. First the Army, then the Navy: now “MacGregor found himself in the Marine Corps.

The 4th Marine Division was formed on August 14, 1943, by reorganizing and shuffling other units. But they still had a need for additional manpower, and were gathering Marines where they could. The weapons company of the 23rd Marine Regiment, part of the 4th Marine Division, was preparing for war at Port Hueneme — and now, so was MacGregor. His bearing faced a new challenge while he did his best to adapt to his new role and train for war.

Julia Dye, Ph.D. keeps the Entertainment Industry honest through technical advising and performer training, and helps Hollywood directors capture the realities of warfare in all aspects of the media. As a partner in the consulting firm Warriors, Inc., she was Weapons Master and provided training to Colin Farrell for the film” Alexander” and with the military advisory team, oversaw historical accuracy for the HBO series, “The Pacific”, among many other productions. Dye earned her doctorate in Hoplology (the anthropology of human conflict) from The Union Institute & University. Her business background includes venue producing at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she handled all production needs for Figure Skating and Short Track Speed Skating.

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