Military Book Reviews

Marine Maxims

Marine Maxims: Turning Leadership Principles into Practice by Colonel Thomas J Gordon USMC (Ret.). (Naval Institute Press, November 10,2021, 360 pages)

Marine Maxims is a collection of fifty principle-based leadership lessons that Thomas J. Gordon acquired commanding Marines over a career spanning three decades of service. Dealing with the complexities and challenges of the contemporary operating environment requires an internal moral compass fixed true. These maxims focus on developing inner citadels of character, moral courage, and the resilience to persevere in a contested domain where information is key. Its purpose is to provide future leaders with a professional development plan that will steel their resolve and enable them to lead with honor.

Thematically, these maxims build upon a foundation of character, courage, and will. To be effective, a leader must model and inspire the will to persevere in the face of danger or adversity. The essence of effective leadership is credibility. A leader’s credibility is derived from a congruence of competence and character. Exceptional leaders are not remembered for what they accomplished, but how they did it. Those that lead with integrity will be remembered as a leader worth following.


Overview

Colonel Tom Gordon, author of Marine Maxims, knows a thing or two about leadership. He served as a marine corp officer for over thirty years and commanded at the company, battalion, and group level. He was also the Director of the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College in Quantico, VA. A proven warrior, accomplished scholar, and an expert in military history, Colonel Gordon personifies the warrior-scholar ethos. If all this were not enough, Colonel Gordon serves as the Commandant of Cadets at The Citadel, Military College in Charleston, SC. 

Marine Maxims is the culmination of a life’s work. It is chock full of “principle-based and practical” maxims undergirded by his rich experience and influenced a well-curated biography by influential writers and titles. In the crowded field of military leadership “how-to” books, Marine Maxims stands out as a tribute to basic Marine Corps leadership along with classics such as Leading Marines, The Armed Forces Officer (the 1950s edition!). 

Colonel Gordon informs us that “Leadership is easy. Being a leader is hard”, a comment that sets the tone for the book. Marine Maxims uses common sense rules and principles based on personal experiences to deliver a vicarious education. It is a very personal book the author uses to share success and shortcomings in equal measure to guide leaders of all ranks using fifty practical maxims that teach the art of enlightened and informed leadership. 

The simplicity and logic of the book are a strength, and its utility cannot be overstated. Aspiring leaders will find rich leadership do’s and don’ts which are vexing to master but will aid in avoiding repeatable mistakes, facilitate learning, and avoid the most common leadership pitfalls. While written with a very marine corps flavor and culture, the book is delivered to appeal universally.

Takeaway

The Oxford English dictionary defines a maxim as a “short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct.” There is nothing pithy about Marine Maxims. There is no avoiding Colonel Gordon’s passion and personal pain as he learns from mistakes. His genuine empathy and humility come through with clarity. The author closes each chapter with “Saved Rounds–Thoughts and Tips” and “Recommended Reading.”

Marine Maxims serves aspiring leaders as a portable textbook, a desk side primer, or a reference. The timeless nature of the maxims makes the book more of a companion than something to be slogged through. Someone should savor rather than endure it.

Contemporary leaders will also find it as useful as General Bruce C. Clarke’s classic, Guidelines for the Leader and Commander (1963, and reprinted by Stackpole in 2021). General Clarke boils down forty years of leadership and became a hands-on quick reference that soldiers could carry in their cargo pockets. Similarly, Marine Maxims’ practical advice and utility will endure for years to come.

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