Warrior’s Night: What the U.S. Marine Corps Taught Me About the Next Best Generation

Nov 9, 2021

This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, a recurring column by retired Navy SEAL, CEO of Talent War Group, and best-selling author Mike Sarraille and edited by Jack Haworth, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.

Some of the most formative years of my adult life were proudly spent in the United States Marine Corps. I wouldn’t be the man I am today––nor would I have made it to the Tier One level as a Navy SEAL––if it weren’t for the drill instructors, Marine senior enlisted, and officers who endowed me with invaluable lessons and pushed me to develop as a warrior and a leader. The United States Marine Corps has a storied reputation for transforming often unruly, undisciplined young men and women into well-trained professionals––proud Marines who believe in a set of core values including honor, courage, and commitment to defending our nation at any time, any place. 

Command Sergeant Major Frank Alvarez of the 2nd Battalion 24th Marines––an infantry battalion out of Chicago, Illinois––recently asked me to speak to his 500+ Marines, who would be completing an arduous training cycle at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California on July 30th. At the end of the major training events, the Marines hold a ‘Warrior’s Night,’ a tradition where Marines come together and celebrate the obstacles overcome and the esprit de corps built among fellow warriors during hardship. The opportunity to give back to an organization that gave so much to me was humbling, and addressing the Marines as their guest speaker on Warrior’s Night was a great honor.

Next came the hard part––figuring out what lessons these Marines would find most valuable and relevant given today’s current challenges. Knowing first-hand how much I’ve reflected on my time in the military since I retired, I figured I would impart lessons I wish I would have heard as a Marine Sergeant in the late 90s––invaluable lessons learned through sweat, blood, and tears during two decades of war that could set them on a path to becoming more effective, impactful, loving leaders. Leaders of character, integrity, and moral courage not afraid to act and, if necessary, accept full responsibility for their actions. Leaders that our nation arguably lacks right now.

After arriving in Reno, it was a two-hour drive from the airport. We arrived at the mountainous terrain of Bridgeport, California. We pulled into a parking area and I watched as Marines moved across the base with a sense of purpose and mission. It brought up memories that put a smile on my face. As a Lance Corporal to Sergeant in the Marines, I barely had two nickels to rub together, but those times were the best of my life. You were surrounded by your brothers- and sisters-in-arms and the belief that there wasn’t anything your team couldn’t do. No challenge too great, no mountain too high, no enemy tougher than us. Over 246 years, Marines have always found a way to get it done. 

I could see the long row of tents where the 500+ Marines had been sleeping for the past two weeks. We visited the stables where they housed the pack mules, which the Marines utilized for transporting gear. Even in the most technologically advanced civilization in human history, pack mules, white boards for mission planning, duct tape, baby powder, and multi-tools are still highly effective.  

The Marines got into formation like a well-trained unit, one that didn’t require even one bit of direction from leaders. I looked over the Marines and thought to myself, “God damn, they look so young!” Perhaps it was just me getting old, but the thought stuck with me. The 2/24 commander and SGTMAJ Alvarez called forward a few Marines and presented them with the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for exemplary service and leadership during the exercise. Once they finished, the commanding officer expressed his pride in the hard work and professionalism of his Marines during the past two weeks, then proceeded to introduce me. With the smell of grilled steaks in the air––their first decent meal in two weeks––I knew I couldn’t exceed 15 minutes and would have to make every minute and every lesson count. 

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The first word out of my mouth was ‘MARINES!,’ which was followed by a deafening ‘Ooh Rah,’ the war cry of the U.S. Marine Corps. I felt adrenaline fill my chest and I was immediately inspired by being around such motivated, purpose-filled humans. I prefaced the speech, as I do in every leadership speech I give, with a quote from Issac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. Men and women better than myself.”

I told them how I had reflected on my service and time as a leader. During my 20-year career, I experienced both triumphs and failures, but those hard lessons stuck with me. I explained that to best help those in the present and those holding the line into the future, I would try to pass along a few of the things I learned along the way. After all, we need their generation––the Millennials and Gen Z––to be better than us. Below are the five key lessons I shared with those young Marines. I hope you’ll find value in these lessons, as they are universal regardless of industry or profession. I hope you can use them to become a better leader and live a life of impact. The video of Mike’s speech can be found at this link.

1. The Best Warrior Is the Humble Warrior

The greatest warriors I served with––the most lethal and skilled at the Tier One level––weren’t the loudest people in the room and they never boasted about how many medals they won or kills they had. These individuals were the opposite––quiet, respectful, kind, empathetic––professionals who rarely raised their voices and instead were consummate coaches and mentors to those around them. 

In fact, you would never know they were a warrior if you met them in the airport. People gravitated toward them and followed them for who they were and what they stood for. Those warriors made everyone around them better, including myself. 

2. Find Your Tribe 

They won’t truly realize it or appreciate it until they get out of the military, but I explained to the young Marines that they will never find the level of shared adversity or espirt de corps (a sense of homecoming and belonging) that they’ve found in the Marine Corps. Everyone had to earn the title––U.S. Marine––and that esteemed title bonds us together, both in life and death. The military is a tribe and it’s a tribe they will forever belong to. No support mechanism outside the military comes close to the bond of warriors. To drive home this point, I quoted Shakespeare from the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V: 

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother or sister……

3. Lead Through Love 

Hollywood does a horrible job of painting the military in a realistic and positive light. The scenes are dramatized and exaggerated to sell tickets, but they often paint today’s soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen as a bunch of uneducated, overly aggressive psychopaths who walk around yelling at everyone. It’s far from accurate. The military puts a precedence on education and leadership development. Case in point, the U.S. Army provides more scholarships than any other organization in our great land.                     .

What 99 percent of Americans fail to understand is that when we lead in the military, it’s through love. That’s right, a retired SEAL and former Recon Marine just said we lead through love. To help them better understand what I meant by this concept, I broke it down into three parts: 

  • Love for the Marine Corps. Love for your organization.
  • Love for your fellow soldiers. One of the highest forms of compassion as a leader is holding your people accountable. You hold them accountable because you love them and ultimately want to see them become competent, self-reliant, self-disciplined leaders who can stand on their own in your absence. And hopefully, take the organization further than you could.
  • I loved my brothers- and sisters-in-arms more than I hated the enemy. It was love that drove our actions on the battlefield, to bring back everyone we could, even if that meant decimating our enemies. 

4. Lead by Example

In our world of big talk but little action, only amplified by social media, I assured the Marines that their junior counterparts were watching everything they did––watching to see if they actually practiced what they preached. A good friend and retired Army Calvary Officer, Joseph Kopser, likes to say, “People will be what people can see” and he couldn’t be more right. 

Whether you are leading a team in the private sector or teaching your kids, they will emulate what you do. If you demonstrate bad habits, don’t be surprised when your team exhibits the same behavior. But if you are a leader who holds true to his or her word, then your people will follow your lead. 

5. Believe in Your Potential

I pulled a young Private First Class Marine out of the crowd to make a point to the 500+ Marines. We introduced ourselves and I thanked him for serving his country and now protecting me and my family. I needed him to understand one thing––even though he is a young Marine, a new Marine, he is a leader in our military and that him and his peers were the next best generation. We need their generation to believe that and take the actions to prove us right..

I told them a story about joining the Marine Corps in 1998, recalling how the older generation had called my generation weak and undisciplined. As I went through the military, I noticed each generation denigrated the next, and so I nicknamed it the ‘Generation Game.’ A game that serves no purpose but to diminish others, usually driven by ego and fear.

The job of a leader is to create more leaders – one’s leadership legacy depends on it. At the end of the day, the only thing you are left with is your legacy and reputation. I explained to the Marines that they needed to respect the next generation coming behind them, to coach and mentor them to become better than themselves. If we could all do that, each generation would be better than the previous one, which is the whole point – to pass along our lessons learned in hopes of creating a better world.

Talking to the Next Best Generation

With my 15 minutes almost up, I said I loved each of them and admired their selflessness to put their needs and desires aside to serve and protect others. I thanked them and told them I would hold them in my prayers that they serve safely and return to their families.

As soon as I finished, they sprinted to get in line for steaks and two beers––the alcohol limit for the night. As I spoke with the Marines in line, I was nothing short of impressed. They were full of hope and excitement for the prospects that life held for them. They told me about both their military goals––to become a Sergeant Major, a sniper, a Marine officer––as well as post-military goals, earning a law degree or starting their own company. As I spoke with them, it hit me that these young men and women were smarter, stronger, and have the potential to be better than my generation..Once it was time to depart and I was on my way to the car, three Marines came running toward us. They wanted to say thank you one last time. After a few minutes of conversation, I hugged each of them.

As we got in the car, I was quiet. It hit me: We can sleep soundly at night knowing such selfless young men and women will continue to hold the line for us all.

Happy 246th Birthday Marine Corps. May you continue to protect us and this great nation for centuries to come.

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