#Reviewing Leading from the Front

Leading from the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women. Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.


As a woman in a leadership position where I am in a distinct minority, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to review a book entitled Leading from the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women. After seeing many of the women I have worked with apologize for the professional insights they offered, I have learned I do not want to act in a way that suggests I lack credibility or authority. I want to speak with confidence and certainty.

My marine husband, upon noticing the book, was more dubious. “Why,” he asked, “does there have to be a separate leadership book for women?” This is an especially timely question in light of the Corps’ attempts at removing gendered divides, as evidenced by the increasingly gender-integrated Marine Combat Training for recent graduates of the Corps’ Boot Camp.[1] Yet, at the same time, recent scandals have shown the limits of female inclusion into the Marine Corps’ culture.[2]

Does the book merit its gendered perspective on leadership insights? Civilian women and men alike can glean some empowering insights from the work, although the title makes clear the work is aimed primarily at women. However, the work rests almost entirely on the experience of two women and has little substantiation from research studies into gender in the workplace. In notable contrast, for example, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead offers one woman’s experience in the workplace, albeit the civilian one, but she interprets that experience with reference to multiple studies. As a result, her suggestions are far less straightforward but more realistic because they confront the lingering inequalities in the workplace.

The Marine Corps is well known for producing leaders, including both the authors of Leading from the Front, Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch, who each attained the rank of captain in the Corps. The work’s preface explains why to those unfamiliar with the Corps: “...to survive the chaos and uncertainty of war, a Marine is taught how to be decisive, how to take care of others, and how to accept responsibility for his or her actions.”[3]

The authors have interspersed their experiences and challenges, of first becoming and then serving as officers, throughout the work. They supplement the narrative with stories of their experience adjusting and applying their military experiences to the civilian world. Morgan worked as a pharmaceutical salesperson after leaving the Marine Corps, and Lynch attended law school, before both decided to establish LeadStar in 2004. As they describe their company, it “evolved from a keynote and training company” aimed at developing women leaders to a “consultancy that partners with organizations to develop leadership talents at all levels.”[4]

The authors, like many writers of leadership books designed to be accessible, offer “10 easy-to-understand principles” that promise to show women “how to make behavioral changes that can vastly improve their careers and their lives.”[5] If leadership were so simple, of course, the market for such books would be much smaller. Moreover, the work relies more on generalizations and observations rather than any compelling data. They have “notice[d] women at work who say yes to additional commitments,” the assumption being that men know how to say no.[6] And, because women are overburdened, they “break down in tears at work” and “blame others for problems.”[7] This is a point the author of Lean In approaches very differently from Morgan and Lynch. Based on her leadership positions at Google and Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg suggests the workplace could be far more stable and healthy if women challenged male ideas about the right way to act in the workplace.[8]

Lance Corporal Callahan Brown talks with a fellow Marine with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force after an infantry assessment at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in Twentynine Palms in 2015. (Mike Morones/Marine Corps Times)

The first lesson they offer is a valuable one (although the tendency to which people consistently act on it in the military is debatable and largely, I would argue, irrespective of gender): “meet and exceed the standards you ask of others.” This kind of advice is hard to argue with; however, it is difficult to reconcile how women should “[t]ackle the tough projects...that others shy away from” in light of the authors’ more overarching concern regarding the purported tendency of women to take on too much already.[9] The authors then encourage women to make efficient decisions rather than seeking perfect knowledge. While this piece of advice is perfectly valid, it rests in part on the authors’ suggestion that most men do not hem and haw as much—they just act.[10] This lesson draws on what the Marine Corps’ Basic School for second lieutenants teaches: when it comes to making tough decisions in combat, “Consensus building is not an option. You have to make the call yourself.”[11] Another helpful lesson encourages admitting when one has made a mistake rather than pointing fingers while actively seeking more positive solutions. A subtheme that runs throughout these chapters argues that leadership is not an official position but rather a mindset, which is one of their more compelling points.

In a small sea of books offering insights into Marine Corps leadership, this book stands apart by virtue of its focus on women.

In a small sea of books offering insights into Marine Corps leadership, this book stands apart by virtue of its focus on women. That focus, however, is most valuable for women who have no knowledge of military leadership. Those familiar with the military, particularly the Marine Corps, might find the tone annoying. It ends abruptly, for example, with the this last piece of advice: “Don’t try to hide what makes you different, whether it’s your love of public speaking, your immense hat collection, or your expert scrapbooking know-how. What makes you different will make you a better leader.”[12] The mostly male majors, lieutenant colonels, and PhDs with whom I work would die of boredom or politely attempt to hold back laughter if I began describing the latest stickers I had bought to decorate my baby boy’s scrapbook. Thus some of the authors’ lessons learned probably will fall flat on The Strategy Bridge readers, regardless of gender.


Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. Her research focuses on the organizational culture of the U.S. Marine Corps. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: Sergeant Kelly Brown, a member of the Marine Corps' Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, at the Twentynine Palms combat center in 2015. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union Tribune)


Note:

[1] Shawn Snow, “First West Coast gender integrated Marine Combat Training class graduates,” Marine Corps Times, 5 April 2018; available online at https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/04/05/first-west-coast-gender-integrated-marine-combat-training-class-graduates/.

[2] For example, see Shawn Snow, “Seven Marines court-martialed in wake of Marines United scandal,” Marine Corps Times, 1 March 2018; available online at https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/03/01/seven-marines-court-martialed-in-wake-of-marines-united-scandal/ or Tom Vanden Brook, “Marine Corps general fired for calling sexual harassment claims fake news,” USAToday, 16 April 2018; available online at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/04/16/marine-corps-general-fired-calling-sexual-harassment-claims-fake-news/522183002/.

[3] Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch, Leading from the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women (New York: McGraw Hill, 2017), xi. 

[4] Ibid., xviii-xix.

[5] Ibid., xii and 5.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8]  Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 90- 91.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] Ibid., 193.