"Motel Fires and Motivators: Why Initiative and Courage Need to Be Trained in All Leaders"

Building fire and leadership perspective approach

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

  1. Initiative is one of the hallmarks of a leader at any level.

  2. The desire to act means nothing if the courage to execute is lacking.

  3. Encouraging initiative leads to greater initiative development and courage in subordinates.


While I was serving as a Combat Instructor at the School of Infantry in southern California, I had several of my friends who were instructors from another training company tell me of the courage of their young Marines who were still in training, fresh out of bootcamp. They had just celebrated the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and were staying at a hotel just south of Los Angeles. An electrical fire broke out and burned the building to the ground, causing over $5 Million in damages.


“If it hadn’t been for the Marines, there’s a good chance some of them wouldn’t have gotten out.”


While the fire was still small, one of the eight Marines noticed, and began going door-to-door with five other Marines. The remaining two took the initiative to organize traffic and get headcounts of people who were exiting in their vehicles. The Orange County Fire (OFCA) Board Chairman stated that “If it hadn’t been for the Marines, there’s a good chance some of them (the people) wouldn’t have gotten out.” All eight of the Marines were awarded OFCA Certificates of Heroism and were recognized by their Commanding Officer. They were all under 20 years old…still teenagers.


Marines are taught to always take the initiative, even before attending bootcamp. One of the 14 Leadership Traits of the Marine Corps is Initiative. Warriors call it “spirit”, “aggression” or “violence of action”. Ultimately, it’s the desire and execution of a plan without direct orders or even guidance from your boss. I'd rather have a dog whose leash I have to tug on every now and then, than a jackass who I always have to kick in the...jackass.

Jackass stubborn no initiative perspective approach leadership training

When I was a younger Marine, I had a Sergeant tell me to, “Always give 100 percent! You’ll either be 100% right, or 100% wrong, but you’d better be 100 percent!” What he was trying to instill in me was the desire to always do what I thought best, and to do it to the best of my ability. When a leader (particularly a younger, or more inexperienced leader) makes a mistake, one of the last things we want to do is destroy their desire to take the initiative. Of course, we have to make the correction and enforce the standard, but to kill initiative is to kill leadership.


“You’ll be 100% right or 100% wrong, but you’d better be 100%!”