Shoulders of giants

We recently marked the 234th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. It is an occasion for Marines to honor those who have built the legendary reputation of the Corps with their blood and spirit, and for those in uniform today to contemplate their role in bearing its brilliant battle flags aloft into the future.

It also often is an occasion for the rest of us to wonder at this magnificent band of brothers – its incomparable combat record, its fierce loyalty and irresistible esprit de corps, its unrelentingly focused dynamism and invention. How do they do that? Generation after generation? In particular, how do such young Americans, so many still in their teens, shoulder such crushingly mighty burdens with such martial aplomb and dignified competence?

That’s a pretty good question. In fact, it’s the type that drives a lot of thinking and writing in many fields, not least among them our own of management. For example, few subjects have attracted more attention of this sort than that of innovation. What is its secret? Who are these innovators, and how do they work such magic, transforming the very landscape beneath our feet, revealing new possibilities for us to unfold into new futures?

Peter Drucker directed his trademark clarity and insightful common sense onto the topic in his classic “Innovation and Entrepreneurship.” And one of the things he said is that it is not a phenomenon that exists in isolation. It cannot be explained in terms that refer only back onto itself. Attempting to do this, he said, is like trying to imagine a mountaintop without a mountain, an edge without a knife.

Many of us use the image of a menacingly bright, razor-sharp knife edge to describe our Marines. Others among us sometimes depict their revolutionarily forward-looking and transformational culture in terms of lofty peaks reaching dizzying heights.

But we would do well to recall that what gives their edge its shape, power, and resilience is us; we Americans of all sorts are the blade around which this edge folds, drawing into itself strength, form, and purpose. What gives their regimental values and communal self-sacrifice elevation, scope, and perspective is the great, vast, free society inevitably generating the ever-rising social terrain through which these majestic warriors ascend to their posts.

They are us, these Marines. They seem incomprehensibly unique, marching to a drumbeat so different we can’t make it out. But the drummer is us. The beat rises and gathers its rhythm from all of our hearts, our hopes, struggles, and ambitions for ourselves and the futures of our children and our community.

These Marines are at the summit of our martial spirit and power. But the mountain is us. When you wish them “happy birthday” today, feel your chest swell all the more with pride for that.

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