Proactive Leadership: A Marine Sergeant's Data-Driven Approach

"You can have results or excuses. Not both." - Arnold Schwarzenegger

Back in 2008, as a Sergeant in the Marines and Data Chief of 2nd Recon, stationed in beautiful eastern North Carolina - I decided to shake things up. I printed and hung up an Excel printout with our department's intelligence scores with everyones names and rank clearly annotated next to an icon depicting their intelligence.

This wasn’t just a prank—it was a genuine attempt to crowdsource training ideas- or perhaps do a little social experiment. In either case I found it fascinating how the military assigned us numbers that were surprisingly accurate.

The military essentially invented IQ testing during WWI and has perfected it ever since. If you had to quickly assign a million random Americans to the best jobs to minimize casualties and ensure victory, how would you do it? The military figured it out.

2nd Recon Unit

The GT score, derived from the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), is a composite score that measures verbal and arithmetic reasoning skills. It’s critical in the military, where it determines the roles a Marine is suited for:

  • 80+: Trusted to drive vehicles.
  • 90+: Handling artillery.
  • 100+: Trusted with explosives and machine guns.
  • 110+: Qualified for counter-intelligence and cyber roles.
  • 115+: Trusted at calling in airstrikes.

Think of the GT score as a quick way to gauge a Marine's potential for learning complex tasks and following instructions effectively. While private sector employers can't give IQ tests, the military uses the ASVAB extensively. Over a million people take it every year, making it one of the most used pre-employment tests in the country.

Inspired by Night School and Statistics

Taking a statistics class taught by a former DoD recruiting statistician sparked my interest. He shared studies about high school completion and enlistment success, emphasizing the DoD's effort to identify who is worth training. For those who didn’t know, the military pays for night school while you’re on active duty, a benefit that doesn’t even touch the GI Bill. My Monday night class inspired me.

By Tuesday morning, after a six-mile run around Courthouse Bay with my platoon and an 850-calorie protein shake, I created and printed an Excel spreadsheet. I posted seven copies throughout the hallways of the Second Reconnaissance Battalion. I figured the data wasn’t classified—after all, we often posted rosters with everyone’s SSNs in the hallways.

Excel Spreadsheet with Names Blurred

Initially, I didn't forget about the initiative, but we had so much stuff posted in the hallways that I moved on. It quickly became a hot topic. By Wednesday, fellow Marines were discussing it, even our technology chief. The data-driven approach fostered camaraderie, and some Marines were inspired to enroll in college classes.

Positive Reception and Unexpected Insights

There were about 60 people in total, all well sorted by their GT scores, and very clear patterns emerged immediately. First of all, the people I worked with the most were clustered around me—the two Marines I could rely on the most were within five points of my score. Interesting.

We had four different sections, each with different GT requirements. There was the radio operator, the technical technician, and other smaller specializations. In other words, I had a perfect microcosm of America.

Photo of Me and Friends with Bars Over Heads

  • GT <85: Not trusted to drive vehicles.
  • GT 85-100: Capable but needed supervision for more complex tasks.
  • GT 100-120: Majority of Americans, no notable disparities here.
  • GT 120-135: These Marines got things done efficiently, as long as the system hadn’t crushed their spirits.
  • GT >140: Split between being super smart and cool or super weird and distant.

Posting the data also revealed a negative correlation between rank and intelligence. The higher up the chain of command, the lower the GT scores seemed to drop. This struck a nerve with leadership and was likely one reason they weren't thrilled with my little experiment.

The LT's Attempt to NJP

By Thursday, my LT threatened to NJP me. For those unfamiliar, NJP stands for Non-Judicial Punishment—a disciplinary action used in the military for minor offenses. The LT didn’t have anything solid on me. He was frustrated because my little experiment had boosted morale and highlighted a new way of looking at our team. Plus, NJP wasn't something he could just slap on me for trying to improve the unit's efficiency. It was the third time he had unsuccessfully tried to NJP me, reinforcing the correlation between intelligence and military precision.

Spreadsheet Showing GT Up and Management Down

Broader Implications and Lessons Learned

Sharing this knowledge aimed to improve training, self-awareness, and battle readiness. Admittedly, the cell phone bars analogy was a stretch, but it humorously grouped the data. The reaction from my chain of command indeed matched their "bars." But hey, all joking aside, these are people who are protecting the country, and maybe it’s not the end of the world if everyone understands where everyone else is at in terms of mission, readiness, and success. People do get killed around here, and I won’t have it be due to incompetence if we can prevent it. I’m in charge of America’s youth and prepping them for war.

Patriotic Photo

Ultimately by experiment concluded with a general consensus that intelligence is - in fact - measurable and furthermore useful. There is a reason that the DoD relies on it and is odd that it's ignored by the private sector. The intelligence attribute can be useful and at times critical.

Applying Military Lessons to the Private Sector

In 2024, while navigating the challenges of private equity and economic turbulence, my military training kicked in. These lessons were later crucial when our AI taskforce was working on data from software teams and had daily telemetry on some 200 people in our department. I used my experience as a leader of Marines and made it clear that we would not let management see that we had such people metrics. The curve!

Further Reading:

To my fellow Marines, all in good fun, science, equality, and meritocracy. Peace, rah.