by Frederick W. Smith
I decided to join the Marines when I was a student at Yale. My father and three of my uncles had served in the military. The draft was part of every young man’s life, and the antiwar movement hadn’t yet begun. The Platoon Leaders Course offered a chance to train in the summers, outside of the academic year. I served two tours in Vietnam from 1967 through 1969, starting out as a rifle platoon leader and later as a company commander and forward air controller. These experiences have stuck with me all these years.
The Marine Corps leadership tenets that I learned the during my service are the principles that guided me in growing FedEx from a startup of eight planes operating a network of 11 cities that delivered seven packages on its first night of operations in March 1973 to global transportation company that employs about 400,000 persons with annual revenues of more than $60 billion. Much of our success reflects what I learned as a Marine.
The basic principles of leading people are the bedrock of the Corps. I can still recite them from memory and they are firmly embedded in the FedEx Culture. We teach them daily in our Leadership Institute, which turns out thousands of managers who run our operating companies. If you were to drop in on one of our management training seminars, you’d recognize many of the principles and concepts from your own military training.
Our executives know that the key to their success is reliance on their first-level managers (FedEx’s counterparts of NCOs); to set an example themselves; and to praise in public when someone has done a great job. In Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Richard Jackson, killed in action, and Gunnery Sergeant Allen Sora – two of the most courageous people I ever knew – provided leadership, guidance and set examples that have been of incalculable value to me. Military demeanor is important; your appearance and dress, respect for others, confidence and determination to do your best every day. My gig-line is always straight - the edge of my belt buckle lines up with the buttons on my shirt and the fly on my trousers. I shine my own shoes and feel uncomfortable if they aren’t polished. BZ – well done in Navy jargon is understood and displayed throughout FedEx to recognize jobs well done.
These concepts are standard operating procedures in the Marines but not nearly as common elsewhere. These practices are straight out of the Marine Corps Leadership Manual. In one way or another, elements of the Marine Corps influence me daily and this permeates FedEx.
Mr. Smith is the 2015 recipient of the Naval Order’s Admiral of the Navy George Dewey Award. He founded Federal Express in 1971, transformed delivery services, and built a global transportation company. Mr. Smith is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of FedEx.