Knife Hands

The subject of leadership is explored in the Marine Corps Times' cover story in the current edition. 
By Gina Harkins, Staff writer

Knife hands — they'll cut you to the quick. Junior Marines identify the crisp, flat-palmed, vaguely threatening gesture as one of the first signs of discipline they see in the Corps.

Drill instructors use them as a point of emphasis as they try to get new recruits to do things the right way, the only way, the Marine way. They inspire fear, intimidation and respect for authority.

Years later, Marines say they know that when a leader slices the air with that knife hand, things are serious.

The fear, intimidation and authority represented by knife hands are widely viewed as acceptable when drill instructors are trying to break down unruly, unfit, unschooled recruits and build them back up into Marines. But what about later, after they've left the yellow footprints behind?

There are certainly examples throughout the Corps of senior enlisted Marines and officers who rely on fear and intimidation as a leadership tool. But a growing chorus of staff noncommissioned officers — and some senior leaders, as well — say it's not a particularly effective tool and may even be counterproductive. The best leaders, they say, engage their junior Marines with a personal mentoring style. The way to develop future staff NCOs, they say, is to encourage them, understand what they are going through — personally and professionally — on a day-to-day basis, and build a level of trust so they know they can come forward with questions, problems, maybe even solutions.

There may be situations when instilling the fear of God is the right answer. But as 10-plus years of war slowly wind to an end and Marines return to garrison, the debate over knife hands — over what's acceptable, and what's over the top — is widening. Which way Marines will fall on either side of the growing divide is likely to shape the Corps for years to come.