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A Marine’s Mantra for Taking the Next Hill


If we had been on a Sunday stroll wearing mittens, wool socks and parkas, the trail we were on would have been worthy of a Albert Bierstadt painting. But on this day, it was anything but an ideal
setting. We were wearing running shoes, sweat tops and pants, wool watch caps,  leather gloves with wool liners -- and we were running at a breakneck speed through impossibly steep gravel-lined trails.

There were 12 of us and the outside observer would have thought we were running for our lives. We weren’t. We were running to prove we had the mental and physical stamina required of all Marine Corps officers—the mental and physical stamina required to effectively lead Marines as commissioned officers.

As we ran in close formation to the beautiful cadence being sung so elegantly by the Marine instructor, who held the awesome responsibility to evaluate our leadership potential, I focused on two things: keeping pace with the group and not letting the relentless burning in my legs and chest result in the worst thing that could happen to someone attending the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School—failing to finish what was started.

The instructor set the pace; he needed to push it to find out what we were made of. He was looking for signs of an intangible quality Marines refer to as "heart." None of us wanted to be seen as lacking "heart" and so we pushed on.

We pushed and then we felt it. We felt it in our feet first. Then our breathing became heavier. The trail began to slope skyward and our heart rate increased while our eyes watered from the fear of failure.

And then it happened. Our instructor, a supremely fit enlisted Marine, who like all instructors at Officer Candidates School, was hand-selected after serving as a drill instructor in Parris Island or San Diego, turned his head slightly to his left, as he ran alongside us, singing his beautiful cadence and said, "Keep your head up. You can do this; short choppy steps, short choppy steps."

His words inspired us. They gave us hope and the added motivation that we could conquer this hill and those hills we would come across the rest of the time we were in Quantico and into the future.

I still hear it: "Short choppy steps. Short choppy steps."

As leaders, we all face our own steep hills in our professional and personal lives. A leader who has "heart" can overcome the steepest of hills by putting things in perspective and breaking down the challenge into "short choppy steps." A leader does this by first listening for the beautiful cadence to inspire them from the people who care about them, the people with whom they serve. And when a leader cannot hear the cadence, they must sing their own, lean forward and take those, "short choppy steps, short choppy steps," until they reach the top of the hill.

Raphael Hernandez is a marketing and talent acquisition executive, and Marine Corps veteran. 

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