Victor “Brute” Krulak

This was originally published on Medium. Moving here for linking convenience. 

Victor Krulak was a Marine whose service time covered the major American wars and whose ideas are still being used today. Here are 3 things I learned from Robert Coram’s book Brute.

1/ Finding truths

Every person in every organization is motivated by incentives. Within some organizations — and the military is no exception — people operate with the wrong incentives.

Soldiers who seek personal gain/promotions are derisively called “boot lickers.” They operate with an imbalance of emphasis between the self and the whole. They are yes men. Krulak was not this type. Coram writes, “being both impertinent and right did not endear Krulak to his superiors.”

Krulak’s focus was on the truth. At times this helped his career. Certain commanders accelerated his promotions because he did good work for them. Other commanders retarded his climb because the truth was contrary to their agenda.

The ability to disagree should not be underestimated. It was a key part of Krulak’s success. Coram writes that Krulak’s first instance of speaking with candor was “a quality that later would make him invaluable to a series of generals whom he would serve in a staff capacity.”

Finding the truth isn’t passive, it’s combative.

Wilbur Wright welcomed a “good scrap” because it helped “round the corners.” Jeff Bezos installed a combative culture at Amazon. Geniuses flyt. Bill Belichick encourages his assistant coaches to disagree. Great CEO’s compare meetings to wrestling matches. Marc Andreessen push against the ideas his partner brings.

Healthy disagreements only work when each boss; Wilbur, Bezos, Andreessen, etc., creates an environment that allows disagreement. They can’t pull rank.

In one combat simulation, Army commander Walter Short was ordered to guard against a Marine landing. Short chose not to guard the section where the Marines ultimately landed. From there they “captured Short’s entire headquarters staff.” “(Short) then used his seniority to nullify the capture of his headquarters.” Short refused the truth and it cost him later on.

Krulak never let rank, agenda, or ego be an obstacle for the truth.

2/ Short, bald, and fat

Krulak was a small man. When he became a general he called up the base photographer. The man entered and Krulak climbed on top of his desk. “This is what I want to look like in the pictures you take,” Krulak said to the man.

When the photographer talked to his boss about it, he said that Krulak wanted him to bend down to take the photos. The photographer’s boss said that wasn’t it at all. Krulak wanted him to dig a six-foot hole and take the picture from there.

Early in his life, Krulak’s father told him:

“You will be short, and you will be bald. But you don’t have to be fat.”

There are things we can control and things we can’t. The short episode with the photographer aside, Krulak focused on what he could control. He learned as much as he could. He exercised. He traveled, talked, and thought. He knew he could control his hustle.

3/ Hustle

Towards the end of his career, Krulak’s driver Sam Mayer had this to say:

“I never saw anyone so constantly in motion, so full of energy, always, under all circumstances and under all conditions.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s roommate said that when Teddy came home he would be halfway up the stairs before the door closed behind him.

Some things in life pay extra. Fighters “punch above their weight.” Certain books are better per page. Companies have “synergy.”

In one of his letters, Seneca wrote that just because a man has gray hair or wrinkles doesn’t mean he’s lived. That man has punched below his weight. That man isn’t Krulak.

During Vietnam Krulak flittered about the countryside talking to soldiers for his report. When he was stateside Krulak left work with his briefcase full. He was up early, stayed late, and kept a vigorous pace between.

Krulak did so much in his life because he hustled.

I liked Brute, though not as much as Boyd. One final note, Krulak wasn’t a saint. He had an ego. He concealed parts of his past. As a father the best that might be said was that he was gone a lot.

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