On Professionalism

Col Mike Wyly, of the Marines, has written a piece in Armed Forces Journal on the nature of Professionalism, using Boyd as the exemplar of the subject.  The article is completely correct, and is worthy of reading by all military men.

One of my pet peeves regarding “Professionalism” is the supreme misunderstanding of what the term implies.  On the eve of my first deployment in 2004, my detachment Officer-in-Charge, a Major, took the 43-Marine detachment aside and told us his expectations, which he said could be summarized on two words:  “Be Professional.”  Unstated were what his ideas of what professionalism entailed.  To him, Professionalism meant keeping the appearance of a Marine, combined with a touch of CYA:  Keep hair short, uniforms serviceable, be tactful, and do what you need to do to keep the detachment out of trouble.

This conception of Professionalism is wrong.

Professionalism is not something you admonish your detachment to BE on the eve of a deployment.  Professionalism is something you DO.  It is Professing a solemn vow to keep fidelity to the ideals of the occupation.  Professing implies:

  • Continual study
  • Gaining and maintaining the respect of your peers
  • Policing your peers, and working to fix their shortcomings
  • Developing the next generation of practitioners of the profession
  • Holding superiors accountable
  • Upholding the Oaths and ethics of the profession
  • Ensuring a favorable view of the profession by the public

Professionalism does not have anything to do with haircuts, boot polishing, or even tact.  Externalities, like personal appearance do matter, but only to the extent that they promote or impede your abilities as a Professional.  For example, poor field hygiene can imperil the health of a unit, and therefore impede its combat effectiveness.  This is contrary to military discipline, and is therefore not Professional.  Personal appearance may enhance the elan of a combat unit, and therefore it could be a benefit to promote the appearance of your troops.  However, personal appearance is not, in and of itself, the mark of a Professional.

It may be unpopular for today’s officer to say so, but I question the ability of many Second Lieutenants, Privates, and Lance Corporals to actually be “Professional.”  This is not bad, as they are but juniors to the craft of war, and many of them will not measure up to the standards that Professionalism implies.  Yet the Major’s admonishing to be professional fell on deaf ears, as most of the troops had no concept, or perhaps a mistaken concept, of what Professionalism is.  Second Lieutenants and Lance Corporals ought to be treated as apprentices:  willing, but unable, to keep the vows of the Professional.  With time, mentorship, and leadership, they may realize the extent of their responsibilities and will therefore undertake the duties required by their self-Professing of their vows.

Professionalism is deeper than appearance.  It is the stuff of habit and deed.  Its impetus is personal, and internally-driven.

The professionalism of the officers and NCOs, and Staff NCOs of the military is crucial to the safety of the Republic and the Constitution.  Through our study, ethics, and the respect of our peers, we work to uphold the safety and honor of the Constitution in the domains of war and peace.  Our craft as military professionals may bring untold pain to the Republic should we fail in our obligations.

Update:  The Wyly article is also profiled here and here.  Let me know if there citings of the article.  I have also crossposted at ChicagoBoyz.


12 Responses to On Professionalism

  1. fabius.maximus.cunctator says:


    Impressive. I’ve added both Col Wyly`s and yr texts to my archive so i thought I`d leave a short thank you for yr excellent summary and own input and for pointing out the Colonels text.
    Both texts go beyond the military aspect of professionalism and are applicable to the other professions as well. What is more yr short text is also applicable to other forms of leadership as well.

  2. smitteneagle says:

    You’re welcome.

    Like I said, Professionalism results from Doing, not from Being. Boyd, being the ultimate Doer, was also the consummate Professional.

    Semper Fidelis,

  3. kotare says:

    Great post SE. I’d echo Fabius’s comment – the bullet point list is applicable to any organisation that places professionalism first and foremost.

  4. […] Filed under: Classics, History, Military | Tags: History, Military, Professionalism, VDH | My recent post on the necessity of nature of the Professional ethic (with crosspost and seperate discussion here) […]

  5. […] Professionalism, The Marines, US Air Force, US Army, US Navy | I have written on the nature of Professionalism.  An element to true Professionalism is the maintenence of a course of independent, continual […]

  6. […] have written on the nature of Professionalism. An element to true Professionalism is the maintenance of a course of independent, continual study. […]

  7. Andos says:

    Oh man, how could I have no found this site before.

    Great post on Turning Pro. I think Ryan got it from Steven Pressfield…


  8. glennanderson says:

    Excellent stuff, once again.

  9. smitteneagle says:

    Kip at Abu Muqawama has a post tangentially related: The Army seems to think haircuts are essential to discipline and professionalism.

    I couldn’t disagree with the Army more!


  10. […] ourselves to a Pro standard is all we can do. Even if we do still fail to attain it, the goal is a constant, it can […]

  11. […] by mountainshout on July 31st, 2008 Simple, concise, no B.S.  These are my thoughts on this by Smitten Eagle.  It’s one thing to imitate the consumate professional among you.  Its a […]

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