This Veterans Day I wanted to reflect briefly on what I learned in uniform. I didn't come from a family where military service was the tradition. However, both of my grandfathers did volunteer in high school during WWII. They had not finished their training in the Army Air Corp when the war came to a close. My decision to enlist in the Army was influenced primarily by the examples of other great men who reflected on their military service as having impacted their lives for good. I decided that if such good men found value in their service, then I likely would too.
Not long after returning to the US from two years as a missionary in Russia, I enlisted in the Utah National Guard as an interrogator and Russian Linguist. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Brigham Young University, commissioned and entered active duty as an Infantry officer. From the day I entered boot camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the military began impacting me for the better. There are at least three lessons that continue to stick with me:
1. There's nothing wrong with 'hard'
Military training is designed to push you to your limits. Push-ups, sit-ups, running, carrying heavy loads, acting under pressure, team work, and more. It hurts, but oddly the more painful it is, the more pride we take in it. My training took me through Ranger School, which needs no further introduction than the graphic below (presented during in-processing at Ranger School) and the following quote from Col. Robert "Tex" Turner.
“I woke up in a cold sweat. I had a nightmare that I was still in Ranger School. Thank God that I was in Vietnam. Compared to Ranger School, combat was easy.” – Col. Robert Turner
Continually doing hard things keeps you in good company and gives you perspective. My service in the military gave me the confidence to pursue other hard things, such as getting hired at the FBI, getting an MBA, and getting hired at BCG.
Businesses face hard questions and situations as they try to grow and stay profitable in a dynamic market. I appreciate that at BCG I am again surrounded by people who aren't deterred by hard things. They have the confidence and the work ethic to tackle the toughest problems.
2. Know the commander's intent
No organization is more mission-oriented than the military. Every big mission has a plan that cascades down to the smallest unit so that every person knows their team's mission and how it fits into the bigger plan. The soldier guarding the perimeter knows why it is important.
This clarity is achieved by disseminating a well-designed operations order, or mission brief. In a standard order, there is one line that always stood out as critically important–the 'commander's intent'. This was a high-level, plain English summary of what the commander wanted to achieve through this particular mission. We always took note of it, knowing that if the formal plan went south, we would find another way to achieve what the commander intended.
In business roles and projects, we are measured and incentivized by various metrics and KPIs, not all of which perfectly predict success in achieving the desired end state. It is helpful in any role to ask myself frequently, "What am I trying to do here?" Re-centering on the mission and commander's intent always helps me to figure out what steps to take next.
3. Leadership maximizes others' potential
The Army defines leadership as "the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation." That embodies other definitions I have heard that essentially boil down to helping others to be successful.
I learned as a platoon leader that to attract the best talent I had to be willing to let them move on to bigger and better things. Thanks to a wise platoon sergeant, we set the tone early in our platoon that if you wanted to try to break in to elite forces (e.g. Rangers, Special Forces), we would encourage it and help you get there. This stood in contrast to the position that if you wanted to move on, you weren't worth investing in.
Over time that commitment to our men's greater aspirations helped create a unique culture that sustained us through deployment. Not only were we more committed to each other, but the natural implication of such open ambition was that we would have to work harder–in the gym, learning skills, getting good evaluations. We all had to raise our game.
Again, likening that to the private sector, I have found a similar (and similarly unique) culture at BCG. They support and cheer for their employees before hiring them, while on the job and after they have parted ways. I hope I can emulate such leadership regardless of where I find myself.