October 3, 2016

Lessons from the Military that Changed My Life

There are few decisions that you can make in your lifetime that will impact you the way that the decision to join the military will. There are dozens of reasons that a person may choose to join a branch of the military, and dozens more they may choose to either leave or remain in the military after their initial contract is complete. These are all personal choices, and I don’t pretend to have the answers for anyone other than myself. It’s difficult to broadly apply certain ideas to every individual who serves in the armed forces, simply because every individual is unique in their ideas and approaches to how and why their serve.
But one thing I am certain of is that the six years that I spent as a member of the Illinois Army National Guard taught me important life lessons that I will carry with me until the day that I die. These lessons were a product of great leaders, a strategic plan of success for myself and our unit, and an overall desire to serve as a part of the Army National Guard. During my six years, I came across men and women who impacted my life in a positive way and helped me develop my own understanding of my capabilities. These lessons were important for me not only in regards to my military career, but more importantly in regards to how I went forward in search of personal and professional success.

Lesson #1: You’re Only as Good as the Man/Women Standing Next to You –
The only way you will ever achieve any type of success sin the military is be accumulating a group of men and women who are willing to work together. In no other circumstance is the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” more true than in the military. Every person who contributes to a mission must be on the same page as the person next to them, and only through cohesion can a mission be successful.
This translates beautifully to civilian success because nobody who has ever achieved something great has done it with lazy individuals around them. They have reached their goals because they’ve surround themselves with people who understand the overall vision and are willing to put in the work to see that vision through. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have the assemble a team of the best people, but it does mean that the people that work alongside you must be strong-willed and like-minded if you want to move together towards success.

Lesson #2: Stay Alert –
The full phrase that we used in the Army National Guard was “Stay alert, stay alive!” and it referred to moments in training or missions when we were in the field and needed to maintain awareness of our surroundings. Anything that seemed odd or out of place could have ultimately been dangerous for ourselves and the men/women around us, which meant that our eyes were constantly scanning for signs of trouble.
I love this lesson and how it applies to entrepreneurship. When you are building a business, your focus cannot remain on one aspect at a time. Instead, you have to maintain constant awareness of every key department within your operation, including merchandising, accounting, employee and customer feedback, and marketing. That’s not to say all of this needs to be tackled alone, but as CEO, your job is to juggle all of these items while scanning for signs of weakness or possible areas of improvement. You must be constantly alert to changes both internally and externally that can help or hinder the long-term success of your business. If you do not stay focused, your business will suffer because of it. Stay alert, stay alive.

Lesson #3: Performance is all that Matters -
One you put on the uniform, nothing else matters. Where you came from, your family name, how much money you have, or how you scored in high school all falls to the wayside when you become a soldier. The credentials that fill your resume carry little weight once you fall into formation and stand next to the men and women in your platoon. This is a very humbling experience, and some individuals struggle to make that kind of a transition. They are used to receiving recognition for past accomplishes, and they quickly realize that they are not special in the eyes of the military.
What carries weight is how you perform in regards to your fellow soldiers and your unit. The only questions that matter are “How are you contributing to the mission?” and “What results have you helped produce?”
This may seem rather cutthroat, but it’s not intended to be that way at all. In reality, it’s meant as a constant measure of performance for all soldiers, regardless of age, sex, race, or nationality. If you can create results as an individual and as part of a team, you will be successful.

Lesson #4: Self-Discipline
This is a rather obvious lesson provided by the military, but I wanted to discuss how it translates to the civilian world. The idea of self-discipline is the backbone of the military. From the moment you step off of the bus and arrive at basic training, you’re on your own in every way imaginable. This not like being at home where your parents wash your clothes or wake you up for school. This is not like college where there are advisors or professors to help you along the way if you stumble. Every waking moment of your life in the military rides on you understanding your role, preparing for that role, and then executing, and each of those responsibilities require self-discipline.
What the military provided for me was a larger vision of how I needed to conduct myself if I wanted to achieve something great. It made me realize that any form of success that I yearned for would be a product of the work that I put into my project. I was responsible for how far I excelled, and the work ethic that I put in would be a sub-product of my self-discipline. I needed to have the focus and determination to put in the work when others would not.

Lesson #5: Titles Do Not Make Leaders –
True leadership encompasses many ideas, lessons, and actions that can help an organization or group grow to their fullest potential. In the military, leadership is harder to identify and even more frustrating to reward. This is due to the fact that so many people view leadership as a reflection of a person’s title. They achieve a certain rank and they are suddenly thrust into a leadership role, despite the fact that the individual being promoted is not ready/properly equipped for leadership.
The lesson here is simple: Being a sergeant/staff sergeant (military) or a supervisor/manager (civilian) does not make you a leader, and it does just mean that others have to follow you. The worst mistake someone in a leadership role makes is assuming that because of their position, the people beneath them should instantly respect and follow them. On the contrary, true leadership is about leading from the front and producing results. Receiving a promotion does not mean that you can kick your feet up and rise the work of your subordinates. It means you have the opportunity to help others achieve the same level of success that you have achieved, and by doing that repeatedly, you ultimately fulfill your leadership role.

Lesson #6: Your Word Reflects Your Integrity -
The last lesson I have to offer talks about promises that you make to those around you. In the military, it’s common for one soldier to turn to another for help. Sometimes we’re overloaded with work and need another person to aid in our workload. When this happens, it’s easy to assure your coworker or boss that the work will be completed on time.
But far too often, that extra work gets pushed to the wayside and is replaced by the work we’ve already been assigned. We justify this by telling ourselves that our work is more important than someone else’s, and if they wanted it done on time, they should have just done it themselves, right?

But in the military, this mindset can lead to a lack of trust from your fellow soldiers. If you continue to drop the ball in regards to the promises that you’ve made, eventually people will stop turning to you for help and advice. Your word is a reflection of your integrity. 

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