We’ve all seen the posters. The one with the serious faced Officer or NCO doing the 1000 yard stare with the catchy recruiting slogan boldly stamped across the bottom. There used to be one that adorned the wall outside my instructor’s office back in my cadet days.
The 2nd Lieutenant staring out at the world in this poster with the words “the Army teaches you to lead” was placed there to inspire us, push us to be better, faster, stronger like the 2nd Lieutenant in the picture. Yet, after practicing how to extend a formation to the left for PT for what seemed like the 400th time, and making checklists for checklists, I remember the words seeming a bit hollow. If this was what the Army thought leadership was, who wants that?
Seven years later, I feel significantly different. I am now on the other side of my military career, have attended a top business school and work for a Fortune 500 company. I have had the honor of learning from, studying with, and working for some of the most admired business minds in the country. After these experiences, I can wholeheartedly say that if there is anything I wish I knew prior to leaving the military, I wish I knew that “The Army teaches you to lead” is not just a line. It is something we should value and be proud of.
I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency over the years, both while on active duty and after, where junior officers downplay the value of the experiences they’ve had. There is a thought that while the job is physically demanding, intellectually anyone could do it. “It isn’t rocket science,” is thrown around so much when talking about a junior officer’s day-to-day that many people take that belief with them to their first post-military job or school experiences.
I am here to tell you that while military leadership might not be rocket science, neither is financial modeling or anything else where you think your civilian peers have a leg up on you. Even if you’re “just managing trucks” in a motor pool, few other organizations would give you as much direct responsibility for equipment and personnel that are critical to organizational effectiveness.
You are empowered to make decisions that can have far reaching ramifications. You are required to stand in front of less than cuddly superiors and defend those decisions if something goes wrong. You are charged not only with the planning of an event, but also the execution and follow-up.
While many senior leaders in the military may lose sleep over the responsibility that they’ve granted to the gold bars, senior leaders outside the military have largely just decided that it’s not worth the risk. What does that mean? You are part of a small cohort of people that have lead and managed people and operations under physically and emotionally difficult situations. In my experience, that makes you unique from the majority of the peers and even bosses that you will have in your civilian future.
Yes, you may not be able to work Excel like the girl from private equity, or create a four square comparison chart with the guy from consulting. I only ask you to remember that for all their abilities they may not be able to lead a group of people out of a paper bag. Be proud of your experiences, know the value you bring, and be prepared to divide the responsibilities and conquer.