5 Life Lessons I Learned From Military Service

January of 2009 I walked into a recruiter’s office to inquire about enlisting in the military and walked out with a stack of signed papers and a ship date that changed my life. Like a lot of Americans, I felt helpless following the attacks on 9/11 and thought I should do more for the country that I love. I started volunteering with the Red Cross and even considered joining the County Police reserve program. Then I learned about the Army National Guard. I could join the U.S. Army as a civilian soldier and still continue my educational and career goals while serving.

I signed on the dotted line and eventually shipped off to basic combat training as an infantryman at Fort Benning, Georgia. Less than two years later I was heading back to Officer Candidate School to be commissioned as an Infantry Officer. Many more schools and countless hours of training followed as I progressed through a number of leadership roles, experiences and responsibilities.

As I look back over this whirlwind of a decade, a number of lessons come to mind that have held true over time. These values have applied not only to my military career, but to my civilian career as well.

Lesson 1: Respect Isn’t Optional

Customs and courtesies are ingrained at every level in our military. Respect for chain of command, for each other, for civilians and even for enemies is always first and foremost. This applies when working or training or even on your personal time. This especially includes when you are upset, when you disagree, when you are tired or dealing with personal problems.

Good leaders always find a way to respect their subordinates and superiors regardless of how they “feel.” They will always find the right words, even when those words include an apology.

The more time I spend in leadership, the more respect I gain for those that have been charged with leading me. I know I’ve always been a handful to lead. I’ve always spoken up quickly and passionately when I disagreed with something. I’ve also taken extra time for extra discussion or to talk through concepts and ideas that weren’t clear to me. The most effective of those leaders always found a way to encourage and sustain me, but didn’t take my approach as lacking respect.

I’ve always believed you can disagree without disrespecting. You can argue the position without attacking the person. You can advocate without alienating.

At the core of this is always keeping respect as your priority. The military teaches this from very the beginning. You are taught to end every sentence, statement or question by addressing the appropriate title. You are taught to stand, dress, salute and move in ways that project your understanding of and compliance to the code of respect.

Lesson 2: Be On Time

While preparing to leave for basic training at Fort Benning, I spoke to a number of friends that were in the military already to gain as much advice as I could. I remember very clearly, hearing the phrase, “Always be at the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform.” This singular piece of advice has saved me so many times in my military career from turning an already tough training and long days into a nightmare.

It takes keen attention to detail to always be at the right place. Have you ever shown up for a meeting to find you are the only one there? You then decide to wait a few minutes, then double check your calendar, and finally you call the other person to confirm the meeting time and location. That is when you learn the meeting was at a different Starbucks, or the meeting was actually at your office and not theirs. In the grand scheme of things, missing a meeting over coffee with a colleague isn’t that important.

However, in combat, it is critical that soldiers show up at the precise location, at the precise time, with the precise equipment and uniform. Failure to execute to this standard can jeopardize missions and ultimately cost lives. That is very sobering to think about.

When you are striving for success in your career, every missed appointment does affect your bottom line. Missed communication does have an impact on your reputation. Depending on your line of work, this may ultimately affect other people and lives.

When it comes to time, it is important to be considerate of others. Most people maintain very busy schedules. That hectic work schedule may be due to crushing deadlines or a personal commitment to be at home with their family be a certain time. When scheduling meetings and appointments, think about the other person. When planning your timeline ensure you allot enough flexibility to be timely for your commitments. Your promptness says a lot about how you manage your own time and how you value the time of your colleagues.

Lesson 3: Ensure Clarity

As a leader it is important to give clear guidance. As a military leader it is imperative to give clear guidance. Your instructions have to be so clear as to not add even the slightest amount of ambiguity. This is so critical in the military that you must use certain terms, symbols and graphics when issuing an operations order. Those tactical terms have very precise definitions that have stood the test of time. It is your responsibility as a military leader to ensure you understand what your plan is and that you are issuing a well-thought out and thoroughly vetted plan.

On the same token, it is also your responsibility as a soldier to ensure the orders you have received are clear. You cannot just pass blame on who issued the order if there is ambiguity. You are obligated to ask for clarification and execute the plan as intended. That means you must understand your mission, you must understand the intent and you must understand your task and purpose. Failure to gain clarity on any of this can cause a mission to fail.

I have had the opportunity to receive and issue orders as a brand-new soldier at basic training to an operations planner on division staff and everywhere in between including the platoon, company and battalion levels. At each opportunity, the responsibility of executing a perfect order is daunting.

One thing I have come to value, from my military tenure and in my civilian career, is people that ask questions. Asking questions go a long way in ensuring clarity. Too often we neglect the task of asking questions in a foolish attempt to prove how smart we are. However, I think we go a long way in proving our intelligence (and becoming smarter in the process) by asking questions.

When you ask questions, you confront ambiguity head on. Questions provide confidence and empowerment to both the inquisitor and the informant. Again, I believe we are foolish to walk away from a source of information lacking clarity on our role and responsibility. Therefore, I place a lot of value in colleagues that ask good questions.

The responsibility of clarity falls on both those who issue the order and those who execute the order.

Lesson 4: Be Prepared

We spend a lot of time training and planning in the military. We are always training for proficiency and planning for missions. That is the essence of being prepared. It is a process and it constantly evolves. Being prepared today, does not ensure you are prepared tomorrow. Whether it is your seasonal qualification on the rifle range, your regular physical fitness test, or an annual certification, we are always testing and improving.

During the orders production process, a lot of work goes into preparing an operations order that can be executed proficiently and with purpose. As the order is being finalized, leaders go into preparation mode. A significant step in the process is rehearsals. Countless rehearsals are held at multiple levels throughout the preparation process to ensure that everyone understands their role, their purpose and their end state. This ensures that there is no confusion about when and where and how a mission is to be executed.

In my civilian career, I have planned and hosted many events and projects. Our teams experienced outstanding success when we spent extra time reviewing and rehearsing our plans. There is something magical about looking at a whiteboard or conducting a dress-rehearsal to find out a key task wasn’t assigned or an important piece of equipment wasn’t ordered or a feisty piece of technology needed re-programmed.

Being prepared is being honest and transparent about your plan. You can have a great plan, but if you don’t go the extra step to exploit its weaknesses prior to execution, you will stumble and fall hard after launching.

Additionally, the rehearsal and planning process does not guarantee things will not go wrong. It does, however, promise that you will be able to respond appropriately to the challenges that may pop up. When you think through your plan or walk through those worst-case scenarios, your mind gets permission to be creative and flexible. That creativity will show off for you instead of causing you to stress. You will really surprise yourself with how well you are able to function under stress when your plan “falls apart.”

Lesson 5: Build Trust

I have never seen “trust” listed in the army values or mentioned in the army creed or discussed during any lectures or trainings. However, trust is the backbone of everything we do in the military. We learn to trust each other and rely on that trust throughout our careers.

Trust is carried out daily in the military as we have confidence in our leaders. As we work in top secret environments. As we expect subordinates to carry out orders. As we handle expensive technology, weapons, ammunitions and equipment.

At basic training we learned trust through basic concepts as conducting a patrol base to ensure the enemy could not attack us from behind. We had to secure our sector and trust that our unit had our back in securing their own sector. During the leader challenge course, we navigated a number of obstacles to learn to trust each other.

One of the unique perspectives I learned about trust came to me as I was preparing to be commissioned as an officer. A dear friend, an army veteran with years of experience as a non-commissioned officer, advised me that my success as a young officer was to “trust” my subordinate leaders to get the job done. He went on to tell me that as I trusted them to do their job, they would show off for me and outperform my wildest expectations.

I’ve always remembered that and always look for opportunities to delegate and trust my leaders. I look for the same in my superiors. I look to be trusted to execute my mission and when I feel that confidence in me…I look to show off for them and exceed their expectations.

In my current role, one of our leadership principles is “Earns Trust of Others.” Admittedly this has been most challenging for me, but most rewarding as well. Unapologetically I had always been mission and task focused. I would charge forward to solve the problem, fix the issue and execute the mission and usually do rather well at it. However, as I turned around to look at my success, more often than not, there was a path of destruction and countless casualties. I learned that while I was being successful in accomplishing the task, I was failing at earning trust and building relationships. This was a hard lesson learned.

This past decade has truly been a rewarding experience and I wouldn’t trade any of it in. These 5 Life Lessons I Learned from My Military Service are easily extrapolated into civilian life.

In addition to these values, here are some additional observations:

  • Don’t get caught up in the little stuff. It’s just that, little stuff.
  • Stay fit.
  • Own your career.
  • Send hand-written letters.
  • Be accountable.
  • Don’t take it personal, get the job done.
  • Very little of what you see on TV/Movies reflect what military life is really like.
  • Always carry wet wipes, hand sanitizer and a spoon.

Micah Maxwell is a learning manager for Amazon.com, a captain in the Indiana Army National Guard and a graduate of Ball State University with a degree in organizational communication. Twitter: @MaxxWellSaid

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