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By: Arianne Cohen
It was a rough four days—a training mission with a foreign military team in the mountains of Central America. Operation Sergeant Robert Torres was tasked with maintaining security around the patrol base, but he had far too few people to accomplish that. He worked his team around the clock, withminimal sleep, in freezing conditions. “We were getting iced on, and carrying a lot of weight while moving on steep elevation,” he says.
Two to three tasks per day meant cognitive stress loomed, and Torres was just as hungry, tired, and uncomfortable as the soldiers in his platoon. It was brutal. “We got all the elements: cold, mountains, jungle—a little bit of everything,” he says. By day three, he was dehydrated, freezing, and still in charge of two dozen men.
Though surviving without heat or sleep can demonstrate toughness, this was not the point of the exercise. For Torres, it was a leadership-training mission. “It made me think, ‘Oh wow, all this stuff actually does work. I’m prepared for this.’”
US workers out-represent military by a ratio of 110 to 1, with only 0.3 percent of the population currently serving. Very few civilians ever experience military-leadership training. In fact, civilians tend to have wild misconceptions about training, thanks to Hollywood films like An Officer and a Gentleman and A Few Good Men, or the once-popular TV show Gomer Pyle. On the big or small screen, training consists mostly of being yelled at by drill sergeants standing so close that their breath can be felt. And humiliation.
In reality, that model has been quietly evolving for 30 years, and Torres’ mountain training mission provides a keyhole into some of its benefits. Today, modern military training—though it’s far from perfect—includes empathy and collaboration, combined with brutal but shared experiences. And few would argue that the military has, since as far back as the Roman times, been a leadership-training machine. The US Army alone produces a steady pipeline of some 44,000 active-duty captains and majors, as well another 13,000 lieutenant colonels and colonels, all supporting 300 generals of various ranks. All of which raises an obvious question: At a time when the corporate world continues to search for the right recipe for developing leaders, can our military provide any lessons?
Reasonably speaking, companies can’t reproduce Torres’ mountain training weekend activities: Corporate bosses often cannot yell at employees, because though yelling is perfectly legal, doing so to a marginalized group can qualify as harassment. And employers cannot staff employees on multi-day patrols until the job is done, because that would constitute a mild form of abduction. And bosses cannot deny meals or rest breaks to workers, because those are legal rights that even the employees themselves cannot waive. And a leader hollering “This is life or death, so get it right!” just won’t work, because it’s not life-or-death.
These are just the first few of the many reasons that corporate-sponsored long-weekend deprivation patrols in mountain ranges are not a thing. Military training has long had its weak points, including a colorful history of marginalizing and abusing diverse groups and women. The system has an even bumpier track record of transitions to the corporate world, where nearly half of veterans log less than a year in their first job.
As you can imagine, it’s difficult to go from mountain patrolling to cubicle life, and the number who successfully do it is disproportionately small. But those who succeed often do quite well, with 8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs alone having some military background. Ex-military officers say that much of the friction they experience with “civilian life” comes from huge cultural differences, which can be boiled down to differences in the definitions of peer and leader. In the military, a peer is a partner and friend who could save your life, and you are both fully responsible for your actions. In an office, your cubicle neighbor competes against you, and likely goes out of his way to hide his own failures. Offices are about optics. West Point graduate Mike Franzino, president of Global Financial Services at Korn Ferry, says that that full accountability and people taking ownership of their actions would transform corporate America. “We’d be a much better place, because people wouldn’t point fingers,” says Franzino.
Veterans can find themselves particularly lost in “flat” corporate hierarchies and start-up-type environments where people wear many hats, says Erika Duncan, cofounder of HR advisory firm People on Point. Weakly defined tasks and roles can be disorienting, especially for veterans accustomed to fully understanding the jobs of those “two up and two down” from them. “What the business world calls ‘cross-training’ is more about who’s going to cover you for the week you’re on vacation,” says Duncan.
But there’s no denying that the military consistently produces tough-as-nails leaders with track records of strong judgment, and that starts with trips like Torres’. “When you take away sleep or food and you put them in a physically strenuous position, it’s out of love,” says Nick Lorusso, a major at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, who spent 40 months as a cadet drill sergeant. “If you push that soldier hard enough, when the really hard things happen, they will not be as difficult as what you put them through.”
Lorusso speaks to his trainees calmly, because the days of sergeants shouting expletives are long over. The old model of hollering “Step lively, you maggot!” has been replaced by “Let’s get you operating this way.” Training is understood to be a mutual process. The shift in tone came about for many reasons, one of which is that abuse is ineffective in creating strong leaders, and in fact damages teams by creating a climate of fear that incentivizes cadets to hide mistakes, blame others, and feel bad about themselves. While yelling may create the immediate or short-term benefits that a drill sergeant seeks, the long-term outcomes are negative. “Insults and abuse were unnecessary, and didn’t help anyone move quicker or learn quicker,” says Nate Zinsser, director of the performance psychology program at West Point. Today, the point of breaking down new recruits is to separate them from their old habits, assumptions, and behaviors, and revamp their perceived limitations of ability, capacity, and intelligence. Hyper-self-awareness is the goal.
A more accurate view of military-leadership training is that it prepares soldiers to lead amid a flood of wildly varying intense scenarios, each imbued with deep realism, from day one. And military people train a lot. In fact, if you talk to them, you’ll realize that most of their anecdotes are not about action, but about training, or training their underlings to be good trainers, or watching their overseers train. Put simply, what the military is doing is training its leaders. A lot. The difference is stark: The corporate-leadership sector is a $15 billion industry. That computes to a mere $156 per US corporate employee annually.
In 2003, Lieutenant General William Mayville, a paratrooper, landed in Iraq. It was dark and quiet, and he heard other paratroopers thudding to the ground and moving out. “You realize that success really hinges not on you, but on the little groups of paratroopers getting their stuff together moving out,” he says. As a leader, he knew that his job was to provide vision and make sure his soldiers had resources. They would own any success, and he would own failures. “Leadership matters, but luck plays a big part too,” says Mayville, who is now a cybersecurity consultant at Korn Ferry. “That keeps me humble, and makes sure that I’m not falling into the trap of thinking that I alone can achieve results.”
This is a very different message than you’ll find in the talking points of most leadership books and from consultants, many of which present a heroic leader saving the day. And the military frames leaders as well-trained experts who are ready to lead first and foremost, but who are also at the mercy of their team and prevailing conditions, and will sometimes fail.
The military initially teaches people to be humble leaders, and to follow them: do as you’re told, in the way you’re told to, and deliver on expectations. This might seem tangential to leadership until you realize that it’s actually ongoing intensive interaction with leaders—and therefore training by example. The keystone habit of those early drill sergeants is communicating very clear standards for everything, alongside positive expectations that those standards will be met. “It’s more art and subtlety than science,” says Zinsser. West Point also facilitates relationships between cadets and senior staffers, both formally and informally, so that cadets develop a sense of who they’ll become in 10 to 20 years, and also learn that leadership is about a two-way relationship. Say-show-sell is also ingrained early, a way to state a new concept, demonstrate it, and then consistently repeat the behavior for consistent messaging. After a decade of seeing and doing this, officers do it automatically.
From the beginning, the mantra is cooperate and graduate: collaboration and teamwork are the building blocks of success, along with a culture of trust and taking care of your people. “Without fail, the guidelines are lead from the front, take care of your people, and don’t let anybody fail,” says Franzino. Experts say that corporate America is very different in its focus on shareholder value and revenue, and not necessarily on bringing everybody back.
Military experts hope that corporations adopt some of their tried-and-true guidelines. These boil down to holding people accountable, in small groups, from the very beginning. The military gives leadership opportunities nearly immediately, framing leadership as a lifelong vocation of professional and personal development, rather than a late-career ascendancy. At West Point, freshmen lead peers through an array of field exercises such as land navigation and overnights, and early in their sophomore year adopt a cadet. This means that 19-year-olds are already leading a team of two, and 22-year-olds are leading dozens or even hundreds, and are responsible for their health, welfare, and well-being.
Taking care of one’s own business and other people’s business is built in at every level, in ways that are rare in corporate America, where managers often don’t fully empower employees to do important things, and instead micromanage. The military fully trusts subordinates.
Size matters. “I see young people jumping into corporate environments that are very large,” says Zinsser. “That’s a whole lot of wasted energy as newcomers figure out where they fit in, and where to go for this or that.” Cadets are immediately sorted into 30- to 40-person platoons, and within them, squads of a dozen who spend six to eight hours together daily, ultimately logging more time with peers than with partners or family. This encourages close friendships, as well as strong personalities that facilitate leadership. Careful effort is put into people knowing who they are, where they are, and who their peers are, says Zinsser. Compare this to a typical corporate onboarding. Enough said.
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And Torres suggests that companies reconsider their strategies of delegation and knowledge. Corporate teams typically have experts in multiple areas, with little overlap and ample efficiency. “A lot of our job is saying, ‘Hey, you gotta be a master of the basics,’” he says. He means that everyone knows standard operating procedures and has read the same materials, understands how things work, and knows quite a bit about other members’ roles. Everyone also knows the roles and responsibilities one level up, so that they can produce the work that those leaders need. Torres finds that this kind of general mastery is often completely missing in the professional world. “When I talk with my buddies back home, it seems like many of their issues would be solved if everybody had the same knowledge of topics.”
As for how and where employees could acquire some of this knowledge, for Lorusso, the air base major, old habits die hard. He suggests that the best training happens in locales where people are away from day-to-day comforts and forced to draw on strength of character and reflect on their actual capabilities. When reminded that corporations cannot kidnap their employees, he says, “Well, how about a ropes course? You see sports teams going to places like obstacle courses. Or at least a campout."