The most important thing I learned in the military

| November 4, 2018

A question from an audience member at a recent speaking engagement really got me thinking. He simply asked me “what’s the most important thing you learnt in the Army that transfers to your corporate life?”

Sure, we got to do lots of cool stuff like jump out of airplanes and abseil out of helicopters but as transferrable skills goes, they’ve got to be fairly low on the list of things I’d ever put on my resume.

The Army taught us other things too, though, like how to quickly develop a plan to achieve an objective, how to communicate that plan to others in a way that inspired them with confidence and then how to think under pressure when the plan started going off the rails when we asked the enemy what he thought of the plan.

So now we’re getting somewhere in terms of skills that transfer well to other environments. But there was something else – something that underpinned everything.

Most critically, I believe the Army teaches endurance. We learned to endure all manner of disruptions, discomfort and dislocation of expectation and find a way to maintain morale and momentum, even though:

There’s a lot of waiting around because nobody told the enemy where they had to be at a certain time or one of the myriad moving parts in the military machine had a chance encounter with Murphy’s Law.

There’s a lot of walking with a pack full of equipment in all kinds of weather across terrain that’s anything but flat because personal issue land-speeders just aren’t “a thing” right now.

There’s always skills to be kept up and new ones to learn; and learning means making mistakes – sometimes big ones and often in full view of your peers, superiors and subordinates.

There’s the solid knot of fear in your stomach and the metallic taste in your mouth when a sustained burst of enemy machine gun fire chews into your position to challenge your notion that you were in control of the situation.

In all these situations, and more, success was sometimes nothing more than refusing to quit, learning from failure and then taking another step forward. That’s something that transfers very well to any environment and any organisation so let’s explore some the tools and techniques we employed and how they can help you and your organisation.

1. Get internal

Psychologist Julian Rotter developed the concept of the locus of control to describe how we perceive our ability to control the outcome of events in our lives. People with an external locus of control tend to see their lives as being at the whim of luck, circumstances and other factors beyond their capacity to influence whereas people with an strongly internal locus of control regard their circumstances – such as success and failure – as being largely as a result of their own actions and abilities.

Where we sit on the external-internal continuum is, according to psychologists, predominantly established during childhood but can continue to change over time. The question then becomes where’s best and how do I get there?

In general, individuals with an external locus of control are more prone to stress and depression, readily pass blame on to others and avoid accountability. Individuals with an internal locus, on the other hand, are likely to exhibit stronger leadership, respond positively to challenges and accept responsibility for their actions.

So – if internal is better, how do we develop it both in ourselves and others? How do we move from an external to an internal locus of control?

One of my favourite tools for doing this is also one of the simplest; it’s an open question.

Ask open questions – those where no explicit list of possible answers exists – are incredibly powerful for a simple reason; they invite our subconscious brain to the party and when it shows up, it brings with it creativity and possibility. Our brains are purpose-built to solve problems, but only if we present the problem in a neatly packaged bundle.

There are two fundamental principles for crafting powerful questions. Make them:

Be precise – describing in detail the outcome we want to achieve provides our sub-conscious with a clear picture of the target to aim for. If we can refer to a particular skill or attribute that we believe we possess and that would help, so much the better.

Stay positive – when you give the sub-conscious a mental picture to work on, it ignores little details like negatives. If we ask “how can I make sure I don’t stuff up this presentation”, our sub-conscious dutifully goes to work imagining all the various scenarios that would constitute a “stuffed-up” presentation. Counter this by describing what success looks like, not failure.

As a simple example of putting this into practice, at a recent client engagement I was finding that meetings were a frustrating time for all concerned. People turned up late, no-shows were a common occurrence, unprepared and discussions got side-tracked or went off on tangents on a frequent basis.

Realising that venting and moaning wasn’t going to achieve anything positive, I tried another tack and asked my team “how can we use our organisational and communication skills to make sure that everyone turns up to the meeting on time, prepared with the information we all need and keeps focussed on the meeting purpose?”

So what did they do to improve things? They set the start time for 15 minutes past the hour to allow for overruns and pitstops. They defined the meeting’s background and purpose in the initial invitation and made courtesy calls to invitees to keep them on track. Finally, they wrote the event’s goals up on the whiteboard to keep everyone focussed on the day. Taking this handful of simple steps ensured that everyone got more out of events in the future.

2. Bring the horizon closer

We’re generally not that good at judging long distances, especially when we’re going uphill, when we can’t see the ground between us and the objective and when we’re so tired we can barely lift our heads. I learnt that the hard way, walking for seemingly endless kilometres across some of the wettest, windiest and coldest hills that Wales has to offer – and there’s a fair selection, I have to add.

I also learnt that when you’re walking for hours in the freezing rain and fog it’s easy to get very demoralised because the final objective always seemed so very far away – and in many cases it was. Without regular navigation checkpoints it was also rather easy to get lost, at which point morale took a nosedive into the nearest water-filled ditch.

We learnt to break journeys down into bite-sized chunks with recognisable features that we could check off on the map as we passed. This had two major benefits – first, we had regular feedback on the accuracy of our navigation and second, we were constantly ticking off mini-objectives along the way.

The first benefit helped us avoid becoming “geographically embarrassed” which is always a good thing but the second was perhaps even more important. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek talks about our body producing Dopamine as a reward for achieving a target. Those interim objectives served to give us a sense of achievement in that we were constantly ticking off mental milestones along the journey which resulted in a little Dopamine fix which reinforced our motivation and will to carry on.

The key is to make the chunks big enough to matter but not so big that they’ll take so long to complete that motivation wanes midway through.

3. Deploy humour as a force multiplier

Author E.B. White once joked that dissecting and studying humour was like doing the same thing to a frog; the process of examination killed the subject and the inner workings that were revealed actually held little appeal except to the pure scientific mind. That said, let’s not cut open the frog but perhaps just take a quick x-ray to see what’s inside.

When we’re in pain, our body releases a hormone called endorphin to mask the discomfort. It’s the same chemical, incidentally, that’s released during exercise and that leads to the mildly euphoric effect known as the “runners high”.

And it’s the same euphoria-inducing chemical that’s released when we laugh.

It gets even better – if we’re with other people and we say or do something to make them laugh then we get a little shot of serotonin from that feeling of relevance we get through being of service to the team. And if we’re all laughing together about the same thing, then we’ll all get a shot of oxytocin, the bonding drug, just to make us feel good about being around each other and so our team bond gets a little bit stronger.

Sometimes the greatest act of leadership is just making a colleague laugh.

Laughter also serves a serious purpose. When we’re bogged down in an intensely negative state of mind, even the most precise or positive question will get little more than a half-hearted response or grunt and so the change in emotional state caused by even a chuckle is enough to create a more positive mindset that’s primed to respond to a well-crafted question.

So, in summary the key to successfully dealing with the various challenges that life throws our way is to develop mental, physical and emotional endurance.

Three simple ways to develop endurance are to develop the art of asking powerful questions that invite creativity, break big tasks into smaller and less daunting ones and then to remember to laugh often and as a team.

As leaders, we can’t control every aspect of our environment but we can control our reaction to it and give ourselves, and our team, the best chance of success.