In January of 2018, at 28 years old with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a great job in a great city, I decided to do a complete 180 and serve with the men and women who defend our country. I recently completed basic training and airborne school in the Army.
The purpose of basic training is, in essence, to create a team - Team USA if you will. To do so, they (being ‘the military’) must take what are primarily young, immature kids, many of whom have no concept of a team, and get them to a place where they put the needs of others - their battle buddies - ahead of their own. The Army’s method for doing this involves healthy doses of screaming in your face, crawling in mud/sand, pushups, sit-ups, and the list goes on but the common denominator is negative reinforcement.
When I was in basic training, I was the leader of my platoon and it was my job to manage the 30 other guys in the platoon and pass down information from the drill sergeants. I found that managing this group of people was comparable to herding cats. There were constantly arguments to be put out, bad attitudes to be dealt with, and changes in circumstances to adapt to.
But as time went on, I learned a few valuable lessons about how to be a good leader and manager. From resolving conflict and managing underperforming teammates, I’ve put together a list of lessons you can apply to your own lifestyle and leadership opportunities.
Resolving Conflict: Empathy vs. Aggression
I found that the best way to deal with any sort of conflict is first to understand both sides. Sometimes this isn’t possible, especially in the heat of the moment; I can’t tell you how many times in basic training I decided to yell at someone to get them moving, or to stop talking, or to pack up their gear, but once things calmed down a little, I always made an effort to reach out and see if I could understand the other person's point of view, and also explained why I did what I did. Sometimes this ended up being an apology on my end, but the biggest benefit was that it kept the team together.
If the person I was arguing with understands my point of view, even if he/she doesn't agree with it, they’ll still respect me, and if they respect me as a leader, I can still lead. I found that yelling at someone, shunning them, or belittling them didn’t motivate them to perform at their highest level. Being a firm but empathetic leader can help you get the most out of your team and help you all focus on achieving your main goal.
Small Details Make a Big Difference
In the military, the price of failure could very well be death, which is why attention to detail was drilled into our skulls at basic training. I had a drill sergeant who oversaw our pre-combat checks (PCCs) and pre-combat inspections (PCIs). We would go over every detail: checking the logistics, checking our equipment, checking our battle buddy, making sure that everything is ready to go well ahead of time so that when (not if) things go sideways, you’re able to react to it quickly and effectively.
There is a massive amount of planning that goes on, but the motto is that once the first shot is fired, any and all plans go out the window, and you have to react to the situation at hand, accomplishing the mission using any method necessary (with certain exceptions). You always have to be prepared for plans B, C, D, etc.
I've found this is similar in running a business, launching a project, or getting through your work day. Having a plan, double-checking that you’re prepared, and then having contingency plans for what to do if something goes wrong is the key to running an effective and efficient team.
Discipline is Freedom
This is a quote from Jocko Willink, a heavily awarded SEAL commander who fought in the battle of Ramadi during the Iraq war. It may seem a bit at odds with itself, but if you think about it, this is something that is true in almost every aspect of life. In the military, if you are disciplined in being on time, having your gear squared away, being physically and mentally prepared at all times, you will actually have more freedom because your peers and commanders will trust you more, and you will ultimately gain more respect from those around you.
In life, if you disciplined and eat healthy and exercise, you’ll literally be more free to explore the world because you’ll have fewer health issues that might otherwise keep you at home or in a hospital. If you are more disciplined at work, you might get promoted and instead of having to do what someone else wants you to do, you’d be able to start solving the problems you want to solve the way you want to solve them.
Your team is only as good as the people in it.
It may seem as though you need to go out and find all of the best people, which you should, but one big thing I took out of my bootcamp experience is how much a leader is able to sculpt and build a team. As hard as it was working with a group of teenagers, the team my platoon leader and I created was actually pretty good. We were the only platoon to graduate all of it’s members, we won almost every inter-platoon competition, and we had the highest fitness scores by far.
Part of this may very well have been luck of the draw, but I think a lot of it can be attributed to the emphasis on team building that we had. Everyone, no matter the circumstance, is able to contribute in one way or another. I found that it was imperative that everyone felt like a contributor to the team, even if in a small way. This originally surprised me because you often hear of groups where a few people sort of do it all while the others don’t do anything. This creates a divide in the team because the people doing the work think the others are worthless and the ones not doing anything could care less about the success of the group because they’re not invested.
For example, there was guy named John who never did anything to help. Never cleaned, never carried anything extra, never volunteered unless he thought it would directly benefit him. Well, one day he volunteered for “chow squad” because you often got more food if you were the one serving it. And every time our platoon had chow squad, John would volunteer so he could get extra food.
So, I asked him to start sneaking more food for everyone, not just our platoon, and what that did for us is make everyone, even those from the other platoons like our platoon. This helped a great deal down the road during exercises when we had to work with the other platoons, because the other groups respected our platoon.
Even though John initially volunteered for chow squad only to benefit himself, by encouraging him in the right direction, he developed a reputation as the best server in the entire company and in-turn contributed to the success of the team. The only caveat being he got caught giving extra scoops a few times and consequently had to do a large amount of pushups, but it was all in good fun.
Building and leading a team can look different for everyone, whether you’re leading a platoon in the Army or preparing your team at work for their next big pitch or presentation. It’s rare to be a natural leader and I found that there is always something that you can do to improve your leadership style.
Think about being firm but empathetic in your next workplace conflict. Don’t forget about the little things as those details can create bigger problems down the road. Be disciplined, whether it’s coming to work on time, hitting deadlines, or your own personal workout routine. The consistency will pay off and you’ll find yourself with more freedom because of it. And lastly, you don’t need a team of all stars to make a great team. Learn how you can motivate and develop the people around you to make the team as a whole better.
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and to this day, I’m still surprised at the number of lessons I learned at basic training that I can apply to life outside of the Army.
Josh is a two-time US National Team rower with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He has been with InstaViser for three years working with and developing the Customer Success team. Currently, he is in the Army training to become a Green Beret.