Military Veterans are a representative bell curve of society. We get some of the best and brightest yes, but we get some duds as well. Sure, there are metrics for which we aren’t a representative sample for the general populace, but for the most part I don’t think of military Veterans being significantly better than the general population. This is especially true when you are talking about the general population applying for business school.
What differentiates military veterans isn't necessarily found in absolute metrics, but there are subtle differences in how we think that set us apart.
1. We embrace our failures.
The first lesson learned in the military is that you will fail. No matter how tight and clean your rack is, how good your uniform looks, or fast you can run, you will be found wanting. The failure itself isn't nearly as important as the lesson learned from it. You are never too good to learn.
2. Our standards, when it comes to working conditions, are ridiculously low.
Some people shy away from the travel requirements of consulting, but four days a week beats being gone for a month (or two, or six, or a year) at a time. Monday through Thursday travel is a step forward in normalcy for me and many men and women coming from the military. This is a point that I think is best explained by the following anecdote.
After out-processing from the Marine Corps I couch surfed at friends' places up and down the west coast. I crashed at a fellow Marine’s place and took a shower. I got out of the shower and realized I didn't have a towel. Without thinking, I proceeded to dry myself with a sweatshirt. My friend made fun of me for the rest of the week. “Jared, you aren’t in the field. All you had to do was ask for a towel! I have a dozen of them.” I never even thought to ask. It was a mindless adaptation where I accepted a less than ideal solution without thinking twice. That selfless, automatic adaptation to do whatever needs to be done goes a long way outside of the military too.
3. We deal with stress a little differently.
Maybe you didn’t get that interview you want or an "A" that seems important, but at least you aren’t being shot at. Things could always always always be worse. Every time I interact with Veterans at Johnson, especially the second years, it has an immediate calming effect. Trading a few "this time I was digging a fighting hole" stories go a long way to remind me why I am here and how good I have it.
4. We are here to learn, not to prove anything.
No one comes out of the military thinking that they are the business expert. We come with a chip on our shoulder, expecting to work, and we genuinely want to learn. I haven't seen the converse of this in my Johnson classmates, but I know that this can be an issue.
5. We have a network, and we use it.
Shared hardship produces the tightest bonds. Some of my experiences in the military were objectively miserable. Maybe you can't share that common bond with me, but I guarantee you that there are people who have been down a similar path to you and would love to help you make better decisions. Reach out, be humble, and ask for help when you need it.
This is me being promoted to the rank of Captain on the beaches of Okinawa.
These qualities, when taken in the aggregate, create the foundation for a successful business leader. They are the value that military leaders bring to the table, and I think they are ones that are difficult to replicate coming from any other environment.
I intentionally left leadership out of this list to devote some focus to it next time. Stay tuned for my next post that will specifically address "leadership" from a military point of view. Its a weird word that means lots of things to lots of people, but I will share some of my own personal views on the subject.