Last month marked 20 years since I first enlisted in the military. While I was in just short of 9 years, being a soldier changed my life, and taught me so much about relationships, leadership, and life in general. To that end, I wanted to share my thoughts in context of what I do now, and what we do as a community.
Things I kept:
One of the most important lessons I recall was as a young soldier in basic training. A couple of recruits had gotten into a fist fight in the barracks. Of course being the great leaders we were, none of us broke it up, or tried to stop them. Naturally the Drill Sergeants found out, and spent hours giving us some extra PT to remind us fighting was not to be tolerated. One of our Drill Sergeants, who tried to pretend he couldn’t stand us, lectured us for 30 min or more about the importance of integrity. I will never forget that moment, it stuck with me through my military career and through civilian life. You can win or lose a thousand times, but at the end of the day all you have is your integrity.
An early lesson as a young soldier was that leaders never eat until their troops have eaten. We always lined up in order of rank at meal times, and when I moved up the ranks, I always put my soldiers needs first. This wasn’t limited to just eating though, it applied to everything, a good leader is one who is willing to sacrifice for the team.
I will never forget having to memorize mission briefings. Everyone, down to the lowest ranking private knew the mission, and was prepared to complete it even if they were the last one left. Many times a leader would be taken out, and it was up to the next one to step up. A few times that was me. I remember how it felt to realize that the weight of the entire mission was on my shoulders, and there were several soldiers looking to me for guidance. A company, much like a military unit, is only successful if everyone is part of the team and knows the company mission and is executing on it.
Things I left behind:
Everyone is a leader (Manager)
One of the worst ideas ever was that everyone needed to progress into a leadership position. Now I think we all need to be leaders in the sense of community, but there are many of us who are individual contributors and that is great. Not all of us are cut out to be in charge of our peers, it is just not our strong suite. As a soldier I watched more exceptional individuals forced into leadership and end up failing. It is ok to be amazing as an individual contributor, do what you love and be amazing at it.
I know this one probably won’t make me very popular, but I am not a big fan of forcing people together from different backgrounds. I respect pretty much everyone, but I don’t think that forcing people to work together or to get along is productive. Put people together with similar interests and backgrounds. Offer them the opportunity to work with diverse groups, but don’t force them, it is their loss if they chose not to, but given a choice most people will make the right one.
Needs of the Army
This is a phrase which was familiar to most of us who served, and it basically means that you do what is best for the government. One of the best lessons I have learned since joining VMware is that if you do your day job well, and work on side projects, you are going to get moved into what you love. Doing what you love will make you awesome, doing what your told will make you average.
I am thankful to have served, it was an honor. I have learned so much, but mostly questioning why we do things and adjusting as we go is the only way to be successful.