6 Lessons Learned
from 7 Years of Military Service

See also: Developing a Personal Vision: Defining Success

Being in the military taught me some of life’s hardest but most important lessons. Throughout my seven years in the United States Marine Corps (USMC), I learned practical skills, like making a bed to a military standard, as well as extremely difficult lessons, such as rethinking a plan at the last minute because making a mistake could cost someone their life.

In the Marines, I was a leader with more than 100 soldiers in my care. Their training, education and often their livelihood was in my hands. These men were my responsibility, and the positions I held throughout my time serving my country taught me lessons I use every single day – in business and in life. The following six are those I consider most important:

1. Do Not Discount Discipline

Discipline and self-control were two of the first lessons we learned in the Marines.

Often, there were things that I did not want to do, but we needed to do them anyway - for the good of the platoon and our fellow soldiers. Everything builds on everything else. Think of it this way: in the military, if you don’t complete your conditioning training or if you zone out during a critical briefing, you put the rest of your platoon in danger. Not being fit enough to carry out the task at hand, or missing out on a key piece of information, was the difference between life and death when I was in the Marines.

In the business world, we are not always in a life or death situation, but the scenarios can often be just as intense. Consider if you skipped a step when you were briefing a client because you wanted to leave early on a Friday, or you missed a key part of your company’s Coronavirus transition plan because you weren’t paying attention. Neither of those scenarios are necessarily deadly, but they can have dramatic consequences, such as losing a client or putting your team in danger. Having the discipline to push through any desire to lapse and understand the bigger picture is a critical part of success.

2. Excellence is a Habit

Statesman Philip Dormer Stanhope said it right when he said: “In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention.” This was a lesson we learned every day in the military, and something that I carried with me into the business world

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. The surest way to get yourself into trouble is to cut corners, whether you’re on the battlefield or in the boardroom. The military taught me that excellence is a habit and a necessity.

You learn to be excellent by doing the same things well, day in and day out.

3. There is No ‘I’ in Teamwork

In the Marine Corps, no one is ‘Rambo’. Your main function is to work with your team to collectively be the best you can be.

There were no individual prizes – your job was to support the infantry in their combat roles.

This also meant that you were only as strong as your weakest link. Leadership was (and still is) incredibly important, and a big part of our job is to develop human potential. As humans, we have the potential for an unparalleled sense of loyalty. As leaders in the Marines, it was our job to figure out what made our soldiers tick and tap into that intrinsic motivation. We had to take that weakest link, as hard as it was, and work to bring it up to scratch.

In business, I look for those same motivating factors for the people I manage. It is incredible to see what people can do when you tap into that motivation.

4. Preparedness is Responsibility

As a leader in the Marines, whatever happens rises or falls on you. All my men’s mistakes were my mistakes, and their successes were my successes.

This level of responsibility highlighted the importance of training for me. I had to know that I could count on my men, and that they would be confident enough to do what they had been trained to do. Even more importantly, I needed to make sure that I was completely prepared so that my men could count on me.

5. Improvisation is Key

To quote Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until you get hit in the mouth.

All the planning in the world will only get you so far, both in the military and in business. At the end of the day, there may not always be a Plan B to fall back on. There’s nothing that will prepare you for the moment that your men look you in the eye and ask, “What are we going to do to get out of this?

You have to trust your gut (and your training) in these situations, and react quickly and fearlessly. The same is true in business. Trust your gut if something doesn’t feel right, and trust it if something does.

6. Results Matter

In the military, your job was not to try your best – it was to get things done, no matter what. There are no excuses for failure – simply put, failure was not an option.

I often speak to young professionals who tell me all about the hard work they’ve been putting in. When I ask them about their results (and I mean actual, tangible results) they’re often aghast - usually because there aren’t any.

Here’s a key lesson: it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how lazy you are.  Your results are what matter.

This is also applicable to projects and operations. A military operation with a hiccup we overcame was always considered a success, and the same is true in the workplace. If you had a problem and worked your way through it, do not get hung up on the hiccup. The result is what matters, and if that result was positive, that is something to hang your hat on.

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Further Reading from Skills You Need

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I would not trade my time in the Marines for anything. It taught me the lessons that made me the person I am today. I encourage you to speak to the veterans in your life and ask them to share their own stories and lessons. You will not be disappointed, and you might even learn a thing or two.

About the Author

Rick Forster is President of SERVPRO and has been with the company for nearly forty years. He served in the United States Marine Corps for seven years, has bachelor’s degrees in Accounting and Psychology from the University of San Diego, and a master’s degree in Accounting from the University of Southern Mississippi.