10 + 1 Lessons From My Army Careers
10 + 1 Lessons From My Army Careers
By Augustus Way Fountain III, Ph.D.
I often tell people I have had three successful careers, all in the Army. I had a career in the operational Army, serving in mechanized, airborne and special operations infantry units. I had a career as an academic, serving as part of the permanent military faculty at the United States Military Academy. And I have had a career as an Army senior research scientist, serving at the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, in Iraq with the Counter Explosives Exploitation Cell and at the Pentagon as the Army’s deputy chief scientist. As I look to transition away from the Army this July, I have taken some time to reflect on my 35 years as a Soldier and Army civilian. Here are some key lessons learned that have helped me be successful and are applicable in both military and civilian life.
1. “Constantly improve your fighting position.”
In the Army, when you develop a defensive position you never know when the enemy might attack. Therefore, you are constantly shoring up defenses and making general improvements to make the position as good as possible. I actually learned this first in Boy Scouts under the adage “Constantly improve your campsite.” To me this means that no matter where you find yourself, constantly improve your surroundings. Whether at home or in the workplace, we should each strive to leave our communities, our organizations and our world in a better place than we found it. If we each take the personal responsibility to improve our own position, everyone around us will benefit as well.
2. “One bad PLF (parachute landing fall), and everyone moves up a position.”
I spent a good bit of my early career in Special Operations and Airborne units. Parachute jumps can injure anyone if they are not careful. If that happens and you lose someone on the drop zone, you still must complete the mission. Therefore, everyone in the unit must be prepared to do the job of the person to your left, your right, a level beneath you and at least two levels above you. This has several meanings for me. The first is that everyone is replaceable. While we are each unique in our own way, the humbling truth is when we change jobs or positions, we are replaced by someone equally or even more qualified and the job continues. The second is that for an organization to be successful, everyone needs to know each other’s role and be prepared to pick up the slack in the event of an emergency or just when things get tough. An organization cannot be successful if everyone works in isolation.
3. “A short pencil is better than a long memory.”
This is a favorite quote from my first battalion commander and why I constantly am taking notes in my green notebook. No one can remember everything, but I find that I remember more if I physically write it down. My notebooks allow me to capture key actions that must be completed, minutes of ordinary and important meetings, random thoughts that pop into my head, and doodles that sketch out scenarios, scientific concepts, or even woodworking designs. However, they are a great daily record of my activities and more than once I have been able to go back in time to prove one thing or another.
4. “The troops do what the commander checks.”
As a commander, a director or even a manager there are a lot of things you are responsible for. It is probably impossible to truly be 100 percent compliant on everything, but there are some key activities that are career killers if you aren’t. When you are in a leadership position, your subordinates will quickly find out what your priorities are based on the questions you ask and what you check up on. They will follow suit and pay attention to those things and let others slide. Therefore, you must have your priorities in order.
5. “As soon as you let a standard slip, you have created a new standard.”
As a cadet and officer I was trained that everything could be broken down to a task, condition and a standard. That simply means the thing you have to do, the constraints or setting you have to do it in, and the expected level of performance. It didn’t matter if it was a ruck march or maintaining personnel files, there was a standard. If you allowed one Soldier to get away with not upholding the standard, then you have just lowered the expectations of everyone. That is just as true in the civilian workplace as it is in the military. If you allow someone to be late to work or not adhere to the company dress code or follow safety guidelines, then it becomes impossible to hold everyone else to that standard. The standard is there for a reason. Meet it or exceed it, but don’t ignore it.
6. “Your outward appearance is a reflection of your inward motivation.”
This quote was beat into us by Command Sergeant Major Dalton in the 1st Ranger Battalion. Rangers were expected to be the best at everything, mostly because they were created to be an example for all the other units in the Army. This fact is highlighted in the fourth stanza of the Ranger Creed, “Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained Soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.” How you carry yourself is a direct reflection of who you truly are on the inside. In business, this can be translated to treat every day as if it is a job interview.
7. “It can always get worse.”
In the Army, we often like to “embrace the suck.” If you don’t, life can really start to wear on you. One of the truisms I have learned is that, despite how bad it is it can always get worse. Therefore, relish in whatever situation you are in and make the most of it. I’m neither a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. I’m more of a realist. Rather than yearn for what could be, take what you have and make the most of it. Because, in an instant things can go sideways.
8. “Science is a team sport.”
The concept of the lone scientist toiling away in the laboratory and discovering game changing technologies is a myth. That is especially true in today’s interdisciplinary laboratories. It takes a large diverse group of individuals to be successful in the laboratory. If you cannot work as part of or with teams of individuals, you are in the wrong business.
9. “Don’t paint yourself into a corner.”
When I was selected by the Army to go to graduate school, I really wanted to major in explosives chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines. However, my former undergraduate advisor encouraged me to major in either analytical chemistry or physical chemistry. His point was if your background is too niche, then it will be difficult to find relevant work later on. In industry and in government labs we need scientists that can expertly span the gamut of the sciences to solve Army problems. We have little need for unique specialists who can or want to work only on one particular thing.
10. “Keep it simple.”
Clearly, 50 percent of a scientist’s job is communications. Scientists generally have no trouble talking to their peers about what they are doing, but more often than not we have to communicate with senior leaders or the general public. If you cannot explain your research in terms your grandmother would understand, then I would argue that you don’t really know what you are doing well enough. We all need to become experts at explaining highly technical research to non-technical audiences. Otherwise they will never grasp the value of our work.
+1. “Don’t tie your ego to your position, so that when one goes the other follows.”
This is my favorite quote from retired General Colin Powell. For many in the military it is easy to link your perception of self-worth to the rank you wear on your uniform. Many lose their way when they are no longer addressed as general, colonel, sergeant major or Soldier. This is also true in civil society and is a source of depression when people lose their jobs due to cutbacks, corporate mergers or even injury. Additionally in both the military and corporate worlds, it can drive many to step on others as they rise to the position on the ladder they think they deserve. Small missteps can cause you to tumble, often knocking those beneath you down as well. While humility is a trait all leaders should have, to me this quote is more than about humility. It simply means that who I am as a person is much more than what I do or what rank I obtain. Whether I am the boss or the lowest person on the totem pole, I am comfortable in who I am and will do my very best because that is just me being me.