Army Ranger to Project Manager and the leadership lessons I learned

Army Ranger to Project Manager and the leadership lessons I learned

Making the leap from the military to a professional project manager didn’t seem smart at first. However, I quickly realized that the Army and Coast Guard set me up perfectly for my new career. Here’s how I apply what I learned.

The leadership I’ve learned through life could be summed up and put on the front of a t-shirt, “95% of the leadership skills I learned, I learned in the Army.” If that saying isn’t already a thing, I want that trademark ™️.

An obligatory backstory: I’ve been in the military most of my adult life. I joined the Army in 1994 at the ripe age of 17. But, in the end, I got bored training to go to war (I was young/dumb) and decided to get out four years later. But, less than a year after that, I was back in the service, this time joining the U.S. Coast Guard.

The time spent in the Coast Guard was split as Enlisted and 15+ years as an Officer. However, given all the training, schooling, and discipline I received along the way, I still credit my four years in the Army as setting the leadership bar for me. Here’s what I learned while serving in the Army’s 1/75th Ranger Battalion as an Infantryman and how it is applied to my life today as a Project and Program Manager.

First, my early military path helped build my “leadership toolbox.”

Basic Training

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. There was very little in leadership learned while attending Basic Training. Or, so I thought.

Airborne School

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. Learning how to jump out of a perfect airplane isn’t so hard once you do it. The two and a half weeks of getting to that point is hard. It’s full of instruction ingrained into your head with repetitive motion, memorization, and the fear of possible death being removed via the squelch of continual movement and little real rest. But, again, I didn’t see the application of any leadership education at the time. It was seemingly just a matter of staying alive as you walked out of a metal tube at 120+ miles per hour into the void.

Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP)

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. I got my first glimpse of leadership while attending RIP when the cadre put the 30 hopeful guys into five teams with nothing more than a pile of gear and instructions to be out front in 30 minutes. Add to this an instructor walking in every three minutes telling us to do pushups or wall-sits, and you begin to see people crack from confusion alone. But wait, was that leadership?

Ranger Battalion

I was wrong about how hard everything had been up to this point. My life at Battalion consisted of the following routine: run/lift/exercise, shoot, learn to run, lift, and shoot, run obstacle courses, maintain gear, learn close-quarter tactics, hand-to-hand combat, and play hard. This was the gist of my everyday existence and a significant hardship for some. You could sum it up as an additional 3.5 years of Basic Training. But it was for a reason.

The application of military leadership/followership to Project Management

Teamwork

While I’m sure the mere mention of someone being in the military will conjure thoughts of collaboration, believe me when I say it’s not the same across the board. Basic training proved this (teamwork?) in the first few weeks. After that, however, the term and practice of teamwork were in everything we did at Ranger Batt.

From entering a room and firing upon realistic targets to entering a bar in downtown Savannah. A Ranger would rarely be found alone, as the idiom states, “There’s safety in numbers.” While I wouldn’t be too far from calling a few men my friends, I’d be on the nose in referring to them as my teammates. Be it breaching a wall or contorting each other into submission during Jujitsu lessons, you came out knowing that the three or four nearest people to you- at any given moment- would be there for you when the stuff got real.

Amid a project, as the leader– inferred or otherwise– it’s your goal to build this cohesion. I’m not suggesting you take the team to a ropes course or learn Jujitsu as a group (though it might help), but you need to take the time to figure out how to bring the team together. This will be the most challenging thing to master 95% of the time.

Self-Governing

While re-editing this article, I didn’t initially have “self-governing” in the mix. I often use the phrase “keep moving forward,” the source of which is my former squad leader yelling it as we moved to another location. Now, remove that squad leader (he’s hurt, and can no longer lead), or to put it into a business context, remove your manager who didn’t show up to work. Your team still needs to meet its objective; that presentation you were working on still needs to be presented to the executives– it’s not going to present itself. This is where self-governance takes the lead when there’s an unexpected lack of leadership.

It needn’t be anything so grave as a loss of life or one’s boss; plenty of times, you can step up to the plate and move the group, meeting, or project forward. Learn to lead when there’s a lack of leadership, and your ability to build team cohesion when needed most will come without even trying. [Could also apply to “picking up the slack.”]

Idleness

While being idle at home can be relaxing, it wasn’t “a thing” while in the barracks– it’s a concept that is “unlearned.” If it was a working day, you were learning, doing, or remaining engaged during working hours. If there was “nothing to do” (<- I laugh writing that even today), you found something to do. Or, as your parents would tell you, they’d see something for you to do.

In Airborne School, you’re encouraged to learn on your own; it may lessen your chances of dying or, at the very least, getting hurt.

This is applied to the office (or the home office), too; if your work/project is on hold or you finished your work for that day, use the time you have, the time you’re getting paid for, to remain engaged. Myself, I do training courses. And I make sure everyone knows about it.

Your company expects you to keep abreast of the latest information concerning your job function. For me, that means learning some new ways to run a meeting or project management technique. Case in point, I’ve completed my PMI-ACP (Agile Certified Practitioner) training and application, became a Certified Scrum Master, and am working on my MBA and PMI’s Program Manager certification (PgMP). Why? Because I want to brag about you to my peers and managers. That means we/I can’t stay idle; we must keep learning, reading, and doing (read: “keep moving forward”).

Time Management

This is a huge one, perhaps the most valuable “military to civilian” transitional skill taught/learned. While in the Army, or any job, you’re given a list of objectives (think “needs to be accomplished”), and you’re usually given a specific time frame. If you’ve just destroyed the enemy bridge yet didn’t make it to the landing zone (LZ) for extraction in time, you might have a long, if not dangerous, walk ahead of you. The same, to a point, is correct in business, too. If you have a task you’ve been asked to complete and said you would, you need to get it done on time or risk the wrath of the enemy, ‘er, I mean the boss.

My life now differs because I can tell my manager that I under/overestimated my timeline or was outright wrong. I suspect most can do this without fear of reprisal (at least the first time). However, even this simple act is hard for some. From experience, it’s best to let your manager and team know that something went wrong (perhaps you misjudged something) and you cannot finish the job on time. Lying or just blowing off the deadline won’t fair well with anyone.

Motivation

Getting up in the morning sucks. Being a career military man and a father of five, you’d think I’d be able to get up without issue. But having the motivation to get up some mornings to work can be downright hard. Coffee does help. ☕️

I’m not going to tell you that being motivated to do everything/anything is easy; it’s not, and it’s a very personal thing. Sometimes, people don’t like their jobs, which can be a huge motivation drainer. However, if you have people counting on you, you need to pull up your pants, get a large cup of coffee/tea/water, and do your job. This will take motivation. You’re part of a team; act like it.

While it may be difficult for you to motivate yourself from the leadership side, others count on you to remain motivated for their sake. My wife would hear co-workers/subordinates say things like “his motivation is contagious” or something along that line (I’m not boasting; I’m making a point). Yet, she’d always wonder why I wasn’t like this at home. While it’s not a secret from her, sometimes, putting on that front for others is what gets the job done. Again, others count on you as a leader to motivate them. Do your team a solid and do just that.

Persuasion

It wasn’t until I was out of the Army some 5+ years that I realized I’d learned persuasive leadership. When I went to Officer Candidate School for the Coast Guard, I was cleaning a bathroom with a group of guys. Yes, even as a prospective officer, I got the lucky deed of cleaning the bathroom (or head, if you will). I’m not saying I am or was a good leader, but I persuaded the team of six that we needed to work together for the goal of just getting it done. No big song or dance. It was the truth, I spoke it, and we got it done.

I give my Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Dodson, the credit for teaching me this. He and I didn’t like each other much, but I was young; he wasn’t. He had a knack for motivating the platoon, but it wasn’t via motivational speeches per se; he did it by being truthful and making us all feel as if we were the ones who wanted to get the job done. Wow, I really do want to walk 40 miles through the woods and mud with 110 pounds on my back. He knew how to do his job; that’s why he was the man in charge.

This goes smack in the middle of motivation and teamwork. It’s an art that takes years to perfect (I’m still working on it). Yet, if you’re able to do so, even a little, you can get the job done even with an unlikely team. However, the single “gotcha” I can think of for this is the remote work scenario many of us still face today. Trying to persuade someone to make the extra effort to complete the project is a lot harder when they can’t see or feel your energy or desperation.

Clarity

This is something I learned while just doing my job. That is, as a team, get from point-A to point-E without being seen, get your Geometry homework done, and crochet a sock simultaneously. The point is, through all the stuff you need to get done, no matter how hard it seems, you need to take a moment to step back and look at the issue from the outside to see how this could be better… to have a moment of clarity. In the above case, separate and prioritize the three tasks (why are you doing math and needlework anyway?).

It’s not easy, yet you/we need to learn this. We’ll call this “an adult thing.” If I’m in the thick of it, I still fail at this one. I get too focused. It’s not until I’m done with work for the day that I see the error of my ways while having that “duh” moment.

And finally,

Understanding willingness vs. ability

This last lesson is one that anyone who joins the service or a first responder job can tell you they’ve learned. There’s a big difference between wanting/willing to do a task versus being unable to do it. Ethics aside, you can do much more than you think when the time comes. For example, before joining the Army, I wasn’t willing to jump out of a plane, ready to maim someone or march 35 miles in crappy boots. However, after my first year, I had jumped some 20+ times without-ish issue, and every workday, I was learning how to hurt people at the shooting range or hand-to-hand skills (it’s not as dramatic as it reads).

While you’re not training to kill people in business, you will come upon those times when you don’t want to do something, but you’re able to. The job that was due this morning didn’t get done (Time Management); it’s Friday afternoon, and you’re the one who needs to do it to ensure the deed is done (it sucks being a leader sometimes, ‘eh?). You need to call your significant other and let them know you will be late because you can do this. This will rear its ugly head time and time again. It matters not, though; if the task isn’t done, and you’re the leader, you’re the one that gets it done or takes the hit. Choices… choices…

This is the end

I share this to show you that while we’re all learning things along the way, we might not know we’ve done so until the path worn by time is profound. You’ll have those ah-ha moments 💡 later in life and realize you know how to handle this because your father’s friend’s neighbor taught you some 15 years ago. Just remember, keep moving forward; it’ll come to you.

Note: this is a re-write of an early piece; thank you to those who provided some insight into the final product.