So there I was – lying low in the cold muddy water with my nose just 1 inch above for breathing, holding the rifle in my hand and waiting for others to move forward as quickly as possible. Constant screaming and yelling only added more stress while shivering cold made me think I would definitely get sick if I ever survive this. I was crawling in this water and mud for what seemed to be hours.
That place where I was is called the Officer Candidates School. It is located in Quantico, Virginia and we were taking the US Marine Corps obstacles course while the instructor was yelling at us to move forward faster. This was a course offered as part of my MBA program for those who wanted to experience the real USMC life. It was a very short event, just a few days, but it gave me a totally different perspective on many things in life.
USMC is one of the most respected branches of the US Armed Forces and is very well respected for their leadership and courage as well as the fighting skills and the commitment to the mission. Marines are some of the best trained professionals in the US military and they go through a series of never-ending tough drills and trainings to become fearless and committed warriors.
Having seen what Marines go through, I have the ultimate respect for these people and I tried to learn as much as I could in such a short period of time when I was in Quantico. As soon as you get there, you realize that no matter how physically or mentally strong you thought you were, it won’t be an easy task to survive – your skills, both physical and mental, will be challenged and the instructors will drill you over and over again until you learn to survive and win. They prepare the officer candidates for war, and there is no better way to make you ready than to give you the ultimate pressure on all possible fronts. Constant physical exhaustive exercises, no privacy, uncomfortable and nasty conditions, timed team tasks that require you to take leadership and think on your feet, yelling and screaming of the instructors, extreme discipline and stress – these are just some of the things future officers have to co-op with and go through in the boot camp.
Why would I want to take this course in the first place (as well as tens of other MBA students, including women)? I wanted to get the warrior’s perspective on things, learn the leadership lessons from someone who knew how to survive in extreme and deadly situations; I wanted to understand what matters to these people most, what drives them and how I could apply the skills and knowledge I would acquire in the boot camp in my business career.
Here are a few things I learned from the Marines:
1. You have no idea what you are capable of.
These are life-or-death situations, when a sign of weakness or a wrong decision may mean the end of your life (and, often, the lives of others). On the other hand, reading hundreds of pages of professional finance books written in a foreign language and sleeping 3 hours a day for 6 days a week just to keep up with your homework is a different challenge you will have in a business school. All of these change your perception of your capabilities forever. You realize that you can always do much more, and more, and more, and even more than you ever thought you could. Motivation is, of course, a different question.
I took classes with a trained American spy deployed in Iraq, Black Hawk pilots who went to war and military professionals who participated in special operations. I can only imagine what these people went through in their first 25 years of their lives. Any issue you think is significant is nothing as compared to what you could have potentially been exposed to. Just remember, that you are capable of much more at any single point in time.
2. Credit your team for success, take responsibility for failure.
When it comes to failure, it is very often something that you’ve done wrong somewhere in the process, even if you just didn’t make an influence on your team at the right moment. Take responsibility, always do your homework and learn the lessons. And don’t be too stressed about doing something wrong – after all, failure is just a stepping stone to success. Many people actually learn much more from failures than from successes. We all know that the bonds people build in extreme situations last forever. Bring those people who you trust and who helped you achieve success previously to any new business you want to make successful and don’t forget to motivate them. The strongest teams I’ve seen had the leader who always stood for his team and did everything for them caring less for himself and leading by example.
3. Learn, always learn new things.
Well, though it may be true for some positions in business, if you are a top manager or are running your own company, there is no way of making it successful unless you learn how it operates and what interconnections exist among different expertise domains. This brings me back to the lesson number 3 above. In order for you to learn more, you must know what you need to learn. This is where your self-awareness comes into play. Sometimes you will work with people who think or claim they know everything but the interesting phenomenon is that the smarter the person is, the more he or she understands that there is even more to learn. The higher you climb, the further you see, or as Albert Einstein put it: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” The first step of this journey though is knowing exactly where to put your efforts and energy and where you need to improve. Marines are trained to know themselves inside-out and this knowledge is reiterated over and over again through rigorous, thorough and profound trainings. Since they are pushed to execute on the edge of human physical and mental limits, they grow to learn themselves well, and this is what we all should try to do in business too.
90% of startups do not survive even when the founders put everything at stake to make it work – and they still lose. It’s not the end of life, it’s not the reason for depression, just get up and move forward. Regardless of what is happening with you now, you have a million reasons to enjoy life and be thankful for a good lesson you will learn from the failure. I am very thankful for the opportunity to come to the Officer Candidates School and learn from the US Marines some of the principles which I think are very relevant and very important in business.
Here is the last part of the story I wanted to tell you. A few years ago I was on an international flight wearing the green USMC t-shirt (I still have it) when two different people (a flight attendant and just another passenger) came up to me and said: “Thank you for your service!” Of course, I immediately confessed that I am not a real Marine but the fact that USMC are treated with such an utmost respect only made me feel very proud for having the honor to at least train with them for a few days, get this amazing experience and learn the lessons. If you’d like to get a feeling of how the trainings look like, you can watch the videos here for men and here for women.
If you are reading this and you have been a Marine, please share your experience in the comments – I am sure people would love to hear about it. And, indeed, Thank You for your service and your wisdom.
Life Explorer and Startup Consultant. Moving quickly towards total happiness. :)