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Why I Brought My Military Uniform With Me To Business School

Ben Faw, a former Infantry Platoon Leader, shares his personal journey from the battlefield to business school. Leadership and discipline are military traits that can be applied to management.

My name is Ben Faw. I am a West Point graduate, Class of 2007, a former Infantry Platoon Leader, and a graduate of Airborne and Ranger School. Here is my take on what a veteran can learn at business school.

Rank never equalled respect in the military, and neither will your title in the private sector

Pinning the 2nd Lieutenant bar on my beret and shoulders as a junior Army officer was an incredible moment. But I already knew any true respect from my subordinates would be earned through actions and care for their needs – not through the rank shown on my uniform.

The same principles apply in both business school and the private sector. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”. In my case, helping my soldiers clean bathrooms when they were exhausted from the sweltering heat in Iraq earned more respect than any rank or position ever would.

In a variety of companies and academic environments post-military, the same principle has been true for me. Serving others as a leader has translated into far more credibility and respect than flaunting position, rank, or past accomplishments.

The “right time, right place, right uniform” still makes a difference

While the peer from the private sector might know Excel modelling and financial statements far better than a veteran, the self-discipline practiced in the military is rarely ingrained as deeply in people from other backgrounds.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert in something; by the first few years of service, many veterans have already completed the 10,000 hours in self-discipline training. Whether you are going to a unit-level meeting or the corporate boardroom, arriving a few minutes early, dressed in the right attire, goes a long way to building trust, credibility and authority.

I still remember a time when, while on a mission, I was late for Basic Officer Training - and I was the patrol leader for the mission! That terrible feeling in my stomach after my commander woke me up at around 5AM is something I will never forget.  

Fitness, health and wellness create an edge

Those early morning physical training sessions five days a week in the military were not a waste. Instead, they built a habit which has now become an advantage. Maintaining this fitness routine post-military provides more than just a nice look at the beach; recent research indicates it may lead to higher wages as well. Even if it doesn’t, the self-discipline and work ethic can shine through to potential employers in a positive way.

Practicing healthy living can also help reduce stress and build the resilience and stamina needed for the challenges of the future. With long, winding career paths for many in today’s workforce, every reasonable way to reduce stress is useful.

Be willing to serve based on the job, not the location

veteran

As you can see in the interactive image, above, veterans tend to take jobs all over the country after business school. This should not come as a huge surprise. In their military careers, veterans have been deployed in locations far off the beaten track, and continuing on this same trend of serving based on the job – and not on the location – is nothing new for them.   

Leadership is incredibly transferable

While the functional training we received in the military is not very transferable for the MBA student, the leadership abilities are. Whether you are leading a military unit into harm’s way or guiding a team though the due diligence process for an investment, many of the same skills apply.

Communicating and listening to others, leading by example, and treating all parties with respect, matter. These skills were essential in the military, and they are still incredibly important in the private sector.

Learning doesn’t end when class is over

In the same way I learned from peers in-between classes at military school, the most meaningful learning opportunities at b-school require in-person experiences and shared time together. The full-time in-class MBA experience provides both.

The information you learn in the class at business school can potentially be obtained at a lower cost by buying the books, studying on your own, and watching the classes online. But in reality, hours studying books will never be the same as the experience of learning from your peers both inside and outside of the classroom.

Resources are scarce – learn how to manage them

Just as military tasks are never complete, business schools offer a reminder that we cannot do everything. From day one endless mixers, social gatherings and recruiting events beckon our time. Hundreds of classmates, who each have an incredible story to tell and who would be incredible additions to our network, pass us by each day.

However, you cannot get to know them all in a meaningful way, just like you can never prepare enough for that first combat patrol. We have to make tough decisions with our time and resources.

We have to invest, thoughtfully, in the people and things that matter the most. Only then can we realize our potential as business leaders, and only then do we as veterans continue to make a difference to the lives of others.  

A special thanks to Matthew Faw, Momchil Filev, and Walter Haas: you have each been wonderful editors in this writing process, and more importantly, dear friends. Thanks for everything.

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