“Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I can’t assimilate. Maybe I’m so broken that I can’t do anything else.” These aren’t just words; they’re a haunting echo that reverberates in the minds of many combat veterans as they transition into the civilian workforce. The unsettling truth is that most veterans won’t stay in their first job out of the military past 18 months. Despite unparalleled leadership skills, an innate understanding of human behavior, and the capacity to solve complex problems, they find it challenging to “fit” within the corporate structure. Many in corporate America see the military filled with obedient automatons, who only know “killing people” and don’t understand business.
This is not a plea for sympathy (combat veterans do not want sympathy), nor is this an entitled perspective (combat veterans do not feel entitled, they want to contribute to something greater than themselves). This is an observation. People often think they want to “help” veterans but rarely understand how to “serve” with them. And it’s not their fault. Life in the military and especially in combat is a paradigm shift from any civilian experience.
Contrary to public perception, many of us who served—especially in specialized units like the Special Operations community—had a surprising degree of freedom. While it is hard to replicate the freedom warriors in combat enjoy, adapting ideas about what freedom looks like may help. Freedom may sound like a strange word since most folks think the military is a draconian hegemony. But for most who have served in combat, and especially those who have served in the Special Operations community, freedom to operate was exactly what was experienced.
We weren’t just compliant robots; we were entrepreneurial warriors, balancing calculated risks and opportunities to achieve mission objectives. Warriors are trusted to find opportunities and seize them on behalf of the organization at every level of operations. There was a balanced pressure to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit within a corporate structure. This pressure created adaptability, resiliency, and an understanding of risk management. While all this sounds like what every business is looking for, why are veterans having such a hard time finding their next work chapter? So, why do veterans have such a hard time finding their next career?
Many perspectives circulate about this issue—placing the onus on the veteran, the military, or even mental health. Yet seldom do we hear the corporate world questioning its own adaptability to the unique skills and experiences that a veteran brings. Perhaps the solution lies somewhere in between.
Navigating the chaos of life is a common challenge, one that feels the same whether you are running an operation, a household, or a company. Common vernacular has had us refer to this movement through chaos as navigate through the “fog of war.” But the “fog of war” in combat feels much more comfortable to the warrior than what they face in the corporate world. For warriors transitioning, they now have to navigate the “fog of Corporate America.” This enigmatic labyrinth can be bewildering, but it also offers unique opportunities for leadership and growth that can benefit from a military-inspired mindset.
The Different Fogs We Face
In the world of combat, the fog of war is a tangible reality. Soldiers are trained to cut through the uncertainty and chaos to achieve mission success. Teamwork isn’t just encouraged; it’s mandated. Trust flows naturally, predicated on the unspoken yet evident commitment each person has to the mission and their teammates.
The fog of Corporate America is a different kind of challenge but no less daunting. Here, the mission isn’t always crystal clear, and teammates often have competing priorities or divergent views on how success should be defined. Unlike the battlefield, where the enemy serves as a unifying force, the lack of a visible “enemy” in the corporate setting can sometimes make competitors out of peers, complicating teamwork.
The Fog of Corporate America
Just as we speak about the fog of war, there’s a fog that engulfs Corporate America—a haze of undefined objectives, interpersonal politics, and an often unspoken rulebook that leaves many scrambling for clarity. Unlike combat, where the mission is clear-cut and trust flows from a unified focus, the corporate terrain offers a maze of shifting alliances and undefined objectives. Here, your peers can be your competitors; everyone’s chasing their own version of ‘success.’ For a veteran, accustomed to the ‘we, not me’ philosophy, this is perplexing and at times, downright alien.
What the Corporate World Can Learn
However, this gap isn’t just a challenge for veterans; it’s a missed opportunity for the corporate world. While the military thrives on mission command—a culture that encourages adaptability, collaboration, and people-centric leadership—corporate environments often get tangled in a web of bureaucracy and self-preservation. If business leaders truly want teamwork with results, they can simply look at integrating these four concepts into their culture:
- Alignment Toward Mission: The military’s laser-focused mission alignment can be a game-changer in corporate settings, driving a culture of unity and purpose.
- Rewarding Collaboration: Teamwork shouldn’t be just a buzzword. Corporations can truly advance by celebrating collective efforts over individual accomplishments.
- Encouraging Risk-Taking: The military teaches us that calculated risks often lead to innovation. Corporate America could do well by adopting a similar mindset.
- Downplaying Self-Advocacy: A culture that values the collective over the individual tends to build trust faster and more efficiently.
Alignment Toward Mission
In military operations, the mission is our North Star. In Corporate America, a clearly defined mission or goal can have the same unifying effect. When individual tasks and projects align with the overall mission, team members are more invested, fostering a sense of collective ownership and responsibility.
The Power of Collaboration
In the military, collaboration is a necessity, not a choice. The corporate world needs to recognize that this is not just about group work but about collectively reaching an objective that would be difficult or impossible to achieve alone. Reward systems should be structured to celebrate teamwork, rather than just individual accomplishments.
Risk and Innovation
Calculated risk-taking is another principle that transfers well from the battlefield to the boardroom. Risks are inherent in any meaningful endeavor, but what matters is how well they are calculated and executed. The corporate world would do well to foster an environment that not just tolerates but encourages such calculated risks, for this is the fertile ground from which innovation often sprouts.
Trust and Accountability
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of any team, military or corporate, is trust. In the military, trust is immediate, often a matter of life and death. While the stakes might not be as high in corporate settings, the principle remains the same. Trust can and should be cultivated, even if it takes time. Once it’s there, accountability comes naturally, because people are more likely to deliver on their promises when they trust and are trusted by their teammates.
The Common Ground: Mission-Oriented Mindset
Despite the differences between combat and business, both landscapes are not mutually exclusive. While veterans may find the transition into the corporate world challenging, there are universal principles and skills that remain invaluable in both settings. Similarly, the corporate world has a lot to gain from adopting the principles that guide military conduct—what the armed forces refer to as “mission command.”
The Way Forward
As we negotiate the fog of Corporate America, let’s not forget the insights that can be drawn from the fog of war. It’s not about imposing one setting’s principles onto the other but about integrating the best of both worlds to create more adaptive, collaborative, and effective teams.
To veterans, consider your experience as a unique lens that allows you to contribute differently. And to corporate leaders, see this as an opportunity to incorporate valuable lessons from the military mindset. Together, let’s build a corporate culture that values alignment, collaboration, calculated risk-taking, and trust. It’s not about who adapts to whom; it’s about all of us adapting together to navigate any fog we may face.
In this journey, remember that it’s not about becoming warriors in a corporate setting, but rather about fostering a warrior-like mindset that values mission, teamwork, adaptability, and trust. The aim is to emerge stronger and more united, capable of leading, inspiring, and succeeding in any battlefield, be it literal or metaphorical. Like on the battlefield, everyone needs to accept the differences and adapt together.
Let’s seize this opportunity for growth, blending the best elements from both military and corporate experiences to chart a course through the fog—discovering not just clarity but also a more robust and inclusive version of success.
The challenge lies in embracing each other’s strengths while acknowledging that we each have something valuable to contribute. The corporate world can, and should, evolve to incorporate the untapped potential of veterans. After all, the answer might just lie somewhere in the middle—where warriors and corporate leaders meet, not as adversaries or as misfits, but as collaborators ready to clear the fog together.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.