The time has come to talk about something more significant than any of us as individuals. Exactly thirty years ago, I swore an oath (as required by federal law) to enlist in the United States Army. It was 1990, and I had just moved home from College Station, Texas. I decided to place my academic plans on hold to serve my country as a path toward earning funds to finish my undergraduate education. Listen to the words I swore that day.
[I, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God]
The military oath of enlistment is reasonably straightforward for most military personnel. It is administered by a superior officer, and carried out like most traditional oaths, with the officer reading the oath and the person being sworn repeating it.
No big deal, right? Wrong! As with so many before and after me, it was emotional. In that short oration, I immediately felt I had a larger purpose in life. Some call it a duty. Others call it service. For me, it was a sense of no longer living for myself. I was a typical, self-centered young adult attempting to gain traction in life. You see, I was successfully struggling my way through college without knowing what I wanted to do. But make no mistake, life was all about me. Sound familiar?
We now see the end of the WWII generation’s impact on Americans. I want you to imagine a time in this country when nearly every able person felt a compelling need to serve and protect this country. In WWII, over 6 million Americans volunteered for military service. At the time, this accounted for 5% of the entire U.S. population. Wow! In today’s numbers, that would be nearly 17 million people volunteering to put others before themselves.
In today’s “me-me-me” society, we have lost a sense of duty, honor, and commitment to others. We can blame social media for a selfish generation of Americans, or we can take ownership as parents and business leaders. We can blame politicians, or we can admit we have not modeled service to others for our children. We can blame broken families, absent fathers, or the deterioration of whatever. It is what it is. How do we fix it?
When I talk to young people, I hear the same feelings I felt before 1990. “I am not sure what I want to do in life,” sounds familiar to me. Is life as binary as go to college or find a job after high school? The military was exactly what I needed. I am suggesting we are all made better by serving something. It contradicts the narcissism that exists in each of us. Why do young people find value in gangs? It fulfills the need to serve, belong, and have a purpose.
Listen to the U.S. Army drill sergeant creed. It might provide clues as parents, business managers, and community leaders. Remember, we are all modeling something, and young people are always watching.
[I am a Drill Sergeant
I will assist each individual in their efforts to become a highly motivated, well-disciplined, physically and mentally fit soldier, capable of defeating any enemy on today's modern battlefield.
I will instill pride in all I train.
Pride in self, in the Army, and in country. I will insist that each soldier meets and maintains the Army's standards of military bearing and courtesy, consistent with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.
I will lead by example, never requiring a soldier to attempt any task I would not do myself. But first, last, and always, I am an American Soldier. Sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.
I am a Drill Sergeant.]
Let’s examine these words through the lens of business leadership. I am the CEO or President of my company. I will assist each employee to become highly motivated, well-disciplined, and physically fit to perform job duties. The CEO, manager, or supervisor must assist employees. How literally should the average business leader take this? How motivated and disciplined are your employees? What if your company can be exactly what so many young people are looking for in life?
I will instill pride in all of our employees. Leaders must model company pride in every business. How does it feel to work for your company? Does your company hire just anyone? There is pride in working at a place that is unique, special, or different. How typical or different is your company?
I will insist that each employee meets and maintains company standards. What standards do you insist are met by your employees? What happens when employees fail to meet these standards? You get what you tolerate. You train what you tolerate. You deserve what you tolerate.
I will be consistent with the highest traditions of our company. What practices do you maintain with your business? There are always traditions in every place. Are your traditions identified and deliberate? Do you know what they are?
I will lead by example, never requiring an employee to attempt a task I would not do myself. How do you (as the business leader) demonstrate humility? How do you model what is required to be successful in your business? Covid-19 and low energy prices impacted a CEO’s company. To prioritize sales for his business, he assumed the role of the sales manager. Each month he models selling (with his sales team) as the company is recovering from revenue losses. What are you doing to model the behaviors you desire for your business?
As business leaders, we cannot control what happened to our people before they joined our organization. However, we are fully responsible once they enter. We can take ownership of the quality of the people we maintain and the standards we demand as a company. You, as the CEO, are a direct reflection of the people in the company. It is all on you. No matter where people came from, they are part of your company now, and you are in control of the reality they experience as part of your team. If there is a tradition of mediocrity in your business, you are accountable for tolerating current existence.
As CEO or business owner, it is normal to feel overwhelmed by this realization. Taking total ownership for current reality is indeed a heavy lift as a leader. However, once you accept complete ownership, your business is immediately freed from excuses and blame. Once you get this idea, the past becomes irrelevant. Excuses and blame serve as ballasts for aspiring leaders. That’s right; they are weights you carry as a burden. Once you let them go, you are free to move forward.
Swear a commitment to establish traditions and demand high standards for your business. This can be an oath you take for yourself. If you mean it, your people will respond by getting better or getting out. Either way, you get better at the game of business. If your company was established in 1995, you can be reestablished in 2020 as the beginning of your new reality. Use the pandemic as your positive pivot to a better company in the future. It is up to you!