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How Veterans Make Decisions for Your Team

Many civilian leaders I meet misunderstand their veteran hires because they don’t have direct experience in the world they come from. Why, one of the first interviews I had post-Marine Corps was with a 20-year-old who said (while chomping gum), “Uh, how can you possibly work in our company if you are used to someone telling you what to do every day all day and don’t have to make any decisions yourself?” I guess she had seen a lot of revolutionary war type movies where men stand in a line and wait to be told to fire, etc. But her assessment didn’t reflect the capacity of any military person I know.

The experience of being a modern warfighter is filled with impossible or counter-intuitive decision making and it permeates how you see the world for the rest of your life. Let me explain why by giving you the different evolutions of war across human civilization in very simple terms.

First-Generation Warfare

You and I have a conflict. We get a bunch of guys to attack each other with sticks, fists, and swords until one of us loses. (Think: aftermath of most major soccer games.)

Second-Generation Warfare

We still use mass on mass fighting, but you put some guys on horses and mow my guys down from the side. Plot twist!

Third-Generation Warfare (World War Two)

Still mass on mass, maybe some horses, but now we have planes, tanks, and ships. We can both communicate long distances through the air and we are both very sneaky. I sneak around your lines and attack you from behind!

Fourth-Generation Warfare (Iraq and Afghanistan)

Everything above, but now we are using fighters out of uniform to attack each other everywhere. Politics and warfare are blurred and social media plays a big part. Guerilla fighting is the norm; you just attacked my village, killed 3 people, recorded it and edited it to make it look like I attacked your village (and killed 3000 innocent women and children), and released it on Youtube. CNN blames me. The UN announces that I am a big jerk. Bleeding hearts start GoFundMe campaigns for you and you get a speaking tour.

(Author’s note: we are currently between the 4th and 5th generations)

Fifth-Generation Warfare (Russia’s shenanigans in Ukraine)

I am your enemy, but one of my neighboring countries is your sworn ally. I send my special forces into my neighbor dressed as gang members. My guys take over that country’s gangs and train them to be lethal and commit acts of terror and sabotage. I use shell corporations to buy your ally’s media outlets and foment unrest by wailing about how dangerous the gangs are and how the national government doesn’t care about the people. When I create enough unrest, I declare I must stabilize my borders and send masses of troops in to replay Generations 1-4. The UN says, “Well… they have the right to secure their borders. What can ya do?” I declare you are a weak ally and no one can trust you. Everyone scowls at you and your allies pull away from you. I get a Peace Prize and you develop a drinking problem.

It’s complex and chastening. Being a veteran steeped in 4th and 5th Generation warfare means you might constantly keep close tabs on your local team, screen outsiders before bringing them into inner dealings, assess second and third-order effects of decisions while not getting hung up, not get overly enthusiastic about new initiatives from higher headquarters, carry out plans with little to no direction, yet constantly assess for unforeseen changes, and protect the assets, resources, and people you have under your command/control. You’re also not overly surprised by much because situations are mostly fluid, usually don’t seem to make sense, and will always change. And you’re fine with that.

I’ve coached managers who find the apparent stoicism of veterans unnerving or perceived as not being “all in”. This couldn’t be a less useful assumption. Corporate culture often favors a young person’s exuberance in any and all scenarios. For example, recall when a manager announces that the team needs to rearrange office space and someone shouts out a variation of (in cheer squad voice) “Oh MY GAAAWD! I LOVE moving DESKS!” Rinse and repeat for handing out stale cookies in the breakroom, creating new spreadsheets, or developing a new sales initiative.

Don’t get me wrong, veteran’s love office arrangements as much as the next person. But their mind will likely be on trying to map what will be the request after the next request. See, every military person knows that making office space look better usually means someone of significant importance is coming to visit, which usually means something has broken down. So when you make surprise announcements for crucial office rearrangements, she is probably thinking, “What blew up, who blew it up, what power player is coming down to figure out exactly what happened, and how do I get me and my people on the appetizing side of that soup sandwich?”

In short, understand that vets come from a complex system of planning and problem-solving. They may not lead your cheer squad, but you might be shocked at their insights when you bring them into your planning meetings. It’s up to you to handle their straight and unvarnished feedback, sans exuberance. Many a manager there is who whithers under truth when spoken.