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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.

You are the Resistance

To be human is to have passions, to seek out experiences which give you expertise, prestige, and even a little bit of magic. That said, your means of earning money should not require you to lock your heart in a box and set it on the shelf. If you do, you’ll die inside. It’ll take your body a while to catch up.

But business is getting personal. It was inevitable with smartphones and devices connecting us 24 hours a day. The business we are in, our professional connections, and company culture will ever affect us in our homes and private lives with no end in sight.

That can be a very, very good thing.

“Let My People Go…”

In my days, I have seen a company fire a loyal employee because he picked up a piece of discarded ice from the ground for his lunchbox; I have seen bone-headed “organizational restructurings” done just to push out folks who mention elephants in the room; I have seen minorities passed over for higher roles because someone didn’t like their hair texture.

Let companies like that grind themselves into the ground and burn as their best employees leave.

As more professionals realize the importance of good fit, I hope we witness an exodus of great talent from bad companies. I wish all people would take a good hard look at themselves and determine if they are valued where they are. If not, prepare a daring escape.

When top talent across the US votes with their feet and companies with great culture absorb them, you will see fear and trembling in lesser firms. Bums will be thrown out of boardrooms, mini-tyrant managers will be told “Hit the bricks, pal!”, and talented employees will stop having to fear for their job regardless whether their hair may or may not be straight enough.

The Power to Change

In short: great employees who know what they bring and what they will stand for can change bad culture to good. And if the culture won’t change, the company must be forced to wither on the vine.

More employees are demanding more human-friendly workplaces. Top companies are minimizing dress codes, creating family-friendly policies, and even putting people through school to get them to where they need to be. In short, creating places where people can not only apply their talents but also bring their hard-wrought personalities. Day to day work becomes attached to personal vision.

Your Value

A good analogy for how our personal and professional lives should transect is bitcoin mining. To oversimplify, bitcoin is a cryptocurrency extrapolated when software “unlocks” data transactions creating a one of a kind block of data. When the software “figures out” how to unlock the block, bitcoin value is created or verified. Currently, a bitcoin is worth somewhere around $11,000.

Just so, when you can figure out where your personal life and professional passions truly transect, you get your value. Learn to combine your expertise with the thing that gives you prestige and your magic. Where those things come together is your value, your bitcoin.

In my own case, what I see as my value is this:

  • An MS in Organizational Leadership and Human Resources Management, as well as an SPHR and SHRM-SCP certifications (Expertise)
  • A background with really great organizations (Prestige)
  • The mystery and honor that comes with an honorable half decade in the world’s best fighting force and deployments to Afghanistan (Magic).

Where all these transects, people feel they can trust me, want to hear what I have to say, and look to me to guide them in their career goals. So I guide them.

In Closing

Find your bitcoin. Where do your different aspects intersect for greatest value? Gather those to your aid that can help you answer that. Odds are, you’re worth more to the world than your current status. Once you figure it out, go where you are appreciated, not tolerated. Even if that means blazing your own trail.

I am an aspiring writer and supporter of professional people trying to push their boundaries. But I love public speaking even more! I’ve been rebranding people through writing resumes and building LinkedIn profiles for years from my online vacation home at


This article is part 4 of a many part series treating the Marine Corps Leadership mnemonic, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE

Definition: Initiative is taking action even though you haven’t been given orders. It means meeting new and unexpected situations with prompt action. It includes using resourcefulness to get something done without the normal material or methods being available to you.

I am currently on a Mel Gibson, Nicholas Cage, John Travolta action movie bender. Dozens of 1980’s and 90’s action-packed glory. I probably need help at this point, but I can’t stop/won’t stop.

Fortunately, I have noticed some real pearls of wisdom. Every great action movie is filled with characters who know just what to do when things go bad. Where to go, what to blow up, or whom to take down.

The motif is important. It’s the idea of people who just get things done with no guidance even in disorder or duress. In a word, “initiative”.

Here are some elements of the motif behind initiative:

  • Expertise
  • Communication
  • Respect for competence
  • Trust

When your team has the expertise, communicates well, there is general respect for each other’s professional competence, and general trust, initiative will thrive.

Which means your team will thrive.

The sign of a great leader is when you can embrace the decisions your subordinates make which are reasonably correct and run with them. The truth is that most all decisions can be course corrected, but a decision needs to be made in the first place. Embracing decisions from your subordinates creates more decisions. Unwarranted criticism of subordinate’s decisions which you were not equipped or confident enough to make in the first place creates team paralysis. And you are to be blamed.

It’s a mark of an immature leader that creates paralysis. And the gates of leadership hell (“heck” for those in Utah) swing wide and hungrily for those who refuse to make a decision till a subordinate is forced to and then proceed to criticize. It’s a gross feat of cowardice.

I have seen managers avoid making a decision (that would tie them down) and then browbeat those who saved their bacon by making a call. I’ve seen managers chew the buns right off well-meaning subordinates who made pretty solid decisions, just because it wasn’t the decision the manager would have made. The erosion of trust and confidence is staggering. Initiative ceases.

Soon you get a “leader” musing about if they only had a better team.

“There are no bad battalions, only colonels”, said Napoleon Bonaparte. That translates to “there are no bad teams, only leaders.” Let that sink in.

I assume you have expertise in your role and understand why communication is important (go read “Crucial Conversations”). On showing respect for people’s competence, that gets downright philosophical. I’ll give you a free tip: If you find yourself being a jerk-wad, stop it! That’s it.

So let’s focus back on the trust piece. This is hard, yet freeing. Do you have what it takes? Are you confident enough in your professional game to allow your people to develop through decision-making? Even though the buck stops with you? I hope so. A great leader will allow subordinates to step into and mimic higher roles (including their own). There’s no experience like hands on experience.

I have seen great leaders defend their subordinate’s decisions because their subordinates making increasingly complex organizational decisions is part of a well-foundedleadership development program. The overwhelming majority of those leaders then gain their own bosses respect. Because trust takes guts. Being a sneaky weasel does not.

An organization which embraces daring-doo, putting aside ego and public displays of perfection (which no one buys anyway…sorry), is a strong one. But the culture which values the false forms of flawlessness over the function of leadership development will watch its talent launch daring escapes. Then they’ll gripe that “kids these days don’t know how to work!”

Want to create leaders? Represent initiative yourself and protect the initiatives of your subordinates. It is key.


  1. Create communication by not being a critical jerkwad
  2. Let your people make decisions
  3. Support their decisions, course correct as needed, but above all, run interference for them

I’ve been rebranding people through career and life coaching, writing resumes and building LinkedIn profiles for years from my online vacation home at I love public speaking and helping people identify what they want to do with their talents. Preferably we hike a mountain while talking. I can be reached at or (858)522-0194.


This article is part 3 of a many part series treating the Marine Corps Leadership mnemonic, JJDIDTIEBUCKLE

Dependability: The ability to carry out what is expected of you consistently.

Isn’t this a better trait of for “followership”? I say no. I have noticed that a significant amount of training in organizations focuses on how to get your job done, from the follower’s perspective. We do very little, however, in the workplace to effectively prepare people for leadership. Managership, sure. But actually wielding power, creating buy-in, caring for others, and creating long-term relationships is something organizations struggle with.

For instance, when was the last time you saw leadership traits and practices actually measured and managed. As in, if you are a terrible leader, your job is on the line?

I thought not.

Working for someone who is inconsistent, changes their word, misremembers facts, or lets the course of the week drive their mood is awful. The opposite experience is glorious. But the former experience is all too common.

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved”. I grew up in a world where this George MacDonald quote was repeated with some frequency and it affected my worldview. As I grew older, this belief was challenged by those who teach that to be loved should be the prime focus and should be independent of action.

But experience has shown me that love has to be based on something. It’s a response to perceived value. Dependability is a serious motivator towards love, be it romantic or fraternal. In military parlance, we call it someone “having your 6”. It’s an incredible experience to really know you can trust those you work with.

Want your team to “love” you? Be dependable. When you promise an action, make that action happen.

As a leader, another way to look at dependability is called “being authentic”. As a leader, you need to remove the “who am I dealing with today?”

How do you achieve dependability? The easiest way has two parts. 1) Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback, regardless of your rank or position, 2) Have the intestinal fortitude (courage) to listen and not punish them. The world and corporate America has more than enough would be dictators with fragile egos who, once they get a little power, wield it like a baton. They forget that eternal truth: while authority is granted from above, power comes from those you lead.

Once you break the trust of those whom you lead, you’ve lit a fuse on your own respectability and much will be the rejoicing when you are gone.

What’s more, as a leader you owe it to yourself to figure leadership dependability out. Data science and machine learning are coming for you. We know that disengaged workforces have enormous costs. Perhaps within the next decade or two, data scientistswill quantify leadership and track your execution of it. And I will be helping them.

Take aways:

1) Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth.

2) Have the guts to listen and not make them pay.

I’ve been rebranding people through career and life coaching, writing resumes and building LinkedIn profiles for years from my online vacation home at I love public speaking and helping people identify what they want to do with their talents. Preferably we hike a mountain while talking. I can be reached at or (858)522-0194.


This is the first in a series of articles based on the Marine Corps JJDIDTIEBUCKLE concept.

We of the Marine Corps have looked with happy amusement as so many of our honored leaders have been ushered into high levels of power, including General Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Chris Bolender treats the why, which I give thumbs up, five stars, would recommend and all of that. Our private conversations got me thinking of some of the life-changing training and teaching the Corps gave us and how it applies to corporate life.

There’s a lot to pull from. There’s the 5000-year-old mind; there’s the OODA LoopMAGTF conceptDuctus Exemplo; and the Mission, Men, Me/Horse, Saddle, Man concepts.

I have had some really incredible leaders in my time. I’ve had a few mundane and self-serving managers. Leadership vs Managership is a conflict never missed by men and women on the frontlines, whether in the Corps or in a top company.

Leadership is a break from the mundane. They inspire and are inspired. They terrify the enemy in combat and the home office in peace. Leaders break molds and reset the possibilities. The great achievements you see around you or read about were likely initiated by a leader. Then they’ll probably be managed into decay.

Wise people know that while authority may be vested from above, power is loaned from the people you lead. When you violate the trust of the people on your team, you suddenly find yourself having to fight to get anything done.

And shame on you when that happens.

Wise people know that while authority may be vested from above, power is loaned from the people you lead. When you violate the trust of the people on your team, you suddenly find yourself having to fight to get anything done because they stand against you.

I decided that going forward, I am going to take a Marine Corps leadership mnemonic we call JJDIDTIEBUCKLE and break it out into articles. Application of these principles allows for true team building and the rare experience of people having your back.

The mnemonic stands for:

  • Justice
  • Judgement 
  • Dependability 
  • Integrity
  • Decisiveness 
  • Tact
  • Initiative 
  • Endurance 
  • Bearing
  • Unselfishness 
  • Courage
  • Knowledge
  • Loyalty 
  • Enthusiasm

Failure to exercise these principles will have you tied down with mistrust, your best talent fleeing from you, and worse, entire teams slouching towards mediocrity because they have no trust in the organization. This is something primal, embedded in all people. We fight back when we are misused.

So, from the top:

Justice– Justice is more than simply a fair mind, although that is important. It’s the philosophical underpinnings for our systems of fairness and fair play, creating max benefit for all parties involved.

To be just, you need to know what the policy or law demands, but then the circumstances behind decisions. It requires understanding different views, of right and wrong, give and take, and taking appropriate actions against violations. And mercy.

Heavy-handed responses are not justice. Injecting your subjective viewpoints against another person’s experience may violate this principle as well. Justice is only served when it is objective and consolidates all the facts available.

Using your power and authority to vex your adversaries—regardless of how thrilling— is not justice. In various stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, when different tribes or coalitions came to power, we all watched in horror as the former ruling parties were killed in the streets. Revenge is not justice.

Justice is one of the elements which will gain a leader buy-in from the team. It’s also first on the list because violating justice will have you up against an insurgency made up of those who know you best: your own team!

Let me give a personal story where I saw both sides of justice.

In Afghanistan, I knew a bright young Marine who on a random urinalysis tested positive for THC. The Uniform Code of Military Justice allows zero tolerance for illicit drug use. Pang-boom, you’ll likely be out with very serious charges and a very serious bad conduct discharge on your record.

So, as it were, some leaders insisted passionately that regardless of the circumstances, this Marine be prosecuted.

Now, it was known and part of case law that Afghan National Army troops found humor in putting hashish in rice meals and giving it to their US Marine partners.

Justice is one of the elements which will gain a leader buy-in from the team. It’s also first on the list because violating justice will have you up against an insurgency made up of those who know you best: your own team!

Thus, others believed the kid should be let alone outside of more evidence being presented because we knew the tricks our partners would play on us.

But then Justice appeared.

There was enough contextual evidence that this Marine’s meal had been spiked that wiser heads elected to not ruin this young man’s life. Yes, he actually had consumed drugs. But also, context considered, the young man’s honor was preserved. We gave our Afghan counterparts a good talking to, and this Marine went on to do great things.

In the American world, the ideal is a system of checks and balances. Corporations often try to have these systems in place and sometimes they succeed, but to do so takes guts and determination.

I was once with a company where the reputation of HR was that it always and invariably sided with management. HR had lost the trust of the ground level employee.

Frankly, sometimes management sucks. That’s why unions came into being. HR came into being to make sure Management treats people well and the humans as a resource are not mistreated. Thus, organizing success has dropped considerably.

Through hard work and diligence, we were able to realign HR’s reputation— the heuristic HR had created for itself. Ultimately it led to a happier, more engaged workforce with less turnover.

If you need any more reasons why HR (my field) needs to be able to push back against management, I have one word for you: Uber.

When HR loses its grasp on justice or courage to stand for justice, the company suffers because the people suffer.

TAKE AWAY: Keys to Justice in an organization:

1)            Know the standard

2)            Know the capabilities of your people

3)            Strive at all times to understand the barriers your people face

4)            Attack the process before you blame the people

Exhalt your team

A person might be smooth as oil, but if they executes power through distrust and duplicity, they’ll be deposed. And many questions will follow after him.

Power in a position is one of the most difficult tests a leader can face. It reveals your inner soul or inner snake. In most organizations, the consent of the led is rarely taken into account which is unfortunate. I do not think human nature has changed all that much through the millennia, but certainly—at least in the Western world—historically low violence, the high level of education, and ability to communicate as easily as we do lends itself to choice and buy in.

But less about the led (although doing right by your people is a core of leadership), leaders—real leaders— imbue all their people with power. They are transparent, trust their subordinates, back up effort, and don’t play favorites. A miniscule number of subordinates may be unwilling to reflect trust back. But most of the led I have ever seen are eager for leadership which inspires, transforms, creates a break from the mundane common experience of self-serving “managership”.  Too often the experience of most of us involves that duplicity I mentioned, but also disrespect, disregard for real achievement, favoritism, and demoralizing feats of hypocrisy.

The conflict is between what comes easy and what betterment demands. Beautifully put in of nasty conflict and human nature, in Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy writes,

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

But that’s the conflict. War, conflict, abuse, overreach have all always existed. But not all people take part in it. I would argue that honorable history is shaped by a few men and women who break the mold of human nature and show something new— something just as eternal but sadly less seen.

The nature of men is self-aggrandizement. Those who practice it as the cost of other’s trust in them call it “pragmatism”.  It’s bullshit because it wrecks teams. The burden of leadership is to transcend that, to become the ideal of a team, a thing that represents the team’s highest intentions.

If you exalt your team, your team will see you exalted. Leadership is a high and holy calling.

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