Scott Samuelson wrote an opinion piece in the March 28, 2014, issue of the Wall Street Journal. The title of his article was, “Would you hire Socrates?” He said the myth that studying humanities doesn’t pay was debunked by a study co-authored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management System. They said that “workers who majored in humanities or social sciences earn annually on average $2,000 more than those who majored…in professional or pre-professional fields.” That doesn’t surprise me.
Learning How, not What, to Think
That finding not only reflects my personal experience, it also reflects the experience of other former military officers, educated in the humanities and social sciences, who have gone on to very successful civilian careers, many in technical fields, after their military careers. At the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a graduate school that prepares mid-grade officers for higher command and staff positions, the focus is on teaching officers how to think, not what to think. Mr. Samuelson noted that the “study showed that the overwhelming majority of employers are desperate to hire graduates who have “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems.” For the past 16 years, military officers from all services have done just that in highly stressful environments where failure can lead to catastrophic losses in lives, property and national reputation. While the military trains for certainty, they educate for uncertainty because no matter what potential adversary you study in the classroom, he may not be the adversary you end up confronting on the field of battle. The enemy in war is like your competitors in the private sector who are always creating, innovating and adapting to changing consumer tastes, leading change and innovating to maintain their competitive advantage. I see some interesting parallels between the skills, knowledge, and abilities of mid-grade military officers and successful managers, directors and vice presidents of corporations.
Highly Skilled Barbarians
Thirty-eight years ago, I picked up a copy of U.S. News and World Report and observed the cover story alleging that our universities were turning out highly skilled barbarians. The gist of the article was that our schools were good at developing graduates with an understanding of scientific inquiry and business processes but (they are) short on exposing them to values. At the time, I was assigned to the faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. I have never forgotten that headline.
The Army, like the other military services, is a values-based organization. It professes and teaches values that stress ethics, honesty, integrity and selfless service, among others. It actively polices its ranks by bringing to justice those who violate the law and seek to discredit the uniform and our armed forces. One could argue that the military services are relatively unique in this regard. It stems from the fact that in the military values matter, especially for an institution that employs deadly force in the execution of its responsibilities. Army values include: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. Because there are moral and legal constraints on the use of force and the fact that we must retain the respect and support of the American people, the Army must actively police its ranks to ensure that it remains accountable. However, as a human organization, and a huge one at that, the Army has its problems. No matter how much it stresses and teaches values and ethics, some fall short. The My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Abu Ghraib and Haditha Dam in Iraq, and other incidents point to the inevitable failure of some soldiers to do the right thing at all times and in all places. When these unfortunate instances occur, they usually have strategic consequences.
While I believe that most businesses are ethical, there are notable exceptions. There are tens of thousands of businesses in America from small mom and pop businesses to large multinational corporations. They all have something in common. Each has a leader and the leader can and must set the tone for the entire organization. Like the military services, however, there are egregious examples of wrongdoing in the private sector—the most notorious being Enron and Tyco International, Ltd. –that have become standard bearers for greed, corruption, and irresponsibility. Interestingly, the upper echelons of Enron and Tyco were probably attending universities at the time Steven Muller was observing that our schools were turning our highly skilled barbarians—individuals who were skilled in generating profit without regard for the means and methods and the impact on their fellow citizens.
Whereas there are ethical and legal standards for military performance, there are likewise standards of conduct for business in the private sector. For example, doctors have a body of ethical statements developed primarily for the benefit of the patient as well as the Hippocratic Oath that warns “to do no Harm.” The Project Management Institute also has a code of ethics and professional conduct. All project management practitioners are committed to doing what is right and honorable as a result of their certification as Project Management Professionals (PMP). However, if a PMP works in a company that values profit over ethical business practices, conflicts arise. In the end, it’s all about leadership. If leaders are ethical, they set the conditions and enforce the rules for ethical conduct. But I digress…
Every year about 200,000 military personnel leave their respective military service to re-enter the civilian workforce. Many of these veterans are highly educated, disciplined, and reliable workers who suit up every day, working under some of the most undesirable conditions, and get the job done no matter what the circumstances.
The military is a meritocracy, a highly competitive environment. There is no guarantee one can stay until retirement, so officers and NCOs are under constant pressure to perform well, remain proficient at their assigned tasks and pursue advanced degrees.
Leadership and Management
Leadership is about people while management is about things. While leaders do the right things, managers do things right. This is not a difference without a distinction. Leaders are conditioned to examine all possible alternatives, development plausible courses of action and develop teams capable of achieving success. I’m not an information technology person, but I was a VP of an IT organization. While I organized, developed, and led the development of a proposal to win a large government contract I was successful because I surrounded myself with experts in their respective fields. Together we won the contract. My ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve the complex problem of writing a proposal that met the needs of the Army was a critical factor in our collective success. Nothing that I did was any different than what most officers are capable of doing for their respective employers in the private sector today.
In the end, I believe that a good liberal education in the social sciences removes the hard edges of the business world and produces a better outcome. You would be wise to welcome separating service members into your ranks. Attributes like honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and the ability to get the job done, regardless of the obstacles, are the hallmarks of the military profession. It’s time for us to capitalize on these attributes by hiring veterans.