What being an Army Ranger taught me about being a Project Manager

The leadership I’ve learned through life could be summed up and put on the front of a t-shirt, “95% of the leadership skills I learned, I learned in the Army.” If that saying isn’t already a thing: ™️. Though I left the U.S. Army a little over 20 years ago, I still stand by that statement.

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An obligatory backstory: Most of my adult life has been spent in the military, until a year ago. I joined the Army in 1994, at 17 (my father signed the papers). In the end, I got bored training to go to war (I was young/dumb) and decided to get out four years later. Less than a year after that, I was back in the service, this time joining the U.S. Coast Guard.

The time spent in the Coast Guard was split as both Enlisted and 15+ years as an Officer. However, given all of the training, schooling, and discipline I received along the way, I still credit my four years in the Army as setting the leadership bar for me. Here’s what I learned about leadership while serving in the Army’s 1/75th Ranger Battalion as an Infantryman, and how it’s applied to my life today, as a Project and Program Manager.

Basic Training

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. There was very little in the way of leadership learned while attending Basic Training. Or, so I thought.

Airborne School

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. Learning how to jump out of a perfectly good airplane isn’t so hard once you do it. It’s the two and a half weeks getting to that point that’s hard. It’s full of instruction that’s ingrained into your head with repetitive motion, memorization, and the fear of possible death being removed via the squelch that was provided via continual movement and little real rest. Again, I didn’t see the application of any leadership education at the time. It was seemingly just a matter of staying alive as you walked out of a metal tube at 120+ miles per hour into the void.

RIP

I thought this was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my 18 years of existence. I got my first glimpse of leadership while attending RIP when the cadre put the 30 hopeful guys into five teams with nothing more than a pile of gear and instructions to be out front in 30 minutes. Add to this an instructor walking in every three minutes telling us to do pushups or wall-sits, and you begin to see people crack from confusion alone. But wait, was that leadership?

Ranger Battalion

I was wrong about how hard everything had been up to this point. My life at Battalion consisted of the following routine: run/lift/exercise, shoot, learn to run, lift, and shoot, run obstacle courses, maintain gear, learn close quarter tactics, hand to hand combat, and play really hard. This was the gist of my everyday existence and a significant point of hardship for some. You could sum it up as an additional 3.5 years of Basic Training. But it was for a reason.

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The application of 4-years of leadership 👆 to Project Management

Teamwork

While I’m sure the mere mention of someone being in the military will conjure thoughts of collaboration, believe me when I say, it’s not the same across the board. Basic training proved this (teamwork?) in the first few weeks. However, the term and practice of teamwork was in everything we did at Ranger Batt.

From entering a room and firing upon realistic targets to entering a bar in downtown Savannah. A Ranger would rarely be found alone, as the idiom state, “There’s safety in numbers.” While I wouldn’t be too far from calling a few of those men my friends, I’d be on the nose in referring to them as my teammates. Be it breaching a wall or contorting each other into submission during Jujitsu lessons; you came out knowing that the three for four nearest people to you at any given moment would be there for you when the shit got real.

Amid a project, as the leader– inferred or otherwise– it’s your goal to build this kind of cohesion. I’m not suggesting you take the team to a ropes course or learn Jujitsu as a group (though it might help), but you need to take the time to figure out how to bring the team together. This will be the single most challenging thing to master, 95% of the time. Add in the current state of the world, and you being unceremoniously designated a Digital Project Manager, and you can raise that bar to 99%.

Self Governing

Over the last few days, while putting this article together, I didn’t initially have “self-governing” in the mix. I oft use the phrase “keep moving forward,” the source of which is my former squad leader yelling it as we moved to another location. Now, remove that squad leader (he’s hurt, can no longer lead), or put it into a business context, remove your manager who didn’t show up to work. That team still needs to meet its objective, and that presentation you two were working on still needs to be presented to the executives– it’s not going to present itself. This is where self-governance comes in — taking the lead when there’s an unexpected lack of leadership.

It needn’t be anything so grave as a loss of life or one’s boss; there are plenty of times when you can step up to the plate and move the group, meeting, project forward. Learn to lead when there’s a lack of leadership, and your ability to build team cohesion when it’s needed most will come without even trying. [Could also apply to “picking up the slack.”]

Idleness

While being idle at home can be relaxing, it wasn’t “a thing” while in my barracks– it’s a concept that is “unlearned.” If it was a working day, you were learning, doing, or otherwise remaining engaged during working hours. If there was “nothing to do” (<- I laugh writing that even today), you found something to do. Or, as your parents would tell you, they’d find something for you to do.

In Airborne School, you’re encouraged to learn on your own; it may lessen your chances of dying or, at the very least, getting hurt.

This is applied to the office (or the home office), too; if your work/project is on hold or you finished your work for that day, use the time you have, the time you’re getting paid for, to remain engaged. Myself, I do training. And I make sure everyone knows about it.

Your company expects you to keep abreast of the latest information concerning your job function. For me, that means learning some new ways to run a meeting or project management technique. Case in point, I’m working on my PMI-ACP (Agile Certified Practioner) training and application right now, next is to become a Certified Scrum Master. Why? Because I want to, and our bosses want to brag about us to their peers. That means we can’t stay idle; we need to keep learning, reading, and doing (read: “keep moving forward”).

Time Management

This is a huge one, perhaps the single most valuable “military to civilian” transitional skill taught/learned. While in the Army, or any job really, you’re given a list of objectives (think “needs to be accomplished”), and you’re usually given a specific time frame. If you’ve just destroyed the enemy bridge, yet you didn’t make it to the landing zone (LZ) for extraction in time, well, you might have a long, if not dangerous, walk ahead of you. The same, to a point, is correct in business too. If you have a task that you’ve been asked to complete and said you would, you need to get it done on time or risk the wrath of the enemy, ‘er, I mean boss.

My life now differs from then because I’m able to tell my manager that I under/overestimated my timeline, or I was outright wrong. I suspect most can do this without fear of reprisal (at least the first time). However, even this simple act is hard for some. Speaking from experience, it’s best to let your boss, manager, and team know that something went wrong (perhaps you misjudged something), and you cannot get the job done on time. Lying or just blowing off the deadline won’t fair well will everyone.

Motivation

Getting up in the morning sucks. You’d think being a career military man and a father of five, that I’d be able to get up without issue. If there’s an emergency, I can snap to-it without issue. But having the motivation to get up some mornings to work can be downright hard, especially now when I don’t have to see anyone as I’m working from home. Coffee does help. ☕️

I’m not going to tell you that being motivated to do everything/anything is easy, it’s not, and it’s a very personal thing. Sometimes people don’t like their jobs, and that can be a huge motivation drainer. However, if you have people counting on you, you need to pull up your pants, get a large cup of coffee/tea/water, and do your job. This will take motivation. You’re part of a team; you need to dig down and figure out how to get the job done.

While it may be difficult for you to motivate yourself from the leadership side, others count on you to remain motivated for their sake. My wife would hear co-workers/subordinates say things like “his motivation is contagious” or something along that line (I’m not bosting, I’m making a point). Yet, she’d wonder why I wasn’t like this at home all the time. While it’s not a secret from her, sometimes, putting on that front for others is what gets the job done. Again, others count on you as a leader to motivate them. Do your team a solid and do just that.

Persuasion

It wasn’t until I was out of the Army some 5+ years that I realized I’d learned persuasive leadership. When I went to Officer Candidate School for the Coast Guard, I was with a group of guys cleaning a bathroom. Yes, even as a prospective officer, I got the lucky deed of cleaning the bathroom (or head if you will) 🚽. I’m not saying I am or was a good leader, but I persuaded the team of six that we needed to work together for the common goal of just getting it done. No big song or dance. It was the truth, I spoke it, and we got it done.

I give my Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Dodson, the credit for teaching me this. He and I didn’t like each other much, but I was young, he wasn’t. He had a knack for motivating the platoon, but it wasn’t via motivational speeches per se; he did it by being truthful and making us all feel as if we were the ones who wanted to get the job done. Wow, I really do want to walk 40 miles through the woods and mud with 110 pounds on my back. He knew how to do his job; that’s why he was the man in charge.

This goes smack in the middle of motivation and teamwork. It’s an art that takes years to perfect (I’m still working on it). Yet, if you’re able to do so, even a little, you can get the job done with even an unlikely team. However, the single “gotcha” that I can think of for this is the remote work scenario that many of us still face today. Trying to persuade someone to make the extra effort to get the project done is a lot harder when they can’t see or feel your energy or desperation.

Clarity

This is something I learned while just doing my job. That is, as a team, get from point-A to point-E without being seen, getting your Geometry homework done, and crocheting a sock. The point is, through all the stuff you need to get done, no matter how hard it seems, you need to take a moment to step back and look at the issue from the outside to see how this could be better… to have a moment of clarity. In the above case, separate the three tasks, and prioritize them.

It’s not easy, yet you/we need to learn how to do this. We’ll call this “an adult thing.” I still fail at this one if I’m in the thick of it. I get too focused. It’s not until I’m done with work for the day that I see the error of my ways, that is, having that “duh” moment.

And finally,

Understanding willingness vs. ability

This last lesson is one that anyone who joins the service or a first responder job can tell you they’ve learned. There’s a big difference between wanting/willing to do a task versus being unable to do it. Ethics aside, you can do a lot more than you think you can. You will do more than you think you can when the time comes. Before joining the Army, I wasn’t willing to jump out of a plane, ready to kill someone or march 35 miles in shitty boots. However, after my first year, I had jumped some 20+ times (almost) without issue, and every workday, I was learning how to kill people at the shooting range or hand to hand skills (it’s not as dramatic as it reads). As far as the road-marches, well, I just did those due to “external motivation.”

In business, while you’re not training to kill people, you will come upon those times when you don’t want to do something, but you’re able to. The job that was due this morning didn’t get done (Time Management), it’s Friday afternoon, and you’re the one who needs to do it to ensure the deed is done (it sucks being a leader sometimes, ‘eh?). You need to call your significant other and let them know you’re going to be late because you’re able to do this. This will rear it’s ugly head time and time again. It matters not though; if the task isn’t done, and you’re the leader, you’re the one that gets it done or take the hit. Choices… choices…

This is the end 🤔

My point of sharing this is to show you that while we’re all learning things along the way, we might not know we’ve done so until the path worn by time is profound. You’ll have those ah-ha moments 💡 later in life and realize that you know how to handle this because your father’s friend’s neighbor taught you some 15 years ago. Just remember, keep moving forward, it’ll come to you.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy The Stakeholder Report, a weekly newsletter on leadership, education, business acumen, and updates to the global craft of Project Management.