Life’s lessons learned the hard way

I was having a discussion with an old friend about the enduring habits we picked up early in our military training.  He’s retired USMC, so naturally his stories are much more dramatic than mine. But our training NCO at ROTC Summer Camp (Ft. Bragg, NC, 1968) did manage to hammer in a few lessons.  Please add your own in the Comments.

  1. Shoes do not shine themselves; beds do not make themselves
  2. There is no better time than right now to get these done; second chances only exist in movies
  3. It follows that you do not have the time to do anything over
  4. First leadership lesson. You only have one simple task: Make sure that the other 39 people in the platoon get the mission accomplished. DO NOT do anything else.

These may seem elementary, but we’re talking college students in the peace-and-love 1960s.  Apparently, moms made the beds for many of these guys, and when they got to college, nobody did.

About number 4: He made it VERY clear to me that grabbing the broom and finishing an area myself was not what platoon-leaders-for-a-day do. Over the years, I figured out that something like mission command was the best idea.

Learning these was not pleasant.  While ROTC Summer Camp wasn’t Parris Island by any means, I still remember them, so I guess he did something right. And there are harder ways to learn lessons.

Thank you again, Sergeant …



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12 thoughts on “Life’s lessons learned the hard way

  1. As a former NCO, these are true statements, with the exception of the last one, in that case if you’re any good as a leader, you will need to lead from the front, and show everyone else on the team how to get it done, particularly when the challenge is tough, difficult and requires pulling from one’s courage reserves. Not all who are in the position of leadership do that, but it is the difference between a “good enough” leader, and one who just wears the rank and holds the position.

    • Hi Richard — Thanks! I know where you’re coming from, and I agree completely. But … a couple of observations: The good SGT was trying to explain to me that although mission accomplishment was (as we say) the Schwerpunkt, trying to do it myself was not likely to work very well. My job was to get the team working together to get it done. As for how you do it, your leadership style, he didn’t go into that. Your observation is a good one and entirely consistent with mission command / Auftragstaktik as I understand it. And also with the sergeant’s first leadership lesson. Chet

  2. I have been reading Taleb’s (he of Black Swan and anti-fragility) latest book “Skin in the Game”. Much of what you write here resonates – the ability to not just respond to challenge, but to use its energy to grow. It only happens when we realise we’re part of something bigger, and more important than us, and make ourselves secondary to it…..

    • Hi Richard — thanks! I haven’t read any of Taleb’s books, although I do follow him on Twitter. The idea of being a part of something bigger than ourselves — a component of Einheit — is such a powerful motivator that I’ve long wondered why so many companies don’t make more use of it.

      • Thanks Chet. Try his book “anti fragile”. I’m not sure how I’d get on with the man (he’s not short on ego), but his insights are brilliant, and the alignment with EFBAS very high. would be interested in your comments…….

    • Hey Chet, I can back up Richard Merrick’s comments on Black Swan’s in particular, but the anti-fragile stuff is harder for people to get their head’s wrapped around and be able implement that inside of their organization, that is unless they have a “Black Swan” moment come their way. Then like all hardships and adversity one can face as an individual or a company, it becomes possible for them to start thinking about “Anti-Fragility”, which I simply call Resilience. Taleb can be a bit long winded to explain a relatively simple concept, in my own opinion anyway.

      • Hi Richard. I agree – Taleb’s work can be heavy going, (particularly when he goes off on probability rants..) but I have found the effort worth it.
        A lot of my work revolves around organisational transitions, agility (with those who have “skin in the game” rather than risk free managers whose only loss would be a job), etc, and “anti fragility” (although I describe it differently) has been central.
        Once they get it, they really get it.
        I hold it as more than resilience (an ability to cope with / survive the shock) and more about using the energy of the shock to grow. It’s a hard idea to get across when people are in the midst of what they see as threat, to get them to look at what’s emerging and harness it.
        I think maybe it has a lot of parallel with Boyd’s “fast transients’. It’s a compelling area, and I often use Chet’s book as a primer.

        Hope all going well for you.


      • Awesome – Hey Richard you’re providing a great take on this, that I haven’t been able to get to yet with all of the other research and applied research I’ve had to do in other related areas. I am wondering if you and I could have a chat, I think we’d have some mutually shareable and useful for the knowledge for the other, assuming you’re up for it. If it helps I’ve been talking to Chet since 2004, when me and the head strategic finance of my company (Intel corporation) were having discussions with him, trying to figure this whole OODA thing out back in the day. This stuff changes your outlook on life and work when you get into it, as I am sure you’d agree. Anyway you can find me on LinkedIn (, if you like and may be then we can have a chat? All the best.

  3. Chet,

    One of my favorites from ADM McRaven’s 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas, based on lessens he learned during SEAL training.

    Embedded video with transcript:

    I’ll also echo the sentiments on Taleb’s work–Skin in the game is in the pile to be read in the next month. Anti-Fragile was IMO the best of the lot so far, but excerpts of Skin in the Game (Taleb shares much of his work prior to final publishing) bode well for the next volume.

    As for original thought–here are my four prime directives for my program leadership, and which I ask everyone to hold me accountable:

    1. Make connections – my directive is to connect people who can benefit each other
    2. Find resources–I get the funds, space, tools or other resources necessary for teams to get the job done
    3. Remove roadblocks–I remove barriers to teams’ progress, or mentor the teams to remove the barriers within their [stretched] capabilities
    4. Take bullets–I protect the teams from external threats and hold accountability at my level. Intent is to give them the creative freedom an operating envelope to get the job done

    The other unwritten directive is push–I push the envelope–excellence and learning requires challenge.


    • Chad — Thanks!! Great ideas, and entirely consistent with the idea of harmonizing creativity and initiative that was the core of Boyd’s philosophy.

      Anybody else have lessons and concepts that have worked for them (or maybe better yet, haven’t worked)?

  4. The Brilliant (Very Boyd like) Professor Jordan Peterson, underscores Chet’s assertion, and why it’s so important to put your own house in order;

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