Lessons from ROTC
Some musings on leadership, life, and lessons learned from Army ROTC. Republished from medium.com/@davidpwu/lessons-from-rotc-3ae6...
The purpose of this story is to compile some spare musings, reflections, and leadership philosophy from my experience as an Army ROTC cadet.
This story is intended for those curious about ROTC, or the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, college students graduating soon, leaders, thinkers, and anyone who would like to read the scattered thoughts of a young person in this world.
At the time of writing this, it has been about two months since I graduated from college. I was driven to write this because, since I am going into the reserves, I have joined the corporate world as well, taking my place “at the bottom of the totem pole.” It’s interesting how college students in ROTC can be placed in charge of, in a significant way, upwards of 50 people, whereas those working entry-level jobs often have zero leadership responsibility. This is not to say that any work is more or less valuable, but it’s an observation.
What is ROTC?
For those who don’t know, ROTC is a program intended to provide leadership training to college students and commission them as officers into the United States military. There are three flavors of ROTC: Army, Naval, and Air Force, each with their own separate requirements and processes. Here I mainly discuss Army ROTC. ROTC programs are varied, but for mine, standard duties consisted of attending three Physical Training (PT) sessions early in the morning, attending ROTC class taught by a cadre member once a week, and attending a four-hour lab once a week for more extensive and practical training, such as weapons training or land navigation. This goes along with a Leadership Training Exercise (LTX) each semester, Advanced Camp in the summer, and various other duties such as planning PT sessions or labs.
In ROTC, cadets are placed in a chain of command modeled after that used in the Army. They are placed in teams, that form squads, that form platoons, that form companies, that form a battalion. Leaders are ultimately responsible for developing the members of their element and for keeping them accountable.
What does this mean? In its simplest form, it can mean making sure your people are at the track by 0620 in the morning for a workout. It can mean making sure your people have filled out a form by the suspense time. Even with these simple examples, I would ask you to think about how you would make sure these tasks are completed. Yell at people and threaten punishment? No. Even with such simple tasks we are already able to demonstrate the ideas of setting high standards, discipline, leading by example, communicating effectively, empathy, and motivation. Much more complicated situations could be described, but there is purity in keeping it simple. From a team to a battalion, from garrison to the field, across different tasks and missions, you realize that the same principles hold. Everything comes back to dealing with people.
I’m sure you’ve heard before that soft skills are more important than hard skills. This is obviously a false dichotomy, but it gets at an important point. Everything worthwhile involves other people, and the ability to understand people and talk to people, with any background, with any rank, is essential. There’s a reason why entrepreneurship resources often read as motivational stories more than a checklist going through the legal steps to setting up a company. It’s because there is no recipe; you’re dealing in the world of human beings and all the complexity that come with them.
A notion I want to bring up is that of the “real world.” Occasionally, people in ROTC will call it a fictional world, as compared to “the real Army.” It’s the same way people differentiate the “real world” from college. As a shiny new member of the “real world,” I would like to negate these sentiments. If you are a cadet or a student, I’d like to say that it is not the case that once you enter an organization in the “real world,” things change and you start adding value to the world.
You are leaving your legacy today, through every person you have ever touched or interacted with. The battles you are fighting and things you care about are going to stay with you and grow with you after you get that diploma. Even if you feel small today and say someday you’ll do important work or be a star, the fact is that you may feel small for your entire life. First off, it is essential to always keep driving toward something greater. But second, keep in mind everything you do develops yourself as a human being. Everything you do makes a difference. If happiness is a goal, know that it is found in you and your mind, not in greener pastures.
I have personally grown and learned a lot in college, which I intend to write about in another story. In particular, I’d point to ROTC as one of the things that has developed me a great deal as a person. This is definitely not to say that there’s some fantastic “curriculum” that can be lectured about and used to develop people. No way.
This is to say that the complete journey, the highs and the lows, the whole thing has provided me with life experiences that have formed me along the way. I have been able to compare the way leadership is taught between my college’s outdoor orientation program and the military. I’ve been able to see how leadership manifests in an all-student community such as a cooking co-op. I’ve been able to meet students from around the world and cadets from across the country. All these have helped me understand the world a little more and grow.
Purpose and Values
Many ROTC classes consist of talking about ideas, platitudes such as emotional intelligence or living the Army values rather than more concrete topics such as tactics. Some question why these more relevant hard skills aren’t taught more often. Over time I’ve come to learn that these platitudes are probably the lessons you should hold closest to you. However, I don’t think it is possible to truly teach them in a class. They have to come through experience. It’s the same with most education. You can’t learn from passively sitting in a lecture hall. You have to be active and do things to truly learn.
The ideas I’m talking about are those like purpose and values. These are the most important things an organization can have. They are the foundation on which the organization is build. If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, I hope you’ve noticed the power in the word “Why?” In the military, everyone takes an oath, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. This is the organizational Why. It is the foundation upon which the military does anything. It’s a powerful thing to think about, being committed to an idea. When you’re sleep-deprived and sleeping in the rain, and someone wakes you up for fire guard, this idea can seem so distant, but it is important to remember that it will always be there with you.
At its core, this idea is for individuals. Organizations are just organizations of individuals. Individuals who deliberately put purpose behind everything they do, instead of floating around, have control and power over their lives. This is why I started off this story with a purpose. Why does this story exist? Why do you exist? What joy is there if one simply passes through life?
Paired with purpose is the idea of values. The Army Values are Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. These are repeated and come up often in ROTC. They can be seen as just something to memorize, but again there’s something more here. It’s pretty powerful that you can hold up a few words and say that you are devoted to these ideas, that these values matter to you without a doubt. Lots of companies have codified values, mission statements, and visions but imagine if employees truly believed in them in their hearts. What if employees actually worked with such drive or people lived their lives with such passion? For people of action, it may seem foolish to waste time sitting down and write about vague ideas, but I think it is important for people to form concrete ideas about themselves and the world today, while keeping in mind that you and the world are everchanging and growing.
The capstone of Army ROTC, and a very memorable personal experience for me, is Advanced Camp, typically attended the summer after your junior year in Fort Knox, Kentucky. When I attended, it was 31 days but has since been extended. Advanced Camp is, interestingly enough, the largest training event in the Army, and Cadet Command pulls in many personnel from across the Army to come and instruct cadets.
Imagine bringing together about 40 cadets from across the country including from territories like Puerto Rico and Guam, and throwing them into a platoon. Now place 4 of these platoons in a company and multiply by 4 and you get a regiment. About 10 or so of these regiments pass through Advanced Camp in a summer, which is a huge number of people experiencing Fort Knox, not even including those cadets going through Basic Camp.
Some say Advanced Camp is easy but I gotta say, even for the mentally tough, wearing long-sleeves in the Kentucky summer while dragging around a rucksack while having no phone contact for almost a month is tough. But it’s also pretty beautiful.
It’s funny, the places you can find beauty. We were given about 6 hours of sleep each night excluding fire guard so I must have seen all the sunrises and sunsets over Kentucky for a month. There’s something pretty poetic about seeing an orange sky over the empty landscape of a military base, alone with your thoughts, your battle buddy, your time hack, and some water.
One of the most beautiful sights was during the 12-mile ruck march, which comes after spending about 20 days in the field. To beat the heat, the ruck march starts extremely early in the morning so everybody attaches a glow stick/chem light to their rucksack. The terrain is pretty hilly so at one point, I could see a sea of glowing neon yellow shining like stars in front of me. It was so beautiful and you think, where else in the world could you see such a sight?
Delegation and Trust
However, even with the beauty, Advanced Camp can be stressful. Leadership positions, such as squad leader, platoon leader, and platoon sergeant are rotated throughout the platoon every day or half day. These positions are evaluated by cadre members.
We all lead in different ways but I think one lesson to take away is using the chain of command, or entrusting responsibility to others and always helping your team. As a platoon sergeant or even a squad leader, you quickly see the importance of having people accountable for smaller groups of people under you. Delegation is important. Communicating schedules early and completely and setting and enforcing “time hacks” is important. Telling your leader where you are going instead of disappearing is important. Always be thinking about how you can help those you are leading or how to help the person leading you. Trust is necessary and the most important thing in a team. Trust is the bond that allows a team to operate independently but as one. Form bonds of trust and friendship.
One of the best ways to connect with people is through humor. Humor is valuable in leadership. I’ve been beating this point over and over, but it connects people and creates a positive culture, which is 100% valuable. Know when to be serious or joke around, while always keeping a positive, realistic spirit.
Setbacks and Loneliness
It can be hard to be positive sometimes. Our emotions are powerful. It’s something crazy about being human. They can control us, make, or break us. We’ve all experienced problems, professional or personal problems and I know nothing I really say can quell your mind. What I can say is if you’ve truly analyzed yourself and truly understand yourself, then you know what is right or wrong. There’s no need to hide or disconnect. If you’re doing the best you can, driving with purpose, you can be strong and survive, and perhaps thrive, in any situation. All you need is to remind yourself, you know who you are.
Understanding and Empathy
The month before Advanced Camp, I also participated in the Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program (CULP) in Estonia. The purpose of this program is to send Army ROTC cadets, future Army officers, to experience different cultures for a month. They are sent in teams to countries around the world. Some of these cadets had never been outside their state before, let alone the country. CULP was born from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where the importance of understanding the cultures of the places the military deals in was highlighted once more.
As with Advanced Camp, imagine bringing together about 30 cadets from across the country and having them travel and explore a new culture for a month. We are all different. Every person in the platoon had a unique story as did every Estonian we interacted with. This is a significant benefit of private universities too. They allow you to make friends with people from all across the country and world, from all walks of life. The value in this is in understanding different points of view and perspectives on the world. This allows you to understand people better when you talk to them, to understand the factors driving them and the things they’re thinking. Again, it all comes down to understanding and dealing with people.
I want to make one more point. At our closing counseling in CULP, my team leader said that leadership all comes down to taking care of people. “Take care of your people.” Isn’t that something? Career advice often talks about networking and pursuing your passions but I don’t often hear about truly, deeply caring for your coworkers.
Leadership is about caring about your people and caring about your mission. That’s all it is really. You can also talk about competence and confidence, attention to detail, decision making under stress, holistic development, and all sorts of other ideas, but if you care about people and care about your mission, you will strive to be better and make the right decisions.
This holds true for all things in life. Friendship is extremely valuable. People are the most important thing in life. If there’s one takeaway, it’s to always take care of your people.