With Memorial Day approaching, I’m reminded of how my time in the Navy provided the building blocks of shaping the business leader I am today, as well as the millions of other young men and women whose lives have been vastly affected by their time in service.
I can remember that morning in 1989 when I was standing tall at the front of my bunk in a warehouse-like Navy barracks at 4 a.m. on the first day of boot camp. I was 18 years old, had a freshly shaved head, and one of more than 100 enlisted sailors, all of whom had just been awoken violently by our company commander after only one hour of sleep.
Before I could process the situation, the commander seemingly randomly handed me a sword and told me I was in charge for the next two months. I was now the recruit chief petty officer (RCPO), a responsibility that was completely unexpected and profoundly important. Little did I know it at the time, this moment would set the course for my professional career in business.
All branches of the military have a chain of command, and while title and rank dictate authority, they do not guarantee respect. The military forces you to choose what kind of leader you want to be. You can either let your rank do the talking, or let your actions speak. Since then, I’ve learned that the same rules apply for executives in the business world.
As RCPO, my official duties included maintaining good order, discipline, security, and maintaining punctual training schedules. What this really meant was that I became a psychiatrist for the guys contemplating suicide, the arbiter of racist arguments and tension within the company, and the bouncer who broke up fights. I was the first one awake and the one who had to motivate everyone else to make sure we arrived everywhere on time.
If anyone within the company screwed up, I was punished, typically by being told to drop down and do push-ups. For the first couple of weeks, I was doing push-ups at least five times a day, anywhere from 10 to 100 at a time. I didn't care, because I felt a deep sense of responsibility. As the days went by, it seemed that others within the company began frequently looking to me for instructions and advice.
By the third week, the company was dialed in—we knew the routine and we were making fewer mistakes. One day, our company commanders busted us on a completely made-up charge, and I was told to drop. The guys grumbled, but they had learned early on not to say anything, otherwise they would be forced to drop as well.
As I got down in plank position, one of the most inspiring things in my life happened: My entire company did the same, voluntarily. The commanders just laughed and had us do push-ups together for half an hour. I don’t know if this outcome was part of the official training plan, but from then on, everyone shared a deep sense of camaraderie. The entire company felt it was us against them, and that we would work together and have each other’s backs, no matter the mission.
Military terminology is prevalent in the business world, and while the phrase “in the trenches” is used quite often, its importance can’t be underestimated, especially with today’s increasingly competitive fight to innovate and grow businesses. While work isn’t a life-or-death matter, camaraderie and a one-for-all mentality is crucial. Teams of employees don’t reach their highest level unless every person buys in. This starts with the CEO, who must be engaged in the work in a visible way.
The experience I shared with my fellow sailors on that day was in no way guaranteed, but came as a result of my dedication to every single person within my training company. As an executive, I’ve learned that I can’t work 9 to 5 and check out at the end of the day while others continue to toil. Everyone has a job to do, and no one should sit on a perch watching others perform. It doesn’t matter who founded the company, who has the most exits, or who holds a certain title. The ultimate respect has to be earned, and the only way to do that—and instill a culture of togetherness—is for the CEO to lead by doing, not by issuing orders.
David A. Yovanno is CEO of Impact Radius.