When I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) in 2000, I did not expect to enter a wartime military. But when the towers fell on September 11th, I knew it would be my generation of young military leaders who would bear the load. This Memorial Day, I’d like to first acknowledge what we as a nation have lost: nearly 7,000 Americans in military action beyond U.S. borders since 9/11, and an estimated 20 veterans taking their own lives daily. Memorial Day is about honoring them.
I feel a profound sense of gratitude to those who are no longer with us. I hope that I have honored their sacrifice in the decade since I left the Marine Corps by living my life with intention and purpose. What follows are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
My academic success in high school led to hubris, which undoubtedly played into a spiral of failures that colored the first half of my time at USNA. I was yelled at every day: I made my bed wrong; I couldn’t remember the menu for noon meal; and my shoes were just never shined properly. I was getting poor grades because I couldn’t deal with the other stressors well. However, something happened over the course of those first two miserable years: I learned that you can’t go it alone if you hope to be successful. I learned to deal with adversity. I learned that rules exist for a reason. I became mentally and physically tough, as well as undeniably resilient.
Get over yourself
As a 5’4” female with unwieldy curls and a dark complexion, I don’t exactly fit what society at large expects a Marine officer to look like, or a business executive, for that matter. I grew up in an environment where the loudest, most outgoing, physically imposing guy owned the room as soon as he walked into it. We called that “command presence.” I had to earn that level of respect through competence, hard work, and caring for my Marines without appearing to be soft or weak. I had to learn to leverage my own strengths rather than focusing on attributes I couldn’t control.
Create an environment where others can excel
While in a position of training Marine lieutenants, peers jokingly referred to my team as the “milk and cookies platoon” because they believed that I was being too nice. My platoon held the same high standards, and accountability was paramount, but I created an atmosphere where it was acceptable to make a mistake, as long as you didn’t violate your integrity or make the same mistake twice. I explained to the young officers the “why” behind my decisions, allowing them to gain insight into my thought processes. I attempted to demonstrate the type of behaviors I hoped that they would carry with them into the fleet: to treat their teams with respect, empower each within his or her capabilities, and foster an environment of trust. These lieutenants excelled while in the training environment and have gone on to be tremendous leaders—both inside and outside the military.
Don’t be afraid to be the (wo)man in the arena
This generation of military veterans has made life and death decisions in ambiguity under the most austere conditions. In retrospect, the tactical level decisions for which most of us were responsible were complicated, but not necessarily complex. My takeaway is that no challenge is insurmountable, but it takes a new mindset in this current complex environment to overcome today’s challenges. Leadership is more important than ever.
Lastly, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. None of us know how many proverbial bullets we have dodged in this lifetime. We only have the now. Think of the old adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Those of us lucky enough to be called “veterans” are here because we have been given the gift of life and freedom by those who have gone before us. We have a moral responsibility to continue to lead and leave our country and this world better than when we were born into it. We owe that to them—for their sacrifice.
Lenore Karafa is a partner at McChrystal Group.