National Service, Culture, and the Workplace


This conversation came up late the other night.

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of national service for a long time.

Here’s how I see it.   The Vietnam War took grandsons, sons, and brothers away from men who served in the World Wars and Korea.  And from their mothers, grandmothers and sisters.   If you didn’t have a service member in your family, a neighbor did.

TV brought this war into American living rooms.  The war bled onto our college campuses, and the streets of our cities.

We said, Never Again.  After the war, the draft ended.

My dad, his dad and brothers, my mom’s brother, my brother-in-law, are all veterans.  Military service goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War on some branches of my family tree.   This was not unusual — it’s what American families did.

Today, many Americans haven’t ever had a conversation with someone who has served in this century’s wars.

One of my talents is helping companies think about how they are creating their cultures.   It’s practical stuff; I’m a practitioner.

So, this is my opinion-slash-hypothesis.

When your group organizes around a mission, receives training, and is put through the paces towards meeting a common goal?

You may not achieve your goal.  You will achieve a culture.

The culture will feature a shared set of beliefs about how you get something done, how you make decisions.  How to lead, follow, and treat people.  How to be, and have, a mentor.  What it means to work.

Many of my early bosses and peers were Vietnam and Korean War veterans.   Some in the way upper ranks may have served in World War II.

What this means:  throughout the 20th century, men came home from war.  Then, they got jobs.  Maybe they went to college.

They re-entered a world where the majority of senior leaders had served.   They shared cultural grounding in what it meant to be part of an institution, to be a citizen.

They had a shared experience of both training and being trained, so they considered most people to be trainable.  They hired veterans, they trained them, they employed them.

Military service was like a substrate for corporate culture.  The company where I “grew up” even had an organizational structure that mirrored military structure.

For example, the Officer’s Dining Room!  I was uncomfortable dining there with the other mostly-white guys, and relieved when we got rid of it.

Yes, this was a white man’s world.  So you won’t hear me advocating for a wholesale return to some non-existent good old days.

Sometimes I write about my boss, Charlie, a former Marine.  One thing he drilled into me:  “You take care of your People.”

When discussions lean political about whether Government should provide job training, I might say, “Well.  JP Morgan didn’t teach Charlie that you take care of your People.   The United States Marine Corps did.”

Until the end of the draft, the US Government was a significant source of training (for men) in leading, following, managing…and fighting.

Even the finest business schools can’t possibly duplicate this kind of training.   Or felt experience of working with shared cultural values.

I recently wrote that we have lost our ability to train managers in the name of squeezing “excess capacity” from our organizations.

Seriously, companies can’t retain people for even 3 years?   That’s not a problem with “Millennials.”  It is a systemic management and leadership failure — like a slow motion industrial accident — and represents a bounty of squandered resources.   I digress.

Today, as we approach Veteran’s Day, I’m also thinking about how we responded to the great wounding of a war we didn’t believe in and couldn’t “win,” by effectively eliminating national service.

In so doing, we also eliminated a way of training people to participate in the workforce.

My heart breaks for the experiences of our veterans.   And also for the sense that we need war, that part of our social contract calls for violence as one means of serving the greater good.   I do not want war.   I do not want people to undertake this terrible “training.”

And yet we should understand:  we have dismantled a structure.

Once, there was a culture that infused every part of our society.   It brought shared understanding.   About leading, following, taking care of our people.

40 years later, America is still seeing how things work in the absence of this structure.

Not uniformly well, in my view.   No, it was not all good.  Yet there’s a lot that’s gone, and needs replacing.   And now, we have to build it.

The question is, what will we build, and allow to be built?

While writing this post, I heard an NPR story about apprenticeship in South Carolina.   If allowed to scale, programs like this could be part of a possible way forward.

P.S. If you want to hire a veteran, and have no idea about how to do this, drop me a note.   Or add your thoughts here in comments.   I will connect you with people who can help you.

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