Military Veterans: MBA education fosters natural business leadership

By Herbert D. Dwyer, USMC, Executive MBA Americas ’19

By: Katelyn Godoy
Marine Osprey, Credit: Marine Sgt. Royce Dorman

Image credit: Marine Sgt. Royce Dorman

Many of us have heard the term “Semper Fi” used by Marines. If you haven’t, then you have never seen two Marines say goodbye. It’s a Latin abbreviation for semper fidelis or “always faithful.” However, you can ask any Marine and they will tell you there are a few iterations of this popular slogan. Some include “Semper I” (or “always me”— the Corps is never about the individual but the team, this is a term used to remind an individual Marine of the team based approach). My favorite was “Semper Gumby;” an obvious take on many children’s favorite little flexible green friend.

However, you’re probably asking yourself, “What does Gumby have to do with the Marines and why are we talking about Gumby in an Ivy League blog?” The only real similarity between Gumby and Marines is that they are both green and highly flexible. Applied more broadly to the military, I think those of us that have served can appreciate that “force readiness” is just a really short phrase for “being able to change on a second’s notice.”

Model-based training & flexibility

According to a statistic published in by the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST), “student veterans earn degrees at rates better than comparable non-veteran students.“ It goes on to say that more information is needed to better understand this statistic. Maybe a great business decision model research project for an aspiring MBA? I believe one of the many reasons veterans fare better in college, on average, is their ability to be flexible.

The military and academia have a lot in common. One of their commonalities is that they both use model-based training scenarios in teaching their courses. These models, in both cases, are built on many years of failure and successful learning. The models they use tell us what to do in various situations.

For example, in combat when the bird touches down and the helicopter door opens, everything changes. This is also true in real life. You might plan for an epic overseas vacation, scheduling everything down to the very last detail. But when you arrive at the airport, you find out that the plane was overbooked, and you get bumped. Your whole plan and therefore vacation is ruined from the very start. Or is it?

In that moment of crisis, standing in the airport frustrated and angry, you and you alone, have a personal choice to make: wallow in despair and disappointment or take control and focus on mission success. In this case, mission success may be defined as relaxing and enjoying your vacation! Certainly not what you are experiencing right now at the airport.

It’s not any different for Marines the moment we disembark off the Osprey or helicopter. The bullets go whizzing by our heads; everything we planned for then changes. We are taught in the Marines to have a plan and then have a plan to ditch the plan. What this leads to is a culture of flexibility. Never set to adhere to the original plan, keeping in mind that the plan itself may become your Achilles’ Heel and not the way to accomplish the mission.

Fostering leadership & sharpening intuition

Great leaders intuitively understand the issue of fostering leadership and sharpening intuition. The Marines foster a culture of leadership for many reasons. But, in my opinion, it’s to ensure Marines are equipped to lead men and women on the ever-changing battlefield. This training carries over into civilian life.

In my experience as a veteran thus far in the Executive MBA Americas program at Cornell, Johnson is trying to accomplish the same thing: create great leaders. Leaders that have the innate sense and abilities to make the difficult business decisions that can never be taught simply using “models in an academic setting.” However, being exposed to high quality education and models only sharpens this intuition, especially post military service. Given this educational tactic, it makes me wonder why so many veterans, 52 percent of Post 9/11 GIs [per a Washington Times survey], haven’t used some of the generous educational benefits that they have earned. With programs like the GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation (Chapter 31), it makes me wonder why any veteran wouldn’t continue their growth as a leader and as a professional. Veterans are familiar with a model-based approach to learning in the military. It is one of the reasons they will succeed in school.

To my fellow veterans

Yes, with a family in tow it can be tough to go back to school. Here I am at age 40 with a family, working full time, and going to school full time. But in today’s economy, to quote my wife, “a degree is like currency.” And since your sacrifice to this great nation earned you a no-cost opportunity to make your life better, why not do it? Because of your military training and experience, and your ability to be flexible and use a model-based approach to learning, you are already better prepared to get through school than your non-veteran student counterparts.

If you are veteran, consider going back to school. And if you know a veteran, encourage them to utilize their no-cost benefits to achieve greater currency in their lives and careers. A degree, and even a professional certification, can change your life in ways you can’t even imagine.

Happy Veterans Day… and to my fellow Marines, Happy 242nd Marine Corps Birthday (November 10, 1775).

Semper Fi

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