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Nine Military Mantras to Guide Any Work

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo -- I had two learning intentions when I joined the Air Force almost 20 years ago: to get the G.I. Bill so I could return and finish college, and to learn a skill that if that college didn't work out, I'd have a fall-back career.  Along the way, I picked up a lot of intangible learning - the so-called "soft skills" that many employers look for -- the ones that often set apart a Veteran candidate from another applicant, so I hear.

Like the cheese spread that comes in an MRE, many of these work-life lessons came pre-packaged in aseptic little packages: compact, clean, nourishing, tasty.  These "military mantras" are quippy, sure, but that just helps make them memorable -- and thus all the more useful.  Here's a handful that stand out as particularly helpful in military and non-military work settings alike:

1)      "BLUF."  BLUF stands for "bottom line up front," and it's an effective business communication tactic that allows a person to get straight to the matter at hand.  Perhaps I've just demonstrated it?  Opening an email with "BLUF: Important notification or decision outlined in a single sentence here," is a sure-fire way to get what you need from busy executives and leaders, while demonstrating respect for all readers.  I'm not so sure this originated in the military, but it sure is favored there.

2)      "Take care of your people; they'll take care of the mission."  As a follower, you do the mission, but taking care of the mission is a challenge if you are also worried about child care for your preschool daughter or if your pay issue remains unresolved for six months.  As a leader, you no longer do the mission, but rather, you remove obstacles to allow your people to do the mission.  If the only thing a leader is any good at is taking care of his or her people and helping them get past pesky matters that seem insurmountable to them, then that makes for a great leader.  And for mission accomplishment.

3)      "Anything can be waived."  Said differently, "We govern our policies; our policies don't govern us."  The military is nothing if not a rules-laden, form-driven, policy-guided workplace -- in a good sense, of course!  This creates order, regularity, fairness and predictability to day-to-day tasks -- all of which is designed to free critical thinking and decision-making for the really important stuff.  But invariably, the really important stuff - especially taking care of people - runs up against all of these policies and rules.  Knowing that rules are made for 90% of the people and settings, and that anyone with the right empowerment and will to do so can override policies in light of needs or common sense, is the ultimate guarantor of order and fairness.

4)      "Is it illegal, immoral or unethical?  If no, then do it."  Another boon to effective decision making.  While much of what transpires in the military is governed by some directive or regulation, there still remains plenty else in that human capital-intensive field that simply isn't.  This question, then, also drives critical thinking to facilitate decisiveness.  If you're on the fence about a matter and the answer to all three questions is "no," there's relatively low risk -- or at least defensibility -- in carrying out the decision.

I recall as a young airman first class, trying to do my full-time job as newspaper editor while also wanting to complete my bachelor's degree and earn a commission.  My boss, a first lieutenant only a few years older than me, had to decide if he should let me off work three afternoons per week to take the classes I needed, on the promise that I'd wrap up all my work after hours.  This workplace flexibility - common today but unaccounted for in military regulations of circa 1996 - was neither illegal, immoral or unethical.  So he let me go.  To the ultimate benefit to me and to the Air Force.

5)     "All thrust, no vector.'"  also heard as "Ready, Fire, Aim!"  Being a non-combat military member, me and my public affairs peers especially like to appropriate the most militaristic aphorisms as our own -- ones just like these.  Jets move forward, fast, by virtue of thrust, and a change in direction is vector.  A person with more of the first than the last may be showing enthusiasm or a bias for action, but isn't demonstrating the also-necessary; indeed, the prerequisite good judgment, also required for success.  The phrase warns against this.

6)      "Early is on time.  On time is late."  Fairly self-explanatory; military operations are governed by factors like weather, readiness, enemy actions, resources and time.  Not all of these can be controlled, but executing a mission on time usually can be, so a premium is placed on this value -- even in non-combat settings.  To ensure an on-time start, there's also the military practice of "Hurry up and wait!" -- hustling to get to an appointed location in the right configuration, hours early, only to wait a seeming eternity to get under way.  Often, it's because of the 5 percent who show up on time or late, not fully prepared, that requires everyone to have to hurry up and wait.

7)      "Knowing is half the battle." - OK, that's from G.I. Joe.  But it still applies.  In every situation.

8)      "A toe shine is no shine!" I heard this at basic training, when I struggled, like Full Metal Jacket's "Private Pyle," to master some of the most basic military chores.  With some practice I could get a fairly decent sheen to the heel and toes of my boots, where the leather is stretched tight over its form.  But other parts of the boot remained flat and dull.  I thought I could get one over on them by focusing extra hard on the most visible areas fore and rear, but the TIs -Training Instructors - were quick to notice the incomplete job, which to their keen eyes demonstrated a lack of perseverance, skill mastery and concern for quality.  The message that a poorly done job is the same as an unfinished job stuck fast, as most hard Basic Training lessons are apt to do.

9)      "Integrity first.  Service before self.  Excellence in all we do."  This mantra is the Air Force Core Values, and its stuck with me since I first committed it to memory 20 years ago.  Integrity is doing the right thing, always - even when no one is looking.  Service before self gives the work ethic that even if you're tired, hungry and have other things you'd rather do, the mission must get done.  After all, lives are often at stake in this work.  Excellence establishes the standard - and it's a high one - for all of our efforts.

If you already have a good code of values you follow, great; but if not, you can do a whole lot worse than to adopt the Air Force Core Values as your own.

What other mantras - from the military or other settings - have stuck with you and guide you in your work?