Last night I had the honor of hearing Mr. Robert Johnston speak concerning his military experience during World War II. Robert Johnston holds many distinctions. First he is former United States Marine who was part of the first wave of invaders at Iwo Jima. Second, Robert had received a battlefield commission from the enlisted rank of Corporal to the officer rank of Second Lieutenant. After listening and reflecting upon his words I could not help but think how his trials and tribulations on the battlefield on Iwo Jima could be applied the the entrepreneurial battlefield and therefore should be shared to help others.
The fact that Robert Johnston was a former U.S. Marine is impressive alone. Many are familiar with the Marine Corps basic training and how it has the reputation of being one of the most difficult “boot camps” in the world. Most Marines realize that it has to be this way – after boot camp many Marines are deployed to life threatening situations which they must act quickly on instinct, boot camp is a means of preparing individuals for this. However difficult boot camp is, most realize that it may be easy compared to the challenges that lie ahead. The difficulty of Marine Corps boot camp, and Marine Corps service in general forms a bond to Marines past and present for having shared this common experience – a bond that I have yet to see effectively duplicated elsewhere, although it has been attempted many times in both the public and private sectors.
Last night was the first time that I had met an Iwo Jima Marine, especially one who had participated in the first wave of assault. Iwo Jima was a landmark battle for the Marines, and Americans in general; click here for a full description of the battle – I have provided a few highlights below:
1. Characterized by the fiercest fighting in World War II
2. U.S. casualties – 6,821 dead, 19,189 wounded; Japanese casualties – 21,703 dead, 1,083 captured
3. Inhospitable terrain due to volcanic ash which allowed for neither secure footing or construction of defensive positions such as foxholes
4. Extensive 11-mile tunnel network which allowed the Japanese the ability to attack without exposure
These aspects in addition to others made for one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Not only had Robert Johnston participated honorably in this battle, but had earned a battlefield commission. Those familiar with the Marine Corps understand the seriousness which Marines take in leading other Marines which is often characterized by the following statement – there is no greater honor than that of leading Marines. As a leader of Marines our nation is essentially entrusting the lives of men and women in their care – and Marines take this responsibility dead seriously. That being said, the Marine Corps is very particular about who it designates as officers and hands out commissions sparingly, especially those on the battlefield.
Furthermore, in my experience I have found that so-called “mustang” officers to be of very high quality. Officers who have served in the enlisted ranks have walked in the shoes of those who they are leading and therefore generally garner a higher degree of respect and admiration than their counterparts who had received a direct commission.
Upon hearing Robert Johnston’s remarkable story I could not help but draw parallels to the entrepreneurial landscape. The consequences in The Battle Of Iwo Jima, were much higher – life and death of Marines and their close teammates, however some useful parallels and lessons can be drawn from this experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for many business ideas to be drawn from military leadership and tactics.
First, Marines (especially surviving Iwo Jima Marines) as well as entrepreneurs are part of an elite group. At the time of this writing less than .05% of the population are active duty military – this figure was derived with the approximate figure of 306 million total U.S. population and 1.3 million men and women currently on active duty. An estimated 189,000 (roughly .0006 percent of the total U.S. population) of these are Marines – this reinforces “The Few The Proud” motto. As an entrepreneur you are also part of an elite group, a challenge that few decide to wholeheartedly take up. Sure there are quite a few who have businesses as a sideline, to augment the income of their day job – but it is the rare individual who decides to risk it all to free themselves and literally create value for themselves and others. Even fewer stay the course and continue down the path even after extreme discomfort occurs in their lives. According to a study conducted by the Kauffman Foundation, for 2005 and the preceding decade the rate of entrepreneurs when compared to the entire U.S. population was 0.29 percent, which corresponds to 290 of every 100,000 individuals. Although the U.S. is considered an entrepreneurial nation, this is a small number when compared to the overall population.
Second, to advance on a foreign landscape, and be the first to do so, takes remarkable courage. During his speech Robert Johnston spoke on how he did not know what to expect, and the conditions were much more fierce than originally realized. Taking the entrepreneurial leap is often similar for most. Many leave a safe, secure environment for that of the unknown – oftentimes risking their financial security and health given the stress involved when compared to a traditional 9 to 5 position. But just as the Marine on Iwo Jima had done, one must take the first step and conquer each obstacle as it appears and move to the next. To consider the whole battle in total would be demoralizing and self-defeating. Life is a series of challenges and one must tackle each one as it comes along and then be ready for the next which often arises with increasing intensity. Each small victory increases your motivation to tackle the next.
The free market is often an inhospitable place rife with hidden pitfalls and entrenched competitors. Although as a new entrant one is challenged and often at a disadvantage with those with home field advantage and who have grown accustomed to the environmental conditions, dislodging the entrenched is not an impossible task. In fact, to those who can successfully pull it off stand to gain widespread recognition, just as the Marines in The Battle Of Iwo Jima have done by earning themselves a place in history and commemorated by the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photo. The greater the challenge, the greater the potential rewards – this is true even in the commercial marketplace – high risk = high reward. If you do something truly great people will stop and take notice.
Finally, the Marines have a reputation for having a “never say die” attitude, a sort of inextinguishable optimism. To take a line from the movie “Full Metal Jacket” – “The Marine Corps Training Depot. An eight-week college for the phony tough and the crazy brave.” Permeating this culture of “crazy brave” has served the Marine Corps well and has solidified their reputation for accomplishing nearly superhuman feats under extremely adverse conditions with limited resources. This is really no different than entrepreneurship.
One of the first things I had noticed as a new entrepreneur was the unexplainable optimism that seemed to permeate the entrepreneurial culture. Each person is convinced they are going to succeed, and it is darn near impossible to convince the true entrepreneur otherwise. Even after numerous failures they are convinced that they are going to succeed – in the entrepreneur’s mind each failure brings them that much closer to a success. As a rational minded person this was tough to stomach at first, however over time it began to make sense – if you do not wholeheartedly believe in your success – who will? How will you succeed if you do not believe it yourself? If you believe in something strongly and persistently enough it will happen – this can either work to your advantage or disadvantage depending upon what you believe. For a great example of this check out the story of Captain G.R. Gopinath.
The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one minute to the next. – Mignon McLaughlin