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May, Memorial Day, Military: Lessons for Now

Ideas and words whirl as I think and write this column time and again.

What lessons might be most useful, what ideas might resonate?

Memorial Day, the critics charge, has become nothing more than the start of summer and summer sales. Are we celebrating consumerism or recognizing sacrifice? Remembering our war dead or “American exceptionalism”?

May is the month we recognize and remember several aspects of our military:

  • Armed Forces Day (May 21) recognizes those currently in service.
  • Memorial Day (May 30) recognizes those who died in war.
  • Military Spouse Appreciation Day (May 6) is a newer recognition.

Memorial Day began as women, individually and in clubs, decorated the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers. It became formalized, first in the North and then the South, as Decoration Day. Later, soldiers from World War I were added and eventually it became a federal holiday in recognition of all our military killed in war.

The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War has just begun.

Are there lessons we can still use from this war?

Actually, yes.

One is the value of planning and execution. Many of us know we should plan for our business but do not really do so.

Union General George McClellan was well known and regarded for his excellent planning and training of the troops. Yet, when he was in battle he was not good at execution.

At Antietam, he had 2:1 superiority over Confederate General Robert E. Lee but did not commit his troops to take advantage of small victories, and Lee escaped with his army to fight on.

Planning for hiring, training, and using people effectively to achieve the mission began in the military. You may not need a formal HR strategic plan, but you do need to decide what work needs to be done for your success and define who will do it to hire or contract for such needs.

Another useful lesson from the military is that individuals fight and die to protect their teammates, not an abstract idea or grand plan. In business terms, this insight can help you recognize that strong teamwork is critical to your success. If you cannot create and sustain your team(s), a great idea will not translate into a successful business.

In more modern terms, the military demonstrate the value of training and development. Each service not only provides technical training to its members, but people are trained to become supervisors and managers before being put into such jobs.

Too many businesses undervalue training and development. Yes, there are cost-effective ways your business can provide such activities to enhance your success!

Today’s military is stretched thin after a decade of wars. Those in the National Guard and Reserves have been called for extended service repeatedly. We talk often of military members as heroes, but some veterans have difficulty finding or retaining jobs as employers misunderstand their skills or fear they may be recalled to active duty.

Saying thanks is a nice gesture. But we also need to support and assist our veterans during and after their active service.

The impact of the end of the draft has been to change the military in many ways. Today a far smaller slice of Americans have been in the military or know veterans than when the draft took folks from all across the society. We have fewer veterans now in public policy or elected positions.

On the other hand, military pay has risen significantly now that we can’t draft folks. And the military pioneered in opening non-traditional jobs to women and in promoting minorities to leadership roles.

The military holidays of May offer you an opportunity to learn more about our history and our current military.

Reach out to those military or veterans you know and learn their stories. Walk a battlefield and teach your children US history in the process.

In Metro DC? Visit the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery’s entrance to see the history of women in military service to the USA.

Think of how difficult it was until quite recently to be a woman bucking society by joining the military.

How could their pioneering attitudes provide inspiration and support to your business today?

Footnote: Our illustration (© JB Floyd, used with permission) is a Federal decoration given to veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg at its 75th Anniversary. Yes, that meant that they were in their 90s when attending the event.

More from Women Grow Business:

Patricia A. Frame is an experienced Human Capital issues speaker and management consultant. She founded Strategies for Human Resources to advise organizations facing organization and people challenges. Previously she designed and managed human resource functions for GE, Software AG, Maxwell Online, and others. A Wharton MBA and an Air Force veteran, she actively supports the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Check out her website, SHRinsight.com, for management and development articles.


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