This morning I sat in my kids’ school assembly along with about 100 other veterans and received the thanks and praise of students, teachers, and family.
It was a lovely ceremony, really. It was replete with laudatory comments about selfless volunteers and the sacrifices they willingly made (and the coffee and cookies were good, too). As I looked at the hats, jackets, and other service-specific gear of WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War vets, I became quite aware that most of the other veterans deserved the recognition way more than I did. But also, it became apparent how different our experiences and interactions must have been in our country’s service.
In this case, I felt really humbled to be receiving group praise and hearing such nice adjectives thrown about in reference to our collective group of 100 vets, all from different eras and service units. While I served successfully and honorably in the U.S. Navy for nearly 5 years myself, I certainly wasn’t deserving of the mentions of valor and bravery that combat-tested veterans would be. Realizing it would be simply impractical to try to focus such a large forum on specific parts of our 100+ differing journeys in military service, I completely understand why such large, generic ceremonies are still a great and appreciated tradition, perhaps moreso than ever. But the ceremony was very distinctly impersonal, preferring overarching patriotic themes over anything unique by service, time served, theater, or role. Probably safer that way, I understand. So, deserved or not, truly–thanks for the Veterans’ Day group love.
Only one other veteran asked me any specific questions about my service. I had asked about his role and locations served, as we shared some common military vernacular, but also the common understanding of how different the experience can be…
And so it is usually for such veteran ceremonies—appreciated and noble, but cursory and surface-deep. It’s almost, at times, as if non-veterans don’t feel like they know how to ask about the individual’s military experience, whereas it would be easily relatable and normal to ask about some other more conventional jobs.
In the workplace, the “grouping together” of our veterans also happens frequently, sometimes via military recruiting events and employee affinity groups and special focus on veteran hiring, but sometimes in the form of bias on what impact military service must have on an individual’s leadership. In my nearly twenty years of post-military work within three Fortune 500s, I have heard more than a dozen times how former military members may not be suited to collaborative environments, may be too rigid for certain roles, and concern over whether a non-directive style could ever be learned to fit these ever-changing, matrixed organizations. I have also heard how more senior former service members have little chance of adapting to “hands-on” work, because of their clear reliance on their staffs to accomplish the work. Individually-applied, I’m sure these assertions had a chance of being true in each case, but what I found disturbing were the assumptions made about the experience without any true knowledge of the specific roles, situational experience or leadership competency of the specific leader.
So on this Veterans’ Day, honestly, thanks for the recognition and praise, especially for noting that in an all-volunteer service, it does, in fact, take one’s willingness to supplant personal objectives for the needs of the country and citizenry. But let’s not overdo the individual laudatory adjectives, as we must remember we are speaking to individuals as unique as the fingerprints touching the service records they built.
At work, let’s give our veteran leaders the same chance to individually prove themselves worthy of the roles they hold or might seek. Feel free to ask them about their unique experiences that made them into who they are.
Thank them for their service, certainly—but don’t leave it just there.