“Who’s feeling victorious this morning?” John Park MBV ’19 yelled excitedly to the Global Leadership Program (GLP) students gathered around him on the Bridge Hall lawn. “Let me see that V! Let me hear you! Fight on!”
Now pursuing a Master of Business for Veterans (MBV) degree at USC Marshall, Park was a machine gunner with the Marines in Iraq, fighting for his life at the age of 19. As master of ceremonies, his call to action on Oct. 12 kicked off the second annual GLP/MBV leadership event, which bridges two academic programs in a powerful experiential learning experience.
Ninety-five GLP freshmen, the top tier of business administration students, joined 32 MBVs for a fast-paced morning of military-inspired exercises meant to sharpen their leadership skills, as well as challenge their strategic thinking and communication abilities.
“We wanted our vets interacting with our freshmen. We thought there was a lot of sharing to take place,” said Professor Emeritus Robert Turrill, academic director of the MBV program. “They hear a lot about corporate leadership, and I wanted them to hear about military leadership and see where the overlaps are. This group of veterans knows leadership quite well, and they have a lot to give.”
“We wanted our vets interacting with our freshmen. We thought there was a lot of sharing to take place." --Robert Turrill, Professor Emeritus
Five exercise stations each focused on a core value shared among all of the branches of the U.S. military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard) and the British Army — all of which were represented by MBVs. Those values, each essential to good leadership, are: honor, respect, loyalty, service and integrity.
At the end of each exercise, a debriefing session allowed time for questions, analysis and discussion about how things could have gone better. Every session offered lessons on multiple dimensions, with applications for students’ futures in business and life in general.
“This is all about being present in the moment, interacting with each other and learning from each other, both us from them and them from us,” said Nick Seidel MBV ’19, U.S. Army Infantry Major (Ret.), who helped coordinate the program with Turrill. “It’s about learning to come into their own, through stretching their comfort zone and giving them time for active and meaningful reflection.”
When the whistle blew, the first group of students gathered at the “honor” station. Small plastic cones were laid out on the Bridge Hall lawn to resemble a minefield. The students were tasked with selecting two leaders who would be the only eyes and voices on the field to guide the remaining 15 of them safely through the mines—with their eyes closed—and in under 15 minutes. “You need to make the best decisions you can with limited information, and you can’t leave anyone behind,” said Juan Reyes MBV ’19 (Coast Guard).
For Marine Andrew Hodlin MBV ’19, this exercise had a real-world parallel with his tour of duty in Afghanistan, which he shared with the students waiting their turn. He said it was always the young recruits who led the company through minefields with metal detectors and Holly sticks, while their backpacks emitted a radio frequency to block remote detonators like cell phones or garage door openers. “This is about facing an unknown environment and having the courage to go out there,” he said. “You know there are threats all around you, and you need to trust the people in front to get you through.”
What’s the best way to face the unknown? The same way students learn in their business classes—with a team. “You always need help accomplishing your objectives. It’s much more difficult and time-consuming on your own,” Reyes said after the exercise.
The students got very close to beating the timer, but as one active duty Air Force reserve member said, “Horseshoes and hand grenades, my friends.” Still, lessons learned without the high stakes of the real world was part of the point: Try things out now, make mistakes while in school, and learn to do it right out in the real world.
“The point is that these are dots, memorable little things that the students may not connect right away, but as they develop their careers, they can see how it all fits together. That’s the whole purpose of giving them so many different experiences, and opportunities to meet so many different people,” said Carl Voigt, professor of clinical management and organization and academic advisor for the GLP.
Theory into Practice
With the cell phone stopwatch counting down three minutes at the “respect” station, groups of four students tried to replicate a complex 10-piece Lego build they couldn’t even look at. They had to rely on a team leader to describe it and couldn’t talk to that leader. While extremely precise communication was key, some of the students also figured out that communication—and respect—has to be a two-way street. They found a way to signal to their leader without words.
“If you are a leader,” active duty Air Force member Scott Giles MBV ’19 said, “it is absolutely imperative that you solicit feedback from your subordinates. The goal is more empowered leadership through communication.”
What do the MBVs get out of this? “I think a little bit of our youth back,” Seidel, a West Point graduate, said with a laugh. “Not only do these folks bring youth and vitality, but they bring a different perspective to our cohort. That we have to approach them on their level allows us to get a little nostalgic in trying to reaffirm our abilities to teach because that’s what we do or did all the time with training.”
A chance for valuable interaction is one of the reasons more than a third of the 86 MBVs volunteered their time to prepare for and attend this event on their week off from classes. MBVs drove in from across the Southland; one flew in from Louisiana.
MBVs join the program to transition from the military to business; some have already made the plunge. One is an entrepreneur who runs a security business; another is a civil engineer working on the Inglewood stadium project near campus. They all wanted to share their experiences with Marshall’s newest class.
“It’s important for me as part of the leadership of this program that we—veterans at USC, and I am one myself—contribute,” said James Bogle, MBV program director. “The value that binds this group is service. They don’t want to come here and just take; they want to give as well. For us, it’s about having an opportunity to make a contribution to the University.”
GLP student leader Eugenia Hang ’22, was thankful for their contribution. “I think this is really important for the students to experience and reflect on these concepts, like integrity, communication, and so on, and to be able to see how they would affect them in a business setting in the future,” she said. “One of the takeaways I got was sacrificing personal gains for the collective benefit.”