01 Mar 2010
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The Meaning of Ramadi

After Deadly Combat in Iraq, Life Looks Different
by Donovan Campbell

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One day in April 2007, my phone started ringing during a customer analytics class at HBS. I kept hitting silence, but the phone kept ringing. Thirteen calls and one very annoyed professor later, I got the hard news: The Marine Corps had recalled me to active duty. I was shocked — I had already served two tours in Iraq, most recently in Ramadi, where I had led a platoon of forty infantrymen through seven months of some of the worst combat Americans had seen since Vietnam. Besides, I was in the inactive reserve, and the Marines hadn’t recalled anyone with that classification since the Korean War. Less than a year later, however, I was in Afghanistan.

Deployed once again, I missed most of my daughter’s second year of life and yet another wedding anniversary. But I realize now that third tour of duty was a blessing in disguise. It reinforced the lessons I’d learned earlier in combat and proved that they applied not only in war but also in business and life. Here are a few of those lessons; maybe some will ring true.

First, I’ve learned that time is a precious gift, and with that knowledge comes a certain perspective. When many of your friends and comrades no longer have any tomorrows, because they bled their lives out on some nameless street in some nameless city, you begin to value every day and to give your best, because you know that tomorrow is not ensured. You begin to ask yourself, “What will I do with this day I have been given, a day that so many of my dead comrades would love to have?” As an infantry officer, when every decision involves life and death, you develop greater patience with small inconveniences, an understanding of what really matters, and perspective on what truly constitutes a crisis.

Second, I’ve learned that failure is an inevitable and necessary part of life. It happens whether you like it or not — sometimes as a result of your own (or someone else’s) error in judgment and sometimes simply because time and circumstance had a vote. Once you’ve accepted this difficult truth, it liberates you as a leader to shoulder blame rather than search for excuses. Everything that happens is ultimately the leader’s responsibility anyway, and promptly taking ownership of a difficult situation means that you can lead your team out of it that much sooner.

Finally, I’ve learned that servant leadership is the only leadership model that works over the long run. Simply put, servant leadership demands that a leader place the mission’s goals and values first, the team and its individuals second, and the leader’s own welfare a distant third. After all, leaders exist to remove obstacles, not to acquire power, glory, wealth, or fame. And if those of us who currently lead in the business world can do so by serving others, now is a terrific time to be doing what we are doing: We have the opportunity to redeem our profession, get our reputations back, and make the term “business” something positive. We can prove that when it comes to doing good and doing well, you cannot have one without the other. We can prove that the term “business ethics” is a repetition, not an oxymoron, because business is not sustainable unless it focuses on ethics as hard as it does on profits.

I’m safely back home now, and finding reintegration fairly easy, in part because the lessons I learned as a military officer have transferred well to civilian leadership. People are much the same, it seems, in or out of uniform. And good leadership is good leadership, period.

— Donovan Campbell (MBA '07), a Zone Sales Leader at Frito-Lay in Dallas, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Joker One, a memoir of his experience as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq in 2004.

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Class of MBA 2007, Section D
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