Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “You can delegate authority, but not…
- July 03, 2019
- Marco Derhy
Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” with Sean Corbett and Marco Dehry
Delegate. You can delegate authority, but not responsibility. Choose wisely who you delegate authority to, but in the event something goes wrong (or right), it’s your responsibility as a leader to deal with the consequences, good or bad.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Corbett, a former Army Special Forces Officer with four combat deployments. After more than a decade of honorable service, Corbett chose to forego a promotion and transitioned from active duty to begin a new career in the technology industry. He currently works as the Director of Corporate Strategy at Motus, LLC in Boston, MA, and is entering the Executive MBA class of ’21 at MIT Sloan. Corbett has a Bachelor of Science degree in the Electrical Engineering track and with a focus on Military History from the United States Military Academy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a middle-class family in northeast Ohio, and I can remember as far back as grade school always wanting to be in the military. At the time I didn’t really know what that meant, but for some reason the idea of being in a special forces unit and fighting for the country was appealing. It was a weird goal to have for sure, but almost everything I did focused on being like Charlie Sheen from “Navy SEALs” or John Wayne from “The Green Berets.” Maybe not so much Charlie Sheen as time went on…but I focused tirelessly on physical training and academics throughout high school with the goal of either getting into the United States Military Academy at West Point or enlisting in the Army after graduation.
The first day of class my junior year was 9/11/2011, so that day solidified what I was going to do after graduating high school. Somehow I ended up getting an acceptance letter to West Point, so I began my time in the military and the beginning of adulthood at age 18 when I showed up as a cadet that first day in June 2003.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
After an initial one and a half years in sales, I now work as the Director of Corporate Strategy at Motus, LLC. The main focus of my job is to help drive operational execution of our strategy across departments and assist with our ongoing M&A initiatives. It’s a great opportunity for which I’m very grateful. As I begin grad school in the Fall and continue to work full-time, the academics will pair nicely with what I do daily at Motus.
Today, the value I bring to my company stems from my experience as a leader in the Army Infantry and Green Berets, but that only goes so far. There is much more I need to learn to give back to my company what they have given to me, which is why I’ve decided to invest the time to complete this MBA program in addition to my full-time job. While I continue to learn on the job, I find various ways to provide value and streamline our processes required to complete M&A deals. It’s unique because we are moving fast with limited resources (similar to constraints I experienced during Special Forces operations) and taking our company to the next level.
Finding successful small companies that can add value to Motus isn’t easy. Once we do identify one, completing the diligence process promptly and successfully acquiring them is easier said than done. Integrating them operationally and culturally is equally as difficult, but it is something I’ve had success with in the past. Integrating two completely different military units that speak different languages, worship different higher powers, and have a wildly different view of reality is what I spent a lot of my time doing for the past decade. After that integration, going out and winning together on the battlefield is an even greater challenge. If it can be done in Afghanistan with an enemy trying to stop you, then it can be done here in our niche area of the SaaS world. Nonetheless, it’s still a great challenge that keeps life at Motus exciting.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
As I mentioned, my career started by spending four humbling years at West Point. When I commissioned as a Lieutenant in 2007, I joined the Infantry. After completing the U.S. Army Ranger School, I went to my unit in the 101st Airborne Division and completed a short tour in Iraq. Following that, I completed an additional combat tour with the 101st during the surge in Afghanistan where I served as a Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, Company Commander, and Outpost Commander during large operations across the country. Following my time in the 101st, I completed Special Forces Assessment and Selection and the follow-on year and a half training to earn my Green Beret and a spot in the Army Special Forces.
Upon reporting to the 7th Special Forces Group, I took command of a 12-man Special Forces Team (Detachment). Although this team’s specialty is underwater operations, otherwise known as a dive team, and my unit’s normal area of focus is Central and South America, we only focused on the mission in Afghanistan during my time. I completed two back-to-back combat deployments to Afghanistan with this team from 2013 to 2015. Our mission was to work with one of the country’s few Commando units to increase their capacity to fight while simultaneously conducting operations to remove the many enemy elements that exist in that country.
Following my last combat deployment in 2015, I commanded the 7th Special Forces Group Headquarters Company and completed an additional assignment at Fort Bragg, NC before leaving the Army in late 2017.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
During my first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, I had the opportunity to take roughly 50 American and 50 Afghan Soldiers and conduct a lengthy operation into one of the most dangerous areas of southern Afghanistan. We flew by helicopter and landed on the outskirts of a small village, where we linked up with a team of U.S. Special Forces who came in the night before. Avoiding the hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), we walked into that village, escorted by the team of bearded Green Berets, right into the tribal elder’s mud-wall compound, and we set up a base. We lived there for almost two months among the Afghan villagers while we worked to remove mines from the dirt roads where kids were playing and exchanged gunfire from rooftops with insurgents while below, in a courtyard, young women filled jugs from a well to wash up for evening prayer.
My 100-man element was part of a larger operation to pacify this part of Afghanistan from which the Taliban originated. I can’t possibly explain how complex this effort was, and how much more complex we made it with the strategy we used in an attempt to achieve positive results. The locals in this area were Pashtun, and so was the enemy. The enemy consisted of many foreigners, but they also had fighters that they recruited locally, so there was still a connection between the enemy and the villagers with whom we lived. A few hundred meters in either direction from our village were other villages and those Afghans, while also Pashtun, were from different sub-tribes and often had longstanding feuds. There was no semblance of working together as neighbors to do anything about this enemy burying IEDs in the street collecting illegal taxes, and oppressing every civilian within their span of control.
To make matters worse, the 50 Afghan Soldiers that I had with me were generally Tajik. The villagers and my Afghan Soldiers were both Muslim, they were both from the same country, they were both brought together facing a common enemy, but they hated each other. Building upon those complexities, the 50 American Soldiers I had with me, although brave and there for the right reasons, were generally young and certainly not culturally astute enough to tactfully navigate the astounding differences between us and those with which we had to work together. Lastly, the worst part was that I, the commander of this disaster in the making, had no idea what I was doing. This was a Special Forces mission, not a mission designed for a young Infantry platoon. The idea that a higher command would put a young group of 20-somethings into a situation like this and think things are going to work out well is laughable as I look back on it.
As a very junior Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry at the time you can imagine I learned a lot from this experience. A lot of what we did and the decisions I made were instinctual. I think we were all lucky that at the end of our time there the only casualties were some enemy fighters, a few of my Afghan Soldiers, a military working dog, and two Afghan villagers including a toddler (not harmed by us). We survived even though we put our lives on the line every day trying to help these locals that, from my observations, didn’t care one way or another how it ended.
I learned a lot during those two months about leadership, a lot about complex human dynamics, and a lot about myself, but most shockingly, I learned that we were never going to win in Afghanistan the way we were approaching it. I’m sure this is no surprise to the Vietnam guys. You had to be there and be engaged at such an intimate level to get a clear picture, but it was clear to me.
I wasn’t against the effort in Afghanistan, not even a little bit, but the strategy just made zero sense. Strangely enough, I went back two more times after that.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
What’s interesting about this question following the last one is that it should further clarify my point about winning in Afghanistan. Three years later, now with a U.S. Special Forces team and a 50-man element of Afghan Army Commandos, we loaded up helicopters and flew under cover of darkness to the outskirts of a village. Our orders during this deployment required us to fly to the worst parts of southern Afghanistan and eliminate the enemy in the area, so we could have been walking into any one of thousands of villages not yet secured. More than three years after the story I shared above, I viewed the exact same village through my night vision device and could even see my old home (the village elder’s compound) out in the distance.
This time something different happened. There was no Special Forces team there to greet us like there was three years prior, we were that team. Before I could wrap my head around the ridiculousness of being back there and enjoy the nostalgia, my other element (that arrived in a different CH-47 helicopter) called out enemy movement inside their objective location. The enemy movement was confirmed by the Apache Gunship helicopters overhead providing initial air support.
A quick side note that’s necessary to mention: Right before we departed on this planned operation, our command informed us that after talks between Kabul and Washington, and the deteriorating political climate leading up to Afghan elections, U.S. Forces could not enter Afghan compounds, and certainly not engage Afghan compounds with aircraft unless it was an absolute last resort. They sent us into a combat situation with a lot of restrictions and red tape on our side, all of which provided an advantage to the enemy and made it even more difficult for Ground Force Commanders like me.
With my element moving towards the fortified enemy position I was able to confirm a decent sized enemy force with heavy weapons awaited them. Scrutinizing the situation, as I always did, I was confident that this compound was occupied by enemy and not local civilians. I authorized the Apaches to engage directly into the compound to eliminate as many enemy fighters as possible before my guys arrived there.
Now for the heroics…
My guys arrived at the compound, and an intense gunfight broke out between them and the ten or so remaining enemy fighters. Immediately, our Afghan Commandos took casualties, and our team had to take control, so the initiative wasn’t lost. They pulled the wounded Commandos out of the way to safety and entered the compound now in a very close quarters firefight — the enemy engaged with automatic weapons from defensive positions and with hand grenades. One grenade exploded putting a small amount of shrapnel into one of my guys, and another grenade landed between two others. There’s debate whether one of them rolled on top of it or not, but the grenade didn’t explode. Two of my other guys were shot during these events and squirmed in pain out in the open exposed to more enemy fire. The real act of heroism came from one of my guys next to the unexploded grenade, who also happened to be a medic. Without any consideration of his personal safety, he gathered himself and engaged some of the remaining enemy fighters nearby and pulled the wounded to safety. While the shooting continued, he treated them himself so that they were stable and ready for extraction when it was safe to bring in the MEDEVAC helicopter.
It was a team effort, but due to this specific Special Operations Soldier’s heroic acts, the enemy lost this fight, and we won. If even one U.S. Green Beret lost their life during these events this would be considered a loss, however, due to the selfless acts of this hero they all survived and are all recovered today living normal lives. For his actions, he received the Air Force Cross, one step below the Medal of Honor. There are many exaggerated stories of heroics during wartime, but this was not one of them. I am proud, and at the same time humbled, to have been a part of this story because it really does juxtapose the best and the worst about war, and particularly the war in Afghanistan.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
First and foremost, I believe this term is often overused. In the context that I’ve seen them, a hero is someone that commits a conscious act that one would not commit if he or she were acting rationally with self-preservation in mind. This act also must be conducted with the intent of protecting one or more other human beings, serving little tangible benefit to themselves. There are a lot of irrational people out there, but very few that are both irrational and selfless at the same time. I’ll admit, that’s an interesting definition of a hero, but I think it makes sense based on what I’ve seen in combat.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
I’m sure some cases don’t require a life and death situation for heroics to take place, but I do believe it requires a person to exhibit bravery that goes beyond a “brave” social media post where they can hide behind the computer screen.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Always act with humility and the right amount of empathy as a leader.
2. Always take ownership of the mistakes that will inevitably occur along the way and always give your team credit for the successes.
3. Pause. Think. Act. These may have to be done extremely fast, but always do them when leading in combat and elsewhere.
4. Lead from the front, but don’t forget to seek advice and input from the back.
5. Never quit, and never turn down an opportunity because it seems like too much work.
Do you think the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
I had the good fortune of working with Your Grateful Nation (YGN), a non-profit that assists Special Operations Forces veterans with their transition from the battlefield to the boardroom, when making my transition from the Army to Motus. I knew that I had gained valuable skills throughout my service, but my time with YGN taught me there are quite a few parallels when it comes to success. All of those lessons I learned above are important ones, and ones you may not learn or fully comprehend unless you have experienced the burden of command or faced the difficulties head-on that come with leading others while facing adversity, often in an austere environment.
Working hard and taking responsibility for your actions will lead to success in the military and the business world. While others may have higher business acumen, those without a successful background, such as the military, that gives you much needed life skills may not yet have learned how to do these basics or have to learn the hard way on the job while struggling to succeed in business.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I don’t give this much thought personally because it wasn’t a struggle for me. I’m lucky to have other things in life that give me perspective outside of my time in the military. I know it can be a struggle for others though. I believe it’s important to surround yourself with family and/or friends that care about you, and to always have a purpose in life. Without those two things driving a person after an intense deployment, I can understand how there can be a struggle.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of my goals while attending business school is to coalesce around my older and much more accomplished classmates to develop a business project that can help people. Currently, I take every opportunity given to help others that are coming out of the Special Operations community or other parts of the military to be successful as they transition out of the public sector and into the private sector. I also take the opportunity to give an address or speak to kids, such as those at my high school, that are trying to prepare for adulthood and give them insights that may be valuable as they grow.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t remind everyone you are in charge, just be in charge.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate. You can delegate authority, but not responsibility. Choose wisely who you delegate authority to, but in the event something goes wrong (or right), it’s your responsibility as a leader to deal with the consequences, good or bad.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people along the way to this point in my life that have provided me the opportunity to be successful. From my parents, brother, and wife, to leaders, peers, and subordinates of mine in the military, I could tell you a story about each one and what they did for me.
My first commander in the Army (not a trusting person), for some reason, gave me the room to succeed or fail and provided just enough guidance along the way to help me succeed. My peers, one in particular who turned down a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating 3rd in our class at West Point to go to combat, was eventually killed on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. While we grew up together as young adults, he gave me someone to compete with and an example of how to succeed; in school, in life, and as a leader in the Army.
Because the focus here is on the military and business, I will refrain from highlighting my wife who could not possibly do more to make my life easier and provide me support with everything I do. Instead, I’ll highlight another person that always sticks out in my mind that I met when I first reported to 7th Special Forces Group as a brand-new Green Beret Captain. This person that helped me achieve success was technically (according to rank and position) a subordinate of mine. Luck and a little bit of networking led to my assignment as the Detachment Commander for Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) 7315. This team of Green Berets was already successful way before I showed up, so they didn’t necessarily need me to continue in that manner. I wanted the assignment to this detachment based on their reputation, but also because they were scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan two months later to take on one of the most dangerous and exciting missions in the country.
Reporting to a successful team such as ODA 7315 as the new Captain can go a couple of different ways down a good or bad path. Thanks to the detachment’s Master Sergeant, Chris, I was given the opportunity to succeed instead of being pushed to the side and marginalized by an already tight-knit and successful group of combat veteran Green Berets. Chris and the detachment’s Warrant Officer Mike, the two ranking members before I showed up, recognized the value a former Infantry Captain could bring to their team if properly integrated as a new leader in the Special Forces. Chris, in particular, treated me with respect from the moment we met (forget about rank — this doesn’t always happen in the world of Special Forces which can be somewhat defined by egos and power grabbing). He brought me up to speed on the team’s standard operating procedures, the complexities of individual team members, and how to navigate the politics of unit command.
Most importantly, he gave me the opportunity to succeed (or fail) by letting me do my job and ensuring he always gave me the support and advice to point me towards success. Chris and the others on that team set me up to do very well during my last few years in the military, which consisted of some of the tougher times in my life, including two additional combat deployments. Due to events that transpired following my first interaction with Chris, I can say with 100% certainty that I would not be in the great spot that I am today without his help.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Although I have no concrete evidence of this, I believe that I have positively influenced others along my way like those previously described influenced me. Many of them continue to serve and hopefully, due to some of the leadership I provided them, they are continuing to do great things for this country.
It’s tough to say how much goodness I brought to the world from my time overseas and that uncertainty continues to drive me here at home to find other ways. I hope that business school gives me more opportunities to do so. In the meantime, I do enjoy sharing lessons learned and mentoring those that come after me so that perhaps they can have success bringing goodness to the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Probably something that gets kids to stop living on social media. For a result as seemingly unreachable as this, we probably need someone much more inspirational than me! Also, ironically enough, we probably have to begin to inspire the movement on social media itself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This isn’t really an inspirational quote, but the following can be attributed to my Grandfather.
“You ain’t a man…unless you carry a grand.”
– Eugene Corbett
Hear me out on this…
Other than the fact that it makes me laugh, there are a couple of life lessons that I take from this quote. Even though my grandfather was a complete Irish prick, alcoholic, he had a point. Cash is king. That’s an important life lesson for millennials like me. During the first half of the 1900’s in Boston as an Irish immigrant, the guy didn’t have much and never earned much, but when he did, it sounds like he maximized his cash flow.
Second, this quote reminds me of where I came from. Just like my father, he had no college degree and much less opportunity in life, but what he did have was street smarts. Somehow he was able to scrounge together enough for him to raise my dad in a way where he had even more opportunity to succeed in life. Due to this chain of events, my father provided me the same, and I am most fortunate with tons of opportunity in life to work hard and succeed. What’s even better proof that I was given the opportunity for a better life than those before me is that I have a little more than a grand in just my Venmo account.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Without a doubt, Elon Musk. Despite how intelligent he is, it amazes me that with his introverted personality type he is able to lead companies to the level of success that he has. I’d love to hear from him how he does it and what his approach is. I could also talk to him for hours about AI, theoretical physics, and all kinds of other nerdy stuff like that. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but it’s very interesting and I love learning from people smarter than me.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.
Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “You can delegate authority, but not… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.