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November 9, 2018

Wayne Johnson is a doctoral student in management with a concentration in management and organizations at the Johnson School of Business. Prior to attending Cornell, he served in the Army.

Which branch of the military did you serve in?

Army, branched Combat Engineers then Civil Affairs.

What was your path to get to Cornell?

My path started leading a counter-bomb (improvised explosive device/IED) unit in eastern Afghanistan. The doctrine we had was better suited for Iraq, where the bombs and environment were very different. After a month of heavy losses, I realized radical experimentation was needed. So we tried out new methods and they turned out to work surprisingly well. They worked so well that I got an assignment to the Army Research Lab to develop a training regimen to teach what we’d learned to the rest of the counter-bomb troops.

I had taught a few hundred people before, but I saw that research was a powerful microphone to project voice and knowledge far beyond my reach as a tactics instructor. So I began to see research as a means of communicating important ideas. A few years later I realized that some of the ideas and topics I found most interesting were in organizational behavior and that I could learn about and communicate those ideas through completing a Ph.D. in management.

What is it like to return to grad school after serving?

I had a gentler integration because before Cornell I went to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and got an M.S. aimed at practitioners which never required me to write more than five double-spaced pages. I chose to do a thesis in my second year and to moonlight at the business school for organizational research, which made the transition to a Ph.D. easier.

In both programs I felt like I lagged behind others who had spent their years working in the discipline while I was off doing work that I felt was important but had little academic relevance. Most military work is not relevant to academic study and relies on a very different set of skills. I think I would have still managed if I had gone into a Ph.D. program directly from active duty, but it would have been difficult. I understand some people have a harder time transitioning, but I wasn’t one of them. I chose subjects for which I did not have deep experience or knowledge so that naturally led to a steeper learning curve.

What did you learn in your active military experience that is useful as a graduate student?

I find that I am skilled at getting organizations to work with me and let me do field research. I learned in the army that I am much more likely to be successful when I go to someone whose help I need with a solution to a problem they have. I learned most managers are busy and are displeased when someone brings them new problems or things to worry about. But they are very pleased when someone reduces their load. I needed help from all sorts of people in the army who did not have to help me, so I had to learn how to get them to want to help me. And I learned the way to do that is find commonalities so that it was in their own interest to help me. That required knowing and caring about their interests and being willing to help them, too. But army organizations are a team so that wasn’t hard.

So with organizations now I figure out who I need to talk to and I identify a problem they have. Then I figure out how I can help solve whatever the problem is while simultaneously accomplishing the goals I have. Sometimes that requires persistence and creativity, but it is surprisingly effective. It’s also how I got jobs I wanted in the army. I’d find whoever controlled the assignment I hoped for, figure out what was a worry they had with the assignment, and then I’d bring them a solution before they put out a request for someone to fill the slot. So then they wouldn’t put out the request.

I will teach a course on leading and managing in organizations in the spring, and I’m thrilled to have field experience and authenticity for that. I think I have some good context for many of the subjects I want to teach. 

What leadership skills did you learn in the military that you use now?

I learned a lot of things about emotional leadership. I think people learn to associate others with how they feel when they are around. That’s a reason why leaders who only talk to their subordinates when angry or disappointed achieve so little traction. They are associated with a negative emotion, so people feel disinclined to interact with them and have little intrinsic motivation to do their best. I learned that most people get approached about their work when they are doing something wrong. I saw that often in the military and the accompanying resentment and recalcitrance.

I found myself thinking, how do I make other people feel? What is it like to work for me and interact with me? And I wanted that to be a good experience. So I learned that I should take time often to go find someone who usually only hears complaints and tell them, hey, I don’t have any complaints because you’re doing such a great job. Or to go out of my way to notice when someone did good work and to validate that.

I also learned a particularly important lesson once after one of our men was killed. A senior man who was well respected gathered everyone together to say a few words. But he barely said anything and gave people hugs. Even professional soldiers just need to feel like someone understands them and cares about them and acknowledges their pain. It’s true that people often don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

After the war I decided to volunteer for a suicide hotline for three years and I realized how deep a need people have to be validated and heard. It can be a bright light in a dark night to have someone listen or notice or just try to understand you. And that’s not just for extreme things. It’s really easy to brighten someone else’s day by noticing and appreciating them. It doesn’t cost anything. I also learned that when I was afraid, the best medicine was to go find someone who was more afraid and comfort him. And somehow that makes you feel better. That’s true with many negative emotions I think so I still use that.