The Army Physical Fitness Test made me a Great Leader (Not for the reasons you expect.)
The outgoing US Army Physical Fitness Test (the APFT, of course) was a simple military training event that taught me the core of leadership, integrity, and ethics for my military and post-military career. The APFT is a three-event test: (1) two minutes of push-ups, (2) two minutes of sit-ups, and (3) a timed two-mile run. The APFT, although simple and uncomplicated, is a hallmark of my leadership.
Rather than a benign example, the APFT represents what organizational leadership and operations should be for every government, non-profit, and business organization. The APFT is a powerful leadership example for all organizations, just not for the reasons you expect.
Follow these simple and direct lessons of APFT Leadership for all your leadership challenges:
1st Lesson of APFT Leadership – Universal & Common Training. Training for the APFT is one of the first item that all soldiers, officer candidates, and US Military Academy (AKA West Point) cadets do in their very first days of the US Army. Before soldiers are tested in the APFT, everyone is taught how to do the APFT correctly. Army veterans, even 20+ years retired, can tell you the official “rest” position while doing push-ups and how far your feet can be apart during sit-ups. The leadership lesson is that no one should have to guess or be confused what is the “right” way to perform a task. Good leadership is leadership that trains everyone to the same standard at the same time with the same quality.
2nd Lesson of APFT Leadership – A Universal, Published Standard of Performance. When completing the APFT, there is a universal grading scale based on soldier age for all events. There are even clear grading standards for injured soldiers to take alternate fitness events, so they can qualify on the APFT. The leadership lesson is that the standards for good to poor task execution should be clear, published, and known to everyone. Evaluating the same task with different scoring standards, unknown scoring standards, or varying standards is a way to destroy an organization. I took the APFT in Korea on a -15F day, at Fort Bragg, NC on a 95F day, and at Fort Carson, CO at a little less than 6,000 feet of altitude. No matter the conditions, the scoring standard was always the same. Equally applied and universally communicated standards make for great leadership.
3rd Lesson of APFT Leadership – No Hiding – Everyone Sees Your Effort. When you take the APFT, you take it with your entire military unit from 30 to 700 people. This level of “in front” leadership is vital to maintain and promote high standards. The leadership lesson is that leaders must be seen doing, communicating, and executing the most difficult tasks in front of their personnel. During the APFT, officers and senior Non-Commissioned Officers (the Sergeant’s that do the work) are the 1st ones to take the APFT so everyone can see how well they do, or don’t do. Finally, at the end of the APFT, scores are published from high to low score, so everyone knows where everyone stands. There is no hiding poor performance in a team, especially how well the leaders perform.
4th Lesson of APFT Leadership – Ethics in Small Events Sets Standard for Large Events. The APFT was a very small training event, but small events well performed set the standard for larger events. As units rotated to Iraq and Afghanistan, every soldier needed to know how to operate multiple weapons, put on a tourniquet, radio for a medical evacuation, and say “hello” in the local language. Just like the APFT, the same universal training, testing, and hands on performance is followed by the entire unit. The leadership lesson is that performing the smallest events well sets the ethical standards for the entire group and future “large” events. If you do the small well, you perform the large well.
5th Lesson of APFT Leadership – Great Leaders Retrain & Retest – Not Terminate. Soldiers and even leaders all experience a time when they perform poorly or even fail the APFT. The US Army has a plan to re-train, rehearse, and then re-test for the APFT. When a soldier fails an event, the first step is to retrain them, so they know how to perform the test correctly. Training, not screaming, is the method to improve performance on the APFT. The leadership lesson is that great leaders train, coach, and develop performance, not terminate when performance is low. Leaders who terminate for bad performance hide behind unknown standards. Leaders who coach, re-train, and develop after episodes of poor performance demonstrate true leadership and the importance of high standards.
During my time in the US Army, the simplest events, parachuting, weapons qualification, and the APFT set the standard for my most difficult time in Bosnia and Iraq because I had been trained to do the simple well, which made the complex a challenge I knew I could face. Great training by great officers and sergeants made me embrace high standards during adversity that enabled a leadership formula of success.
About the Author:
Chad Storlie is a Retired US Army Special Forces Officer, author of two books, and has been published in over 190 publications. Chad is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management and a mid-level marketing executive. He has an MBA from Georgetown University.