U.S. Army Ranger School is considered the military’s most prestigious leadership school, even compared to the Navy Seal’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School (BUD/S). I attended Ranger School in 2018 and, after 91 blurred days and losing 30 pounds, graduated with the coveted Ranger Tab pinned on my shoulder. The Ranger Handbook defines Leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (Army, 2017). I had a slight grasp on the idea of leading a team before attending school, but now my perspective has completely changed. Granted, the type of leadership I learned in school is geared towards a combat environment, not so much on a workplace environment where feelings are valued. In fact, feelings were not a thing in Ranger school. We were told that if you are feeling sorry for yourself, then you are in the wrong place.
Even though I got the opportunity to attend Ranger school, it was a long shot in the dark for me to even make it to Fort Benning for Day 0 (bag drag day). I am actually in the U.S. Air Force and there are only 300 active duty members in the history of the Air Force to graduate Ranger school. It was a long road full of very steep learning curves. I was the only Air Force member out of 350 Army Soldiers to arrive on Day 0. Yes, I was very intimidated. One thing about school is that it is very hard to hide, especially when you are the only individual wearing a silver physical training shirt while everyone else has on a black one during the fitness test. I was singled out all the time and received more unwanted attention from the Ranger Instructors than I would have liked. The Instructors didn’t even use my name, I was known as “Air Force.”
After learning about the Five Factor Model (FFM) of Personality in our course material, I started to think about how these could be applied to the stressors I faced on a daily basis in Ranger school and how having these traits may have been one of the reasons for my success. Individuals that are more prevalent in these traits tend to be more successful leaders (PSU WC, 2020). It became evident to me that these hard-hitting traits were the reasons why I was able to keep my head up and make it to the objective, even with only having one meal (less than 5 minutes to eat it) and one hour of sleep each night. After the first week, known as Hell Week, where over 150 individuals failed out of the course because of the overbearing amount of physical and mental stress applied, the school changes to more of a mental challenge rather than physical. Don’t get me wrong, it was always physically demanding, but a successful mindset after the first week could be summed up as “Don’t Quit!”
The first trait of the FFM is conscientiousness. This trait is described as planful, hardworking, and are able to follow through with commitments (PSU WC, 2020). If you show up to Ranger school without a level of 100% commitment, you will be sent home. People fall out and quit every day because they get a few negative thoughts in their heads. Those thoughts, although minute in your daily life, are your worst enemy in school. Planning and being a hard worker are also traits that always need to be shown to your teammates. If you fail to plan the mission accordingly or become lazy for one moment, you will be voted out of school. Not only are you evaluated by the Instructors, but your fellow Rangers conduct peer evaluations at the end of each phase. If someone has been a poor leader or only stepped up while an Instructor was present, it all came out during peer evaluations and that member was sent home.
The second trait is agreeableness. In order to be a good leader in Ranger school, you have to also be a good follower. It is important to have the ability to stand back and let others lead when it is their turn to be graded. You need to be able to agree, even if you truly do not, with the decisions of the individual leading the group across 8-10 miles of terrain to get to the objective. Being a part of the team and helping the leader by being a good follower is sometimes just as important as leading.
The third trait is neuroticism, or emotional stability. Even though only the toughest military members make it through school, it is a very emotional environment. I saw the biggest, loudest leader completely breakdown and give up over something simple. You are literally in the worst physical and mental state of your life, but yet you are required to motivate a group of 50 individuals (in the same state as you) to continue to give it their all. There were leaders that thought having an overly powering demeanor would be effective. They were wrong. The most effective way to motivate the group was to remain calm and keep your emotional state on a stable level.
The fourth trait is Openness to Experience. If any of those individuals attending Ranger school were not open to new experiences then they would have never showed up for Day 0. I was very apprehensive about going, but had an open mind and was looking forward to it. Almost every experience I had in school was new to me. I have never emplaced a claymore mine, rappelled down a 200 foot cliff while firing my weapon at 0200 in the morning, dug a hole in the ground to sleep in every night, nor actually became used to hallucinating because of a lack of sleep before attending Ranger school.
The fifth and final trait is extraversion, or being self-confident. If there was a leader that lacked self-confidence, they came off as weak and a poor leader. If the Instructors found any sign of weakness, it was exploited until that person quit and went home. You didn’t have the option of doubting yourself in school. You had to make decisions on the fly and usually in the middle of a fire fight. It was imperative to be confident in your decision if you wanted the team to buy into your plan.
Northouse claims that training or developing personality traits is not a useful practice because it is unlikely that they will change (Northouse, 2016). I can see where this may apply to a business culture, but I can say, with confidence, that if I didn’t change any of my personality traits in Ranger school, than I would have easily failed and had been sent home. Adapting to the leadership style that is needed to lead in a combat environment was critical in my success. If I was to use the same traits needed to lead a group of Airmen and apply them in school, I would have been completely humiliated. My entire personality, and my perspective on life, changed to the point that I had gained respect from a platoon of some of the most hardcore members in the U.S. military. Every one of the FFM traits played an important role during that time in my life, and now have been developed in order to gently be applied in my Air Force work center.
Army (2017). U.S. Army Ranger Handbook. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice, Seventh Edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2020). PSYCH 485 Lesson 2: Trait Approach. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2015147/modules/items/29089120