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Over sandwiches, Gen. Pace shares a wise perspective

Event Recaps Stories | Nov 16, 2012 |

“Having been in combat makes all the other problems of life seem more manageable,” retired General Peter Pace, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told 14 Gabelli School students over lunch this week. “The joke goes, if they’re not shooting at you, then what’s the problem?”

Certainly puts things in context, doesn’t it?

General Pace actually presented a much more richly nuanced perspective on the similarities and differences between military and civilian life — and work — during his time with the students, which was arranged by Dean Rapaccioli. He described certain ways in which his Marine Corps experience syncs near-perfectly with his career in business, which he has pursued since retiring from the armed services, and other ways in which gaps between the two have seen him challenged.

Business and the military overlap, General Pace said, in terms of the value of leadership and the basic principles that drive a good organization.

“The fundamentals — growing where you’re planted, making decisions, having a moral compass, having courage, not necessarily physical courage, but intellectual courage — all those things translate exactly,” he said.

Another similarity he named was the importance of adaptability, a trait he calls upon as he consults with different firms to help them meet their goals. “I’m comfortable having zero advance knowledge [about an organization] but having this challenge to get myself smart enough about a company, and the culture of the company, to help them move forward,” he explained.

There are differences, though, too. General Pace said he missed the feeling of accountability and a higher purpose that accompanies life in the military, the idea that you’re serving something bigger than yourself. (Perhaps consulting with a social-entrepreneurship venture would help?) He also has witnessed the advantage the military has over business in terms of having the breathing room needed to rotate staff members out of service temporarily for further education.

“In business,” where margins are tight, “you don’t have 20 extra people to cultivate in training,” General Pace said. “Learning has to happen on the job.” However, he still encouraged students to continue to expand their knowledge and skills as much as possible after they enter the working world.

The Gabelli School of Business is grateful to General Pace for taking the time to have lunch with us and to share his insights, and we look forward to seeing him in Hughes Hall again soon.

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