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5 Business Lessons I Learned in a Foxhole (Literally)

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The above photo was taken near Sangin in Afghanistan's Helmand Valley in 2008. The author is on the far left.

Six years ago in Afghanistan my sniper team ran a three day mission to observe a tier-1 IED site (military-speak for a place with a high likelihood of having a roadside bomb emplaced at it). The hope was to take out the Taliban insurgent who had developed a deadly knack for effectively emplacing them without detection. The mission ended up being perhaps the most miserable 72 hours of my life -- the heat was oppressive, we developed terrible sunburns, our food and water went low, and the insurgent never showed up. Epic fail! However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I learned five powerful lessons over those three days that continue to serve me as an entrepreneur all these years later.

1.Control the controllables. The temperatures that week were over 110 degrees and my team had to lay still on rocks and gravel in what amounted to a shallow grave, directly under the sun. It was terrible! Despite the misery and obvious reasons to complain, our team realized that complaining wouldn't change the situation. Wasting energy on things outside of your control is just that -- a waste. Instead, pour your energy into things that you can impact and your morale will stay high.

2. Misery loves company. Entrepreneurship can suck, but it's the greatest thing you'll ever do professionally. When the going gets tough, it's good to have a team you can rely on to keep you going. For those three days in that foxhole the three Marines I was with kept one another going, and we each knew that there was no way we could have lasted three days in there alone. When you start out be sure to build a team you'd want to share a foxhole with.

3. Two is one, one is none. The military has a saying -- if it can go wrong, it will. After a grueling insertion in the middle of the night that had us patrolling through dangerous terrain with nearly eighty pounds of equipment, food and water each, and hours digging the hide site, we found ourselves facing a potential disaster -- our radio encryption had zeroed out. That meant that we couldn't communicate with anyone, which in turn meant that if our hide site were compromised we would not be able to reach anyone for back up or extraction. Luckily, the military has another saying -- two is one, one is none -- and we'd heeded it by carrying in a backup radio. That simple mantra kept us from having to abort the mission. When you're starting out be sure to eliminate single points of failure, because they'll happen before you know it.

4. Continuous improvement will keep you alive. Let's be honest -- that first night that we set up our site it was terrible, mostly because the sun started to come up and we had to hide. However, over the next two nights as soon as we found ourselves a few hours into the night we would emerge from the shallow hole and continue to work on it -- improving the camouflage, making it deeper, and masking our tracks. It was tempting to use those cooler hours of the night to rest, but we knew that continuous improvement would keep us alive. In business, any successful entrepreneur knows that complacency can kill your success. Fight the natural tendency to accept the status quo and demand continuous improvement.

5. Wear sunscreen. Okay, so this really isn't for entrepreneurs, but, seriously, wear it. I couldn't chew solid food for days because my lips were so blistered.

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Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter: you can find me at @badgerjake and can tag TR at @teamrubicon.

Purchase my book on leadership in high stakes situations, Take Command, here.

Jake Wood is the Cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a nationwide nonprofit that provides military veterans with the opportunity to continue their service by responding to natural disasters and global crises. As a leading veteran advocate, Jake is also the cofounder of POS REP, the first mobile, proximity-based social network designed exclusively for the veteran community. Prior to Team Rubicon, Jake served as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Scout Sniper. In October 2014 Crown Publishing will publish Jake's first book on leadership, titled Take Command.