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Legionnaire Success Lessons
The French Foreign Legion was founded in 1831. Their spiritual home and former training center is in the former French colonies of North Africa, although they are now in the south of France. What made them such a force to be reckoned with today? What effective lessons can we learn from them?
Twelve volunteers recently chose to undergo four weeks of Legion-style basic training in the Western Sahara desert. They were under the stern but experienced and encouraging leadership of three former legionnaires, Chief Sergeant Peter Hauser, Sergeant Glenn Ferguson and Corporal Richard Sutter.
Their experiences have been captured on Channel 4 TV and can teach us a lot about motivation and success. I also spoke with Sergeant Glenn Ferguson and gained more insight into his and other legendary legionnaires’ motivations.
He joined the Legion at the age of 19. At first he was afraid of punishment, and then of pride. He hated failure in everything and could appreciate the pride of the elite group. One of his favorite sayings is:
“You will never be at your best if you constantly have to lower the bar to let the weaker elements in.”
During the program, it was seen that some of the volunteers wanted to ring a bell as a sign of their desire to leave the group of the three former legions. They want to remove the weaker elements. Legionnaires with low standards can kill their fellow legionnaires.
The elite group has no time to tolerate the weak or the half-hearted. They only want members who are willing to give 100% effort. They prefer not to be joined by ‘losers’ (lazy and half-hearted people). Another quote by Sergeant Glenn Ferguson puts it well:
“If you can’t be the best, stay with the other losers”
In the modern world where everyone has to be encouraged to join everything, it sounds very old fashioned and elitist but note that this word has a lot of meaning even today. That doesn’t mean you have to be the best before you join.
You must want to be the best. It leaves room for the less talented as long as they have the right attitude. All weakness will soon leave them as they endure the pain of the Legion’s harsh rule.
As the Sergeant told his aggrieved defenders on the television show:
“Pain is weakness leaving your body”
Many of the volunteers started the training as ‘weak’ but ended up ‘strong’. A former legionnaire said on the program that when he joined the legion, he believed he could do nothing. When he left after five years, he believed he could do anything. Such faith is a key element of all success.
I have been a teacher for over 30 years in a London Comprehensive school. Everyone is accepted in these schools whether ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. All are given the opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, minorities are not just ‘weak’; they don’t want to be ‘strong’ or too lazy to be ‘strong’ and they don’t want others to be ‘strong’.
When these lazy and disruptive students leave school, the rest progress faster and can even enjoy their education. A touch on the French Foreign Legion’s attitude towards the apathetic and disruptive would improve our Comprehensive system.
Sometimes a ‘loser’ shows up in martial arts class; they only want to work hard on their favorite pieces and bother others. I don’t care about their skills or lack thereof. It’s his attitude that matters. I am fortunate that the Government is not forcing these students to stay. I can ask them to leave or give them a chance to improve.
I usually give them a chance, but if their attitude doesn’t improve, I’m happy when they go. I don’t want most of the class to have an eager attitude to lose their ability to focus and make quick progress. Training with like-minded people is the fastest way to success in any business.
The French Foreign Legion usually does not give a second chance to the lazy. They came to their ears immediately or were quickly controlled to accept the rules.
I was impressed by the Foreign Legion ‘appetizer’. This took the form of 10 pull ups before dinner. Volunteers find it as tough as most of us.
Sgt. Glenn Ferguson explains that this ‘appetizer’ is important in battle. It is not necessary to walk for many kilometers, and then you cannot pull yourself over the wall when you get to the place of the battle. Upper body strength is essential for the military. One of Sergeant’s favorite quotes goes like this:
A man who cannot support his own body weight is a waste of oxygen
I really like ‘appetizer’ exercises because there is a daily effort at a specific time. All the constant efforts on a daily basis produce amazing results. Doing the exercise before a meal or reward is also a good idea. Having a reward immediately after some action makes it easier to perform the action. Daily effort is an important part of every success story.
Master Sergeant Peter Hauser, who has served with the legion’s parachute regiments around the world, taught the volunteers about the legion’s weapons and tactics.
The volunteers were in the same territory (in the Western Sahara desert) where the Legion was in the sixties as a last defense when the French colonial Empire collapsed.
Simon Murray was a legionnaire from 1960 to 1965. He described the amount of equipment a legion had to carry:
“Life is hard because you carry six days worth of food. You carry about 40 kilos and you have 4 hand grenades, you have 200 rounds of ammunition, you have a sten gun; you have two skin bottles, you have a shovel, you have a sleeping bag and a tent half your body. You’re very heavy and you’re usually walking around and you’re tall, tall, tall. and often the men will be completely done and fall over; and then the sergeant kicks them and moves them. and began to shout at them.
The brutal behavior of the sergeants leaves no excuse and is a major cause of failure in any operation. Sergeants like Sergeant Glenn Ferguson believed in pushing men beyond their limits. Most success stories include that element of stretching your limits and breaking your boundaries. One of the sergeant’s favorite sayings is:
“If you never show that you can be pushed to your limits, you’ll never know how far you can really go.”
At the end of week 4, the volunteers had to run the typical Legionnaire’s race of eight km in 60 minutes with a 12-kilogram backpack on their back. They had to walk two hours to reach the start of the race after a night of vigil. Will, one of the volunteers, had a bad ankle but with Corporal Rutter’s help he made it.:
“You can do it—little steps. One in front of the other. Come on Will—one last effort—you can. Come; one last effort; you can do it; come. Come. go! Grit your teeth! There you are!”
It was just finished with ten seconds left. He put his success down to Corporal Rutter’s help but the Corporal put it down to him. “If you look deeply into yourself, you can do it – it’s a mental thing – it’s all in your mind.”
This attitude and the motivation that comes with it in turn leads to success and achievement. I think that taking small steps in everything is a big factor in achieving success.
The main reason for leaving the Legion is due to foot problems caused by frequent walking and running. Why do some continue and others leave?
Bobby, one of the four remaining volunteers, gave one reason:
“Looks like the positive people are still here. It just goes to show that a smile and a positive attitude can get you through most things.”
On the last day, the four successful volunteers faced the kepi march. The night before the march, Camerone’s story was told to them. During the Franco Mexican War in 1863, the Legion retreated to a farmhouse called Camerone and was surrounded by 2,000 Mexican soldiers.
After the Legionnaires fought the last three men but did not give up, the Mexican captain let the three surviving men go with their weapons and their wounded comrades. He said:
“What can we do with a man like you? You have shown such courage.” This esprit de corp is what the Kepi march volunteers need.
Will likened the Kepi march to childbirth. “At that time it really hurts but you forget all the pain and you think it’s good to have or do something else.”
An Irish ex-legion who briefly featured on a TV show said the kepi march was difficult but it was. “If it wasn’t hard, you wouldn’t be there. The blisters popped and the blood came out.”
Sgt Glenn Ferguson described the actual march through the Pyrenees: “180k’s in 3 1/2 days; 18 hours a day of marching. You walk on these bloody tree stumps. because you feel it.” (the sergeant said more) but you just walk and after about ten minutes your brain shuts down and you just walk. the skin.”
Finally, the three workers and the four remaining volunteers, Bear, Bobby, Will and Loic, completed the journey and reached the Atlantic Ocean. Loic likes the symbolism of walking into the desert and then landing at sea. Everyone flocked to the Atlantic to celebrate.
Later, the four were given kepi blanc as souvenirs. They were not allowed to wear it but they could keep it as a memory of their experience. Only true legionnaires can wear the Kepi blanc
Loic knows that at the end of the day he can live a simple life on a dirty bed with cold water and that the material problems that bother us are nothing.
Volunteer leader Bear commented:
“We did not see Beau Geste and the romantic legend of the legion. We saw only pain, but from that pain came pride and glory. Whatever you say against the legion, you should feel it. but for people passing through it gives great strength. And the strength of the legion is to give people family, pride and a second chance. Build something good out of hardship.”
The following important lessons can be learned from this story:
Surround yourself with motivated, hardworking people who want to be the best. Drive out the lazy and the half-hearted.
Take action every day to strengthen yourself in every way.
Try to go beyond your limits
Always smile and stay positive.
Accept pain and hardship as a path to strength
Remember past achievements of yourself or others
Encourage each other and if necessary take small steps to reach your goals
Don’t bother making excuses
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