3 Myths of Military Leadership

Military Leadership MythsIn November, Harvard Business Review‘s spotlight is on “Leadership Lessons from the Military.” It’s up already and is a great little resource if you’re looking for how military leadership can apply to other sectors. Some of the comments, however, are fascinating. From their responses, you’d think people actually believe movies like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” are accurate documentaries on life and leadership in the US Armed Forces today.

I actually run into this quite often. Year after year the military rates far above every other sector in the National Leadership Index (an annual study on confidence in leadership conducted by the Center for Public Leadership), but many people don’t understand how these leaders are developed. Here are the three most common myths I encounter:

Myth #1: Soldiers are trained to be mindless automatons. Actually, just the opposite is true. Initiative is driven into junior leaders from day one. Lieutenants and Sergeants are trained to think on their feet and react to reality – without direct orders. The most important part of any military plan is the “Commander’s Intent.” It’s a concise description of what the commander wants to achieve and how he or she would like to achieve it. Five minutes after the bullets start flying, everything in a plan can (and often is) rendered obsolete – everything except the Commander’s Intent. That’s the one thing you can cling to while you improvise a practical solution.

Myth #2: The military uses fear to motivate people. True, you’ll find plenty of fear in military training, but it’s primarily injected into situations to help soldiers learn how to deal with it. Fear is a reality of battle – and life. The ability to overcome your fears and perform under pressure is essential to succeeding in combat (and anything else in life). It’s also the foundation of a little thing called courage. And a bit of courage goes a long way as a leader.

Myth #3: The military cares more about their mission than their people. “Mission first; people always.” That’s the mantra that’s lived in the military. Without the mission the organization wouldn’t exist, but without the people the organization can’t accomplish it’s mission. As a Company Commander if one of my soldiers missed morning formation, we’d go looking for them – not to punish them, but to make sure they were alright. As leaders we made it our business to know our soldiers, their families, and their dreams – what made them tick. We made ourselves responsible for them.

How do you think military leadership does or doesn’t apply to other endeavors?

10 thoughts on “3 Myths of Military Leadership”

  1. I’m glad that you never had to go look for me in the morning…at least I don’t remember the leadership having to go look for me.

  2. Dear Sir,
    It is interesting that military leadership does apply to many organisations. Leaders influence career and people fear about their career. They do exactly on military pattern what is boss’s intent or wish. The Organisations that practice seniority based promotion, people fear more about their career that leader may influence their growth. So, this intention creates fear and fear motivate them to do anything and everything what leader wants. Unfortunately this is the bitter truth. This fear motivates them to do mindless work that can make their boss happy. In such organisations, deserving, talented and performing people may not survive for longer period of time. Here policy and hierarchy are the root cause of fear. So, fear originates from nature of job, philosophy and hierarchy.
    This may not be applied to the organisations where hierarchy is less and people are self directed. The classic example is academics where layer is minimum and criteria is perhaphs fixed.

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