5 Things You Could Learn from Military Leaders

VeteransI was stunned to learn that the unemployment rate among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is up to 12.1%. That’s more than 3% higher than the national average. The more I looked into it, the more misconceptions I discovered employers had about military experience.

A few weeks ago, Mark Norton, my friend and coworker at McKinney Rogers, asked me a great question. He was preparing a speech to a group of Japanese businessmen in Tokyo and asked me which aspects of military leadership I thought were most applicable to business leaders.

I came up with four things on the spot that I learned in the Army that I’ve seen lacking in the corporate and non-profit worlds. I’ve since added one more. Here they are:

1. Develop Junior Leaders. Junior officers and NCOs win today’s battles. Developing their judgment and empowering them to take initiative enables decentralized execution—which gives organizations the agility needed to operate in highly complex, rapidly changing environments (sound familiar?).

2. Leverage “Commanders Intent.” As Ike said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Understanding the leader’s intent—her purpose, key outcomes, and defined endstate—empowers individuals and teams to adapt, improvise, and succeed.

3. Task Organize. Missions and teams are not all created equal. Form specific teams to achieve specific outcomes. Establish universal standards and train people to operate globally in different multifunctional teams.

4. Use your Operators as Trainers. In the military, training falls under operations—not HR. Operators understand what skills the field needs, and they’re the natural choice to teach those skills. Human Resources tracks and records individual progress, but never delivers or resources training.

5. Focus on “Mission first, People always.” The forced choice between making your numbers or caring for your direct reports is a false dichotomy. Taking care of your people is taking care of business. Likewise, taking care of business is taking care of people.

Don’t assume that a veteran’s experience is void of business relevance. There are exceptions of course, but the vast majority of veterans have learned to get results by working hard, thinking creatively, and taking care of people.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take someone like that on my team any day.

What other aspects of military leadership do you think would benefit business leaders?

18 thoughts on “5 Things You Could Learn from Military Leaders”

  1. 1. Military leaders are capable of making very tough decisions when budget season comes around, this definitely applies to private sector enterprise
    2. Client relationship management CRM, military leaders have to manage relationships with the people they serve (us citizens, politicians, allies) these are their “clients”, so if they can handle that list, they can deal with ANY client in the normal business landscape!

    1. You’re right, Dan. I don’t think people generally understand either the fiscal responsibilities associated with military leadership or the breadth of stakeholders they have to deal with on a regular basis. Thanks for sharing.

  2. 1. Accountability and lessons learned. Mistakes are not something to be brushed over and hidden away; they are there to be analyzed and used to improve the organization.
    2. Integrity, integrity, integrity. No mission, no deal, no problem justifies compromising your integrity. Period.

    1. I’m with you, Ray. I can tell you that I hear a lot of “talk” about debriefs, but deep analysis is rare—and implementation of hindsights even rarer.

      As for integrity, it’s stock is rising—especially after the financial crisis, but only time will tell how enduring the shift will be. As always, the companies that define and stick to their values will survive and thrive.

      As always, thanks for sharing—and thanks for your continued service.

  3. I was watching Morning Joe (or something like that) last week and they were talking to someone from Time magazine on this exact topic. The current Time magazine cover says “An Army Apart” and sounds like it addresses some of the reasons vets make great leaders!

  4. I’d say 3 other aspects would be:

    (1) Preparation & Training
    When military leaders aren’t engaged in battle, they’re preparing and getting ready. But this is something I see is sorely lacking in the business world, especially among small and mid-size businesses. We absolutely have to invest in preparing our people by teaching them hard and soft skills to help them deal with increasingly complex challenges. Training our people isn’t a cost, it’s an investment in keeping our businesses strong.

    (2) Toughness & Grit
    No plan survives contact with the enemy. You have to be tough in order to deal with obstacles and resistance from multiple quarters. You can’t allow yourself to get discouraged by temporary hardships and you have to learn to persevere and keep going.

    (3) Followership
    Every body wants to lead, but the best leaders also know there’s a time to follow. The military instills a sense of order and execution.

    Thanks for an insightful and thought provoking post!

    1. Great points, Danilo (as usual). I especially like the toughness & grit aspect. Certainly you can get it from sports or more physical jobs, but I’m not sure anyone cultivates it faster or deeper than the military.

      And I believe the natural byproducts of that toughness & grit are courage and confidence.

      Thanks for the additions!

  5. One of the biggest lessons I learned in the Army was that Officers eat last (when in the field). On more than one occassion I have seen the food run out before the end of the chow line. If someone is going to go without, then it should be the officers as they should ensure that everyone of their soldiers is taken care. It may be a little thing, but it translates to the real world. Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

  6. Hello Geoff,
    Great article. Instinct, trust and resilience would be high on my list.
    It’s a pity that military personnel find it difficult to transition into civilian employment. This seems to be the case in Australia too. Mid-career transitions can be difficult for anyone, but a transition of the military also involves a major cultural change. I think this is one area that needs to be supported most urgently .
    Cheers,
    Mark

  7. I come into the discussion a little late, as I just stumbled on this blog post. I will add to it by saying that these five fundamental and marketable skills can only be supported and strengthened if the leader has strong character and integrity. A strong moral compass is the foundation of the leadership structure. As a leader, it is what you build yourself from, if you so choose. The building blocks of leadership are built upon the value of integrity and trust. Each block represents the values, virtues and principles that will house your team. It will be build with duty, honor, courage, commitment, selfless service, respect, justice, judgement, dependability, initiative, decisiveness, tact, enthusiasm, bearing, unselfishness, knowledge, loyalty, and endurance. It will be a strong structure if you build with these traits properly and effectively. You need to make sure the leadership “structure” your team works in is built with these things.

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