Leadership Lessons I Learned in the Military

Military life is probably the largest leadership lab there is. You not only learn who the real leaders are and what makes people want to follow them, you also learn who the good followers are, those who do the job and will follow regardless of consequence. So, in short fashion and no particular order, here are a few take-aways from my long-ago sojourn in the military that still serve well today.

Leaders care about their people as much as the mission. The reason is simple, you can’t complete the mission without the people and their full engagement. That does not mean, of course, that every order will be appreciated, but troops will follow when they believe in the person. 

If you don’t make your bed, I can’t trust you with the weapon. I know, it is an over-used cliché, made famous by Admiral McRaven’s UT commencement address. It also happens to be true. I still fold clothes the way I was taught in basic training and that’s not a bad thing. It’s about developing good habits, respect, and teamwork. Pay attention, Boot!

The best leaders establish the commander’s intent and leave the details to others. Autocratic leaders who must micro-manage everything rob their troops of initiative and accountability. They stunt their growth by smothering them with too much information and instilling hesitancy as a culture. Choose good people, expect them to be good, and let them prove how good they really are.

People respond to respect and honor. Both are earned, both recognize contribution, impact, and integrity. And, they build bridges to relationship, binding together people of common character and interests. Sometimes they even heal wounds between adversaries and competitors. Do not give them lightly but give them freely when due.

Only perfect practice makes perfect. Everything else is just practicing failure. You cannot plan on performing the mission successfully until you have demonstrated during the runup that you can perform it perfectly.

Neural pathways will save your life. There is a reason for all the repetition and practice, and it is not just to make sure your clothes are folded correctly. Stopping to think things through when the heat is on will get you killed, on the battlefield and in the board room.

Always have a plan, and always be prepared when it goes south. The guys on the other side probably haven’t read your plan, so they don’t know their role in it. Strangely, they have their own plan, and sometimes fate has its own as well. Planning and preparation must prepare you to adapt, innovate, and pivot in real time.

When you can’t afford the best, hire those who are going to be the best. Okay, I stole this one from Gen. Colin Powell’s leadership briefing. His point is that personal success can be predicted when you analyze the intellect, integrity, inquisitiveness, and energy of an individual. Choose people who get high marks in those categories and you will have a winning team, even if they don’t have a lot of experience.

You need good followers. When everyone on your team wants to be the leader, that’s a problem. You also need folks who are capable, committed, know their role, and who gain satisfaction from doing it well. Seek them out, train them, trust them, reward them.

Cross training is king. Every team member fills a key position. Leaders must anticipate and accommodate those times when a team member will be missing or unable to function. Who is going to be the medic when the medic is down and out? Cross training builds capability, resiliency, confidence, and commitment.

Your work shift is over when the job is done … maybe. Not before, and possibly not even after. The military is like baseball in that there is no time limit, only the final out marks the end. Determine that the clock is irrelevant, only the outcome matters … and operate that way in every endeavor.

Everyone knows who “that person” is. That person is the one you can trust not to do his/her job or care. That person is the one who will put the rest of you in the hurt. Be the other person, the guy or gal that will do anything, anywhere, anytime to help a teammate or the mission. Always be the other person, not “that person.”

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