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Military Lessons on Leadership: Part 1

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

For an organization whose initial training focus is to break you down and strip away your individuality, no one teaches leadership quite like the military. Regardless of branch, the military expects all soldiers/sailors/airmen/marines/coastguardsmen to exhibit leadership at their level and the entire organization is structured to reinforce this. This article is the first of a two-part series on leadership principals we have learned from the military that translate into any context – business, life, home, etc. And since we represent both Army and Marine experiences we will give you several principals from each perspective, starting with the Army.

The Army defines leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” Much could be said about leadership from Army training but we will focus on six principals that may not be the most common but provide us with some different perspectives on true leadership.

1. Leadership as a multiplier of effects.

As an Infantry Officer, one of my priorities when building an engagement area (a defensive area intentionally designed to engage and destroy the enemy) is the concept of massing the effects of fires. I must be able to determine the critical engagement point and then allocate all my resources (direct and indirect fires) at the correct location and in time sequence in order to maximize their effect on the enemy.

The leadership principal is the same in all areas of life. A leader is not just the best sales person or the smartest product developer. A true leader is able to synthesize the efforts of a group so that they are greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. He determines what the most critical component of the strategic plan, manufacturing process, or customer service process is and then marshals all of the company resources at his disposal to ensure the best possible outcome. A leader is judged just as much - if not more so - on the outcome of the group as he is on his individual performance.

2. Fill the "Leadership Gap".

I was once at a professional development conference for military leaders and heard them talk about “filling the leadership gap”. In essence, when you see a vacuum in leadership, as a leader, it is your responsibility to step in and provide direction, guidance, or whatever is lacking. The Army Leadership manual says, “The ranking leader present is expected to exert influence as needed.” It doesn’t matter your skillset or particular preparation for the situation, if you are a leader and leadership is needed, step up!

What might this look like in life? How about that email each spring when your kids’ soccer league is short on coaches – again? You may not be a soccer tactician but are you a leader? Step in the gap. What about that committee at work that no one wants to be responsible for? Step in the gap. How about that volunteer coordinator position at your church that can’t seem to get filled? Step in that gap.

3. Leader Presence (Military Bearing).

In the military, your bearing as a leader is a big deal. Bearing is basically your presentation of yourself to others. Asked as a question, ‘Does this person look, act, and behave as a leader should?’ This is, admittedly, a subjective observation but it is important enough in the military to be included on the annual evaluation form for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

This same idea translates to your perception as a leader in several ways. As a leader, do you dress like a leader? Mark Zuckerberg might be able to make a hooded sweatshirt the uniform in his world but the rest of us will not be taken as seriously with that choice of attire. Beyond appearance, does your behavior reinforce your leadership? There may be activities and interactions that were no problem before but are not a fit with your current role of leadership. There is no prescriptive answer for this but it is undeniable that if you want to be perceived as a leader, managing that perception goes a long way.

4. The leader is ultimately responsible.

When I was a Platoon Leader I was constantly reminded – both in training and later by my Commanders – that I was responsible for everything the platoon did or did not do. That was great news when my Bradley crews were qualifying expert as first time goes on gunnery tables. It was not as great when I had to get involved because of poor decisions my soldiers made off-duty. And with 41 soldiers that happened on a fairly regular basis! The point was, as the highest ranking soldier in my Platoon, I bore responsibility for all that happened. The implied task was that I had better do everything I could to influence my soldiers to do the right things!

Personal responsibility is quickly falling out of vogue in our society. It seems everyone is quick to shift blame and claim the dubious mantle of victimhood. However, as a leader, you don’t have that option. Others will rightly look to the leader regarding the actions of the group. The best leaders are quick to accept the blame for the group while at the same time deferring any praise to the group.

5. Execute leadership at your level.

Much has been discussed and written on whether leaders are born or developed and whether or not everyone is a leader. Here at TABS, we get into that…discussion…from time to time ourselves. However, one thing that cannot be denied is that we are all called on to execute some level of leadership at some point in our lives. The Army does a great job of developing leadership all the way down to the individual soldier level. When you are a boot in basic combat training the only person you are expected to lead is yourself - but you are expected to lead. Your focus during this glorious period of your life is to be at the right place at the right time and in the right uniform. If you aren’t, your life quickly becomes miserable, and if you are – your life quickly becomes miserable anyway. The point is that there are still expectations on you. As you develop in your career, your responsibilities begin to include the actions of other soldiers and this continues until you retire.

The same is true in life. You may not consider yourself a leader but I bet someone does. It could be your son or daughter. It could be a co-worker who hasn’t been at your company as long as you have. You certainly don’t need a formal leadership position to exert influence and “provide purpose, direction, and motivation”. If you aren’t in a leadership role yet but you want to be, start with yourself. After all, you can’t expect to be responsible for others if you aren’t good at being responsible for yourself.

6. Know your role one level up.

In the Army, all soldiers are expected to be perfecting leadership at their level and to be actively developing their leadership ability one level up. In a military context, this is to address the harsh reality of combat where your unit leader may be killed or injured and someone must be ready to immediately assume his role to continue the mission. In garrison, this allows for more seamless transitions for command teams and for the mission to continue toward accomplishment without being too heavily dependent on any one leader.

This is also a great perspective in business. Are you an Assistant Regional Manager (or Assistant to the Regional Manager) waiting for your opportunity? How much can you learn to be prepared for that opportunity when it comes? Too often we wait for opportunity to present itself before we really dial in on what it takes to level up. Someone that is in a constant state of learning and development for the next level of leadership becomes a natural choice when the time comes and also helps the organization make the transition as smoothly as possible.

Whether you are a business owner, a mid-level manager, or an employee, leadership development should be an active part of your personal and professional development. Next week we will look at leadership principals from the perspective of the Marine Corps.

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