Military lessons don’t always translate to the corporate world. Here are three that do.
Every few months, a former service member writes a new leadership book and the general public eats it up. Those of us actually in the military are typically baffled by the popularity of these books. When every military leadership book that rolls off the press is a best seller, I think what we’re really looking at is the lack of meaningful leadership exposure the civilian sector receives.
To their credit, these books can be exciting reads. What’s better than gritty tales of tough situations and leadership challenges in combat? After a few stories, these books typically take combat successes and then reverse-engineer them. Here the reader gets a behind-the-curtain view of how military training yielded teamwork, blind trust, and confidence in commanders—presumably so they can apply these lessons in their own lives.
Unfortunately, you can’t just read Extreme Ownership over the weekend and expect people to follow you on Monday like you’re Jocko Willink. Number one: You’re not Jocko. Number two: Your 40-year-old mother-of-two coworker may not be ready for a Jocko around the office. As alluring as it sounds, you’re just not going to take the leadership lessons learned in Al Anbar and walk that straight into the corporate world. Those worlds are just too far apart. The military pay structure is rigid and standardized. There’s no such thing as a 40-hour workweek, and there’s no overtime. Most members of the Armed Forces join for specific reasons and hold similar values. Whatever differences we start off with get marched out of us in our initial schools.
Another dynamic specific to the military is direct authority. There are plenty of opportunities to leverage indirect authority in the military, but when influencing skills fail, the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine leader can always fall back on “because I said so.” In the military, there’s the potential for severe penalty for not doing what your boss says.
All that said, it is possible to leverage military leadership techniques in the civilian world, but they need a bit of massaging to fit the corporate environment. A great place to start are three factors that successful military units and successful corporate enterprises already have in common: a shared mission, pride in their unit, and a “people first” mentally.
Shared mission is simple in the military. It’s part of our oath of office and the second paragraph of every military order. Every US Army soldier, officers and enlisted, raises their right hand and states, “I, [their name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The oath continues to talk about allegiance, obligation, and duty. The second paragraph of a military operations order, which is the standard mode of tactical communications by the US Department of Defense and most other military forces, is actually called the “Mission” paragraph. It includes the task that needs to be accomplished by the unit and the purpose for doing it. Simulating that in corporate America is possible if the company’s leadership has built the organization around a shared “why” that they can articulate and motivate their employees to adopt.
Two key components of every military mission statement are purpose and intent. What is the goal and why is that our goal? There are plenty of companies out there that just sell a product in order to make money. That’s okay, and that alone might pay the bills, but it is not the foundation for building a brand and a cohesive employee base that wants to drive the company to the next level of success. The employees may even believe in the product, but without a mission, they can’t have a vision. Without a vision, they cannot operate independently. Each soldier, after receiving their operations order brief, knows what they need to do to prepare for the next phase of the operation and begins their preparation accordingly. This way of operating is so ingrained in the military mindset that even the most junior officer in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff uses the same format.
If a CEO wants to leverage this hard-won military knowledge, they need to make a few critical decisions and stick with them. First, identify the form of communication that works for the company and includes all critical topics and subtopics. Make sure this new standard is scalable so it can be used at every level of the organization. Many companies shy away from standardized documents and organization to allow for a “cowboy” mentality that feels good. That freedom can remain within the boundaries of a standardized system of communication. In fact, the format often increases free thought and brainstorming, as long as you allow for flexibility in the how within the confines of the what (purpose) and why (intent).
This brings us to the second point: The mission must include a purpose and intent that is clear enough to communicate the end state but open-ended enough to allow people flexibility to figure out how they will achieve it. I currently work at a rapidly growing engineering firm that has doubled in size every five years over the last 20 years. The owners enjoy the growth but want the customer to continue to feel like they are working with a small, community-based company. Our what (purpose) is to be a full-service engineering firm providing a one-stop shop for customers in the Hill Country and surrounding areas. Our why (intent) is to create relationships with each client that allow them to feel comfortable calling us for a wide variety of needs—and that make them want their family and friends to call us as well. That purpose and intent leads me, as the Director of Civil Engineering, to build a how around our company leadership’s guidance that differs slightly by each technical division, branch office location, and type of client. I am allowed to be more creative because I have some solid guidance.
Third, the company needs to live and breath that mission in all they do. This is truer for the highest and lowest levels of employees than the mid-level management. The junior-most employee has the most contact with the customer, so their behavior directly impacts client relationships and influences the organization’s reputation. The highest level of leadership cannot profess a mission and expect those below him or her to follow it without seeing the example. Professional appearance is an excellent example of this, both in and out of uniform.
It takes practice and consistency to communicate a mission that (1) includes enough detail to drive behaviors, (2) includes few enough details to allow for free thought and creative solutions, and (3) is understandable at the lowest possible level. But it is possible, especially if the leader him- or herself lives the mission through their actions. Leadership through penmanship does not work. Words on a website do not drive behaviors. Leaders must uphold the standards themselves.
I think it’s safe to assume that everyone who joins the military has a bit of a patriotic streak, which gives uniformed leadership a surefire motivator from the onset. Individuals raise their right hand and pledge to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies on their first day of work. That’s a bit extreme to expect someone to do for most jobs. It’s critical to turn that job into a career for that employee and help them find what they can be proud of at the smallest level—be it a team, an office, a department, or even just a project group. What product or service does that small section provide that they can brag about to their friends?
Soldiers in the US Army wear a patch on our left shoulder to demonstrate what major command we belong to. And inside each major command, we have mascots and team names for every military subgroup, down to a squad or team. We paint our symbol on trucks, put it on memos, and decorate our work areas with it just as corporate America does. We have coins, stickers, hats, and T-shirts to demonstrate our esprit de corps. But the military takes it one step further: We encourage individuals to see that the mission of their small team makes the larger team’s mission possible. Without me, the squad couldn’t succeed. Without the squad, the platoon, company, battalion, all the way up to the military as a whole, wouldn’t succeed.
A manager must instill a similar unit pride in employees by showing people that their individual actions are somehow adding to the whole. At my current company, where we want to be a full-service engineering firm, it is imperative that we ask our clients about items outside our direct scope. This way, we help the client solve their overarching problem rather than just putting a Band-Aid on the immediate issue. We build trust and a lasting relationship. Doing that together, across the team, grows our unit pride.
“People First” Mentality
One advantage civilian organizations have over military organizations is in the people department. Although I believe that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are some of the best humans alive, they are also assigned—they are rarely chosen. Usually, the available person fills a military job and then learns what they need to do through on-the-job training. In a business, you have an opportunity to interview each employee and chose your teams based on capabilities and fit. But no matter how good or bad the staff might be, a group of bitter, isolated people will never succeed. That’s why it’s critical in either environment to have a “people first” mentality, placing relationships between humans front and center.
At West Point, we took PL300, a class in military leadership from the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership department. The big joke back in 1998 was that the correct answer for any unit-cohesion issue was to hold a mandatory barbeque. Oddly enough, that lessons was truer than my 21-year-old brain could comprehend. A person spends one-third to one-half of their waking hours with their coworkers. If the individuals can’t socialize at the lowest level—at lunches, coffee-pot and water cooler discussions, and so on—then they will never be able to work as a team. Making sure that someone is a character fit for the company or team isn’t enough. Each employee must feel like they are getting something back for the time they spend away from their personal life. I have found that there are three major drivers to work happiness: money, location, and job satisfaction. I am finding out as I get older that job satisfaction, which prominently includes my relationships with my coworkers, has now defeated money as my top priority. Knowing that your employees likely feel the same, and helping them develop positive relationships with each other, will keep your turnover low and productivity high.
One thing “people first” doesn’t mean is that you must treat everyone exactly the same. I learned a hard lesson in Ranger School: There are a lot of amazing soldiers who just aren’t meant for certain types of missions. Since corporate America has the right to hire and fire people, find those who fit within the company and nurture them, but let go those who aren’t driving towards the same end state or aren’t motivated by the company’s why. That way, both you and that employee can find a better fit.
Military leadership offers plenty of lessons for corporate America, but those lessons must be taken with a grain of salt. The base of the organization—people—is significantly different in military and civilian environments. But regardless of which type of group you stand in front of, there are three critical drivers of success. Each organization must have a clear mission, a sense of unit pride, and a “people” first mentality. Build these three in your team and you will see success, whether it’s on the battlefield or at the office.