Lessons in Leadership From the Military
People love articles written by military generals, admirals and such on the secrets of their leadership. I spent 6 years in the army as a private and eventually corporal equivalent, giving me a very different experience of leadership. I saw both incredible leadership and terrible leadership during my enlistment, and I eventually got the chance to put what I had learned to the test in my final couple of years when I was put in charge of people. One thing I believe to be true is that you can read all the books and take all the courses on leadership, but it doesn’t hold a candle to actually learning on the job by experiencing other’s mistakes and successes. Based on my experiences as a subordinate and leader in the military, here are what I believe to be some of the most important facets of leadership.
Know and care about your people
I will never forget the day I came back to work after my wife suffered a miscarriage. The senior officer in charge of my division came up to me while I was heating my lunch and said “Pete, I’m really sorry to hear what has happened. If you need time off or anything else, you let me know. Family is the most important thing in this world, compared to that none of this s**t matters.” “This s**t” that he was referring to was national intelligence and security. In that moment, not only did he not address me by rank, he told me my family was more important than something that affects 25 million people. That was the greatest piece of leadership I ever experienced and made me feel valued more than any other time I’ve been working.
Would you ever say something like this to your employees? Do you care about them and their life, or do you see them as merely another cog in the machine?
Never rely on your rank
There is a saying in the military - “respect the rank, not the person that wears it”. I can confidently tell you that everyone who said that during my time in the military was a terrible leader that didn’t deserve their rank and had no clue how to treat people. This way of thinking is completely backwards - if you aren’t worth respecting, why should having a rank change that? The best leaders don’t rely on positions, titles or rank, they rely on their interpersonal skills and reputation to compel people to do what they need. If you’re relying on your position to compel people to do what you want, you’ve already failed as a leader. As William Wallace said in Braveheart “men don’t follow titles, they follow courage”. People follow others because of who they are, not what they are.
Don’t be a bureaucrat
This is actually on Larry Page’s list. You might think the military is bureaucratic with all the paperwork, but it isn’t. The paperwork is really just there because it’s a large organization and they have a lot of things to keep track of. Day to day, there wasn’t extraneous paperwork or accounting for absolutely every little thing. Contrast this with office jobs I have worked. On a file I’ve been expected to print out every piece of correspondence and put it on there, in addition to forms. It also wasn’t enough that I printed out the form and emailed it to the relevant person, I had to print out that I had emailed it to that person. I was told that “if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, we need to be able to pick the file up and know what is happening”. My thought was “if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, you can bloody well deal with it, I’m sure the customer will understand”. That was just about the most offensive thing that’s ever been said to me, can you imagine being told that your death really isn’t that important, but a client’s file is? Not to mention the fact that in an age where we have everything on computer, the concept of huge paper files is redundant and a massive waste of paper.
This goes hand in hand with the above and should really be just common sense by now. In the army I held a security clearance and was often left in charge of monitoring a 1.5 million square kilometer area. I was trusted to do my job and if anything unusual came up, to use my best judgment and take the appropriate action before someone higher up the chain arrived. In civilian life, as you can see above, I’ve been expected to print out every interaction. Competence isn’t assumed, it must be continually proven. The best leaders give their subordinates the what, and let them work out the how. The only thing that matters is results - if you don’t trust your employees to get the job done properly then why the hell did you even hire them?
Show some love for your people
By far the most effective leaders I had showed love for their subordinates. When you sit in an ivory tower (or your office) every day and only interact with people to give them orders or feedback, they don’t know you and they won’t like you. Believe it or not there are still people in leadership positions that walk past everyone in the office without so much as a “good morning”. They talk only to other people in leadership positions, which can cause serious trust issues from the people lower down the chain. How can they be sure you care about them if you won’t even speak to them? The best leaders in the military are the ones that will go out every day no matter how busy they are and mingle with their troops. Sometimes it’s a quick and simple “how you doing?”, other times they’ll ask about your family or something more in depth. It shows the troops that you care and take an interest in their life, which is important when you expect them to trust your orders.
Your troops eat first
This is one that the private sector just doesn’t seem to get. An officer never eats before his troops do, because they are the ones out on the front lines risking their lives. If they return to see him all nice and clean and having some chow, how happy do you think they’re going to be? Officers eat last because if nothing else, it shows the troops that they are important. In the private sector I see the reverse - those higher up in management command huge salaries and get large bonuses, yet when it’s time for those lower down on the front lines to get a raise, the line “the company isn’t doing well enough to give you more than a 2.5% raise” is trotted out. People can smell that sort of bulls**t a mile away, especially when they are after a reasonable raise to feed their family, while the managers are making 5 times that in bonuses alone.
Stand up for your subordinates when things go wrong
The sign of a good leader is how they treat their subordinates when something goes wrong. A good leader will rightly discipline a subordinate when they have done something wrong, but will stand up against everyone demanding their blood when they have not. I have seen section leaders happily throw their subordinates to the wolves not because they had acted wrongly, but because there was a perception that they had. I’ve seen entire sections dealt with this way when they had in fact done the right thing, because it was an easy way for a superior to score career points. When you watch it happen it’s rather sickening. The chickens would always come home to roost, however, as the trust of their subordinates evaporated and their position became untenable following such events.
Don’t be disproportionate with your feedback
Keeping feedback even is a really important part of having a good relationship with your subordinates. You can’t constantly nitpick work but not reward the little things done well. I am not a fan of rewarding people based simply on doing their job, but if you are going to punish the small wrongs, you need to praise the small rights. Likewise, if you are really going to go to town on people for doing something wrong, you need to make a big deal when their work is really good. When there is balance, there is harmony. Too much praise and it will lose meaning, too much punishment and people won’t want to work for you.
Peter W Ross is a father, ex-soldier and author of the upcoming book Schools Over…Now What? He has written for several sites including Love Judo Magazine and The Good Men Project. His main interest and expertise lies in teaching methodology, skill development and patterns of success. Peter also conducts workshops for schools providing career and life guidance and is available for speaking sessions and coaching.