Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield: What We All Can Learn from Veterans
As I searched my on demand library for a movie to watch last weekend, I knew Veteran’s Day was just around the corner. I had dozens of war-related movies at my disposal and had to make a choice: classic or modern war story? That’s not an easy question for me. I am not a veteran but both of my parents served proudly for more than 20 years, and military service runs generations beyond them in my family. Getting lost in a war movie or listening to their stories is the closest understanding I will ever have to knowing what it means to wear a uniform in the service of our country. And, that isn’t very close as any veteran will tell you.
Thankfully, my work at Management Concepts has given me the opportunity to work alongside and help clients who are former military leaders, most of whom are now using their skills as civilians in agencies across the Federal government. As we celebrate the 11th day of the 11th month this year, I want to highlight four key leadership strengths that former-now-civilian Federal leaders bring to the table to serve their county in a new way.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Personal integrity and trust. Nothing cripples organizations faster than rampant distrust of leadership and a lack of personal accountability. Civilian business is not war (all jokes aside), but successful military turned civilian Federal leaders know that in order to carry out a mission and achieve goals, moral principles and standards of professionalism matter. Period.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. That is sage leadership advice from one of our Founding Fathers, and is a cornerstone of military training because there is no substitute for good planning. Theater conditions change, often quickly, and military leaders are taught to dream up the impossible and plan for it. The pace of change in civilian organizations shows no signs of slowing, and embedding the discipline to plan for a variety of situations starts with leaders modeling that behavior. It doesn’t matter if you are planning a meeting or writing a 5-year strategic plan, preparation is important.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
– George S. Patton
Don’t dictate. Collaborate. To you historians out there, it might seem odd that I picked a Patton quote to demonstrate how military leaders truly embrace teamwork over providing strict directives. General Patton was tough and had swagger, but like many other successful military leaders (past and present) he had great respect for those he led and confidence they could rise together to meet any occasion on the battlefield. When military leaders join civilian organizations, the best ones set clear goals for their employees and support their efforts to find novel solutions rather than taking a command-and-control approach.
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
– Colin Powell
Problem solving. Even when you act with integrity, engender trust among those you lead, diligently prepare for the unknown, and work side-by-side with your team, problems will arise. It doesn’t matter if you are in a war zone or a comfortable office in DC, either. Former military leaders are adept problem solvers because they are taught how to assess situations from multiple viewpoints and find the best path forward. They also use a variety of methods to help their teams think through people and process problems, both in advance (e.g., contingency planning) and in retrospect (ever heard of a hot wash?), and bake those practices into their operations.
I, personally, think we all stand to learn a thing or two from our veteran leaders and want to hear your stories. If you are a vet, what is the most important leadership attribute that you learned while serving? To those of us lucky enough to work for a veteran, how did they help you to become a better leader?