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What the military taught me about growing leaders

Leadership can be learned. In fact, 20 percent of a military leader's career is spent learning how to lead. Here are some of the hard-won lessons from one of the world's top leadership incubators.

Congratulations! Due to your outstanding performance and hard work, fortuitous timing, and maybe a dash of good luck, you’re moving into your company's management ranks. You’ve reached the big time—and you’re absolutely petrified by the prospect. How can you possibly be ready for this when the last thing you led was your high school yearbook committee?         

Unfortunately, the contemporary business world is filled with such scenarios. Time and again, we see companies thrusting employees into positions of leadership for which they have not received even the most rudimentary training. In many cases, it is assumed that stellar independent contributors will be stellar leaders, that leadership is something that cannot be taught, or that the only way to learn leadership is through OJT (on the job training). All of these notions are wrong. 

I had the great fortune to spend 21 years as a U.S. Army officer—the first eight of those years leading army paratroopers. The army places such great importance on educating leaders that approximately 20 percent of a leader’s career is spent learning how to lead. As an example, as a second lieutenant (the first rank of a newly commissioned officer joining the military after college), before I took even my first step in front of my first 30-member platoon, I was training for eight months—to include three months attending the U.S. Army Ranger School. Having that advantage, I think it valuable to discuss how some important military leadership lessons can be leveraged by new business leaders—leaders who want to shine personally and be an intrinsic part of their company’s success. Good leadership can be learned, and leaders who want to excel should study the following lessons to get a jump-start on their responsibilities. 

Richard Wrona leading U.S. paratroopers in Kosovo, circa 2000
(The author, Richard Wrona, leading U.S. paratroopers in Kosovo, circa 2000; photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.)

Find your platoon sergeant

The army knows that good leaders are made, not born. Therefore, mentorship is recognized as a necessary element of building good leaders. Every new lieutenant is paired with a seasoned noncommissioned officer (NCO)—a leader who has risen through the ranks, has 10 to 15 years’ experience, and yet is de jure subordinate to the lieutenant. Platoon sergeants have a ton of responsibilities, but arguably their most important responsibility is to mentor lieutenants—to ensure that new officers are making good decisions, setting the example, and focusing on their appropriate level of responsibility. Lieutenants mature by listening to their platoon sergeants and considering the sergeants’ experienced opinions, but also by never forgetting that they (the lieutenants) are ultimately responsible for the team’s success or failure.

Find your platoon sergeant. Unlike the army, your organization is probably not going to assign you a mentor, and selecting one within your team may be too bold a move. However, the mentorship of a seasoned leader who is willing to invest his or her effort in you—your very own platoon sergeant—can make all the difference when you’re trying to put book learning into practice.

Lead from the front

Leaders set the example—always. Whether one faces a question of timeliness, or productivity, or appearance, or administration, or prioritization, or risk acceptance, or countless other factors, leaders should not expect others to meet standards by which they themselves do not abide. A quick military example speaks volumes.

In the airborne service (paratroopers), a high level of physical fitness is a requirement. With the possibility of being dropped far behind enemy lines, paratroopers need the endurance to move, fight, and win. Physical training (PT) is a daily event, and leaders are expected to not only participate but lead and set the standards in terms of their units’ physical fitness. How could my paratroopers rely on me in the middle of the night in a faraway place with 100 pounds on my back if I couldn’t be at the front of the pack when leading them on a five-mile run?

The same sort of mentality is essential in the business world. Do you want your team members to be on time, every time, for the weekly meeting? You need to set the standard. Do you expect them to submit well-considered, superbly constructed proposals? If so, your work products must meet the same levels of excellence. In all things, a team leader sets the standard by living the standard for his or her subordinates to emulate, not just by telling them what the standard may be.

Lead the way.

Don’t try to be the machine gunner

Paradoxically, army officers are not paid to fight as their primary jobs. Rather, the officers' foremost responsibility is to leverage the fighting capabilities of their subordinate teams, in order to bring maximum combat power to the decisive point of the battle and defeat the enemy. Therefore, when the lieutenant serving as a platoon leader is shooting the machine gun, something has gone seriously wrong: The enemy has gained a significant advantage over the platoon, or (more likely) the platoon leader is not focusing on his or her proper responsibilities. Either way, because the leader is no longer synchronizing the team’s efforts, no one is synchronizing the team’s efforts.

The same thing can happen in the business world. When business leaders are worried about putting together a proposal or building the next eye-catching PowerPoint slide, they have lost their appropriate focus. Leaders are paid to inspire, to prioritize, to plan, to identify and mitigate risk, to provide guidance, and to supervise the work of teams and subordinates. Given that time is the most precious commodity, every second spent by a leader doing a subordinate’s work is time not spent on prioritizing, supervising, etc.

Don’t become so fixated on working the machine gun that you lose your proper focus. If a subordinate’s work isn’t meeting the standard, then address the root of the problem. But don’t sacrifice the responsibilities of leading to myopically focus on the next project or requirement. Remember to ask this critical question: If I am not synchronizing the team’s efforts, who is?

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Priorities of work are the recipe for success

In Ranger School, students are taught a list of “priorities of work” that are to occur when the team has defeated the enemy and occupied the objective. Priority No. 1 is always “establish local security,” even before treating your own wounded. Establishing local security is the first priority because a unit is most vulnerable at that time, and you never know when a sneaky enemy might try a counterattack to regain the objective.

The point is that there has to be a No. 1 priority. The old adage holds: If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

The same is true in business, although our experience has been that many organizations have forgotten this basic point. Moreover, many firms have forgotten that an essential element of leadership is the responsibility to establish priorities. With limited resources, everything cannot be accomplished. Leaders must decide what is most important. Leaders need to guide teams as to how to plan the team’s resources for multiple commitments. Without a leader defining and enforcing priorities, the tyranny of the urgent, the popular, or the pet project reigns.

What’s your team’s equivalent to establishing local security?

The hardest job you’ll ever love

Make no mistake about it: Leadership is hard. It’s hard to establish priorities. It’s hard to make unpopular decisions. It’s really hard to constantly maintain the example and set the standard for others to follow. In the end, though, when your plan comes together, when you see your subordinates grow and learn, and when your team is functioning like a well-oiled machine, all of the sacrifices are more than worth it. To be good at it, leadership requires making decisions, to include making some mistakes. Before you get there, though, there’s no reason that you can’t learn some of the hard-won lessons from one of the world’s top leadership incubators: the U.S. military.

Image credit: The top image of a U.S. soldier saluting while jumping out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft is courtesy of the U.S. Army, photo by visual information specialist Jason Johnston. CCL 2.0.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.