What The Military can Teach us about Leadership in Business
RULE 1: DON’T BE A HYPOCRITE
You know the one; odds are you’ve probably worked for him before, he shows up at 9 or 930 am every morning a full hour or more after the rest of the workforce. He goes home at 5 pm on the dot, but then when he gets you and the team in a room he tears a strip off you for “Not getting enough traction” and “Not leading by example” sound familiar? Remember how much you hated that guy? You probably walked away from every meeting thinking about how little you cared about his opinion. So don’t act that way.
You can be hard and demanding, you can ask your team to work 16hr days, and forego lunches and breaks, you can ask the moon of people and they will deliver, but if you want to be respected as a leader in the business world you cannot ask for more than you put in. It’ll get done, people want to keep their jobs, but they’ll hate you for it.
RULE 2: YOUR PEOPLE ARE WHAT’S IMPORTANT NOT YOUR PROMOTION
There are two kinds of leaders in the corporate world, the ones who will sacrifice anything to get ahead and the kind that will do what’s right regardless of if it gets them ahead or not. 95% of the leaders I’ve ever met fall into the first category, and let me tell you that they are the reason why so many people hate, with an undying passion ‘Corporate America’. There are going to be times in your career when you’re sitting at your desk, the door is closed, and you’ll be looking at the latest quarterly results and they will be bad and you will find your gut reaction is to find someone to blame. That middle manager that didn’t manage his team, that front line worker that is never in on time, that administrator that constantly screwed up reports. There will always be someone you can blame.
Don’t do it. Good leaders own problems.
As soon as you blame someone else for something you’re responsible for your usefulness as a business leader has been eradicated. Save all your future subordinates the paranoia and angst that having someone like that in charge causes and just quit. We’ll consider it a civil service.
Your job as a leader is to empower your people and take care of them as a team, not to use them as a tool for climbing another inch up the corporate ladder, and the secret? If you take the bumps for when things go wrong, the trust you build will be worth more than the trouble you got in when things went sideways. Most important of all is that your team will see you standing in the gap and taking responsibility for the results of your leadership. That commodity cannot be paid for but instead it can only be earned. If history has shown us anything it’s that a team motivated and lead by an outstanding leader can accomplish anything.
RULE 3: DON’T LEAD PEOPLE DOING A JOB YOU CAN’T DO
Before I worked with the company I do I found myself once sitting at a table at a bar with a bunch of other managers, one of them quipped:
“The client actually wanted me to get on the phones like an agent, I was like ‘I have reports to do, and problems to solve, I’m not going to do that!’. Can you believe they expected that!?”
I immediately wrote that guy off in my mind, there is no way he could provide the leadership needed if he had never spent so much as a day doing the job that he was supposed to be managing. This is a chronic problem in business by the way, people come out of ‘business school’ with a ‘business degree’ and expect to walk into an organization and take a leadership role immediately. No good leaders have ever been made this way. The best leaders, the ones that inspire people to work hard, get results, and innovate on a regular basis, are the ones that have proven that not only can they do the job of all those who work for them, but that they can do it exceedingly well.
Be good at the job your people do and if you can’t then surround yourself with the best. Leadership in the military is broken down into three groups for a reason. The officers may come up with the plan but they don’t run the play on the ground. If you want to see who runs the actual play look to the NCOs but if you want to know who did the actual heavy lifting you look at the enlisted. Understand where your gaps are and appreciate each part of the team.
RULE 4: IT’S NOT YOUR TEAM
This becomes exceedingly true the longer you’re in business. Remember that first team you ever led? You used to work on the front lines and then you got promoted to “Team Leader” and now all these guys you used to work with answered to you. They respected you because you had proven yourself and maybe they respected your boss too because he’d been there since the beginning. Remember how you felt when your boss was replaced by a guy hired externally? You were thinking “Who is this guy, and how is he possibly going to tell me how to do my job better?” you were annoyed right? I know I was.
Whenever you take over a team remember, especially at a senior level, remember that you’re not the veteran guy here. That there are people already in place that are fixtures in your organization and really, it’s THEIR team, not yours. You just run it. If you find yourself in this position humility over strength is the key to succeed, find those people, reach out to them, involve them in decisions and you’ll find people respect you much more. Don’t let the all mighty ego ruin your impression time with the new team. Embrace being the new guy and laugh at yourself while you learn the lay of the land. Take a mental survey of who falls where in the realms of experience and pecking order and see how to use your team the best.
RULE 5: BUT IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
Let your teams work, but own the problems as they come up. You have front line managers and you expect them to manage the day-to-day affairs, you trust them to run their teams as needed and that’s great. Sometimes though there’s going to be a problem, your managers will disagree, management from other departments will see something your managers are doing and try to dig into them for it. Don’t let that happen, don’t be passive, own the problem.
Sure, your guys have been running things since before you came, and likely some will be doing it after you leave but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for how affairs are conducted under your watch. It’s fine to let your front line managers run things but you need to be the one taking responsibility of any situation that comes up. Remember, own it. Never forget where your range limits are and never fire outside them. Your legacy will live on long after you leave and when people are looking for a solution there is nothing more appealing than the easy way. If you let your team take the unethical road once then they will look for that every time the road gets rough.
RULE 6: NEVER LIE. PERIOD.
Corporate dishonesty is like a plague, it’s insidious and if you don’t actively fight against it you will find that you will participate in it. So just don’t lie, if there’s bad news then break it to the team and be honest about the reason, if you screwed up on a report for a client then own it, and fix it. Nothing will ever get better if you lie about it, I guarantee it. Transparency is a requisite of good business and it’s also a good shield when needed.
There are very few legitimate reasons to hide what you are doing if what you’re doing is right. Your reputation among groups is the currency your business and your career are built on. Years of doing the right thing can be burned to the ground with one lie. If people can’t trust you they won’t work to their full potential for you. They will always have to devote time and energy to covering themselves rather than going full bore towards the next evolution.
RULE 7: YOU’RE NOT PERFECT – THAT’S OKAY
You’re going to screw up, and when you do it’s likely that money will be lost and its possible people will lose jobs, you know what’s crazy? People get it. Your team doesn’t expect you to be perfect all the time, but what they do expect is when something goes wrong that you own it and tell them, in person if possible.
If you show me someone who has never failed I will show you someone who has never tried for anything truly worthwhile. We all fail and we all learn more from failures than we do from when we do it right. Another side effect is people around you see you fail and how you react to that shattering point. Did you embrace the event or immediately start pointing blame at others? Did you take it and learn or did you just immediately become an excuse factory? Failure is part of life and unless you have a few shattering points under your belt then your experience is a very fragile thing.
RULE 8: YOU ARE ALWAYS THEIR BOSS
Everything is going great, you work hard, your guys and gals love you, they work hard, you just gave them a great pep talk after a week of good results and they say “Hey, you should come out for a beer and celebrate with us!”. It’s cool, go ahead and grab a beer, be social but remember that even here you are their boss, there is no magic switch that can be flipped that makes them forget about how you got trashed, and ended up spending the night in the bathroom. Act accordingly. You need to maintain a certain level of professionalism at all times or else next time you have to reprimand them you’ll find that they take you less than serious.
The military has regulations around this type of thing for a reason. The leader is the leader is the leader and in case you forgot you’re the leader. You don’t take from your subordinates in gambling and your job is to ensure their success or survival in some cases. Its ok to go to birthday parties and BBQs etc. but remember at all times you are their leader. Your role as the class clown or “that guy” ended when you took a leadership role.
RULE 9: CONSULT THE TEAM
No matter how successful you've been, or how often you've been right, you should consult your team on major decisions. You don’t need to take their advice, or change your strategy because they disagree but you do need to understand that modern business requires new ideas and to ignore your team is to lose a huge resource. You might be the boss but you’re not necessarily smarter than all the people that work for you. Don’t pretend like you are.
In small teams units there is usually a SME (Subject Matter Expert) for each area. The rest of the team has cursory knowledge of most of the other jobs on the team. When the need arises for each area the SME takes a lead to form the plan. The rest of the team is involved in the process and decisions as well because the team is stronger as a unit. In business much of the same applies to our day to day. The final decision may be yours but if you make that decision alone then you’re not fully informed. More importantly your team knows it and maybe holding the key to your shining moment in their hands. Not all leaders want feedback or help so unless you have made it clear you do don’t expect to get it.
RULE 10: NEVER GIVE UP
Be hard, be demanding, but never ever give up and certainly not before your own guys and gals. Perception is critically important in business if your team sees you beaten down and looking hopeless they will give up and then you truly are lost, more than that they will give up on you. They should see you as the kind of person who does not quit until the job is done. Not all situations have a favorable solution but don’t be the one screaming the sky is falling when clouds roll in. Sometimes people need to know you have exhausted every possible route before they acknowledge failure. As a leader you cannot be the first one to quit.
RULE 11: YOU ARE HERE FOR THEM
A lot of corporate leaders act as if their team is there to serve their every whim, and that is simply not the case. Their world should not revolve around you, but as the leader you should spend a substantial amount of time enabling them to work better, smarter and faster. That is how you can best assist them in reaching the goals you've set for them.
Once you accept the mantle of leadership your job is not just to elevate your position. The baseline is to take care of those entrusted to your care. If you have a bit of sense you will always be looking for ways to improve your situation. When people see you work to get your subordinates promoted or into better positions there will be a line to work for you. Not to mention as your white space grows you have access to other ideas and the support for yours that comes along with it. All of this ignores the base fact that you are helping to improve someone’s life which should be good enough by itself right?
RULE 12: YOUR ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
On Wednesday you deliver a pep talk or a pre shift to your team about how “The front-line employees are what matter and they have to come first” then on Thursday an employee asks to leave because her mother just got admitted to the hospital and you tell her that you need the hours so she has to stay. Which of those things sends a stronger message do you think? Your words will reinforce your actions, but they will ring hollow if they contradict each other. How hard do you think that employee will work? Not just the rest of the day but the rest of their time under you? Do you think they will come through for you in the clinch? Never underestimate people’s ability to hold a grudge.
RULE 13: DISAGREE IN PRIVATE; UNITY IN PUBLIC
There will be times when you disagree with your boss, and if they’re a good leader they’ll give you ample opportunity to voice your concerns. However, once the decision is made you need to act as a team member once you’re out in front of the front line people. Disputes need to be resolved in private, don’t make a spectacle of it and have a melt down because you have to do something you don’t like; it will only encourage that behavior among the people that work for you (See point 12)
Otherwise your boss may become your enemy. Have you ever been contradicted in public and appreciated it? Especially in front of people you supervise give the courtesy. People can appreciate the honest council behind closed doors and even more so will appreciate your support while knowing you disagree. Support could be as simple as smiling next to them while they make their pitch rather than burning them down.
RULE 14: DON’T TAKE YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY
Sometimes things are going to get hard, and often they’ll just keep getting harder. The more successful you are, and the higher you climb the harder and more stressful it will be but it is absolutely critical that you keep positive. Your team will look at your behavior to discern how things are “Really” going and if you’re beaten down and serious looking all the time they will read that to mean “poorly”. So smile, joke around, be approachable and a real human being, be a little self deprecating even. Be serious when you need to be, firm even, but don’t let the job make you unbearable because you will inadvertently make your teams job unbearable.
We all have bosses and sometimes we all have to do things that suck. People can appreciate the honest person who acknowledges things may not be ideal but your head is down and working towards completion. Smile and laugh while doing the worst of it. Heck give em a good old fashion WHEEEEEE to lighten the mood. There are times on deployment when things are just horrible and sometimes all you can do is look around at those going through it with you while having a good laugh. Business is no different because people are a constant and people can get you through
RULE 15: DO THE RIGHT THING
Simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do in business, but it is likely the most important of these rules. It’s easy because identifying the right thing is easy. Be honest, don’t cut corners, do right by your people. It’s hard because so many people have failed at this before, and they will pressure you to instead do the easy thing. Their expectations are based on doing the easy thing, and sometimes their business model is predicated on doing the easy thing. Let me be clear on this.
Never compromise your integrity for a quick fix.