Three Surprising Leadership Lessons I Learned from the Military

"Military life, like most of our professional lives, is characterized by constant demands."

By OSABEE/Shutterstock
By OSABEE/Shutterstock

I went to Norwich University, a military college in Vermont, before serving as an Army officer for four years. As you might expect, these experiences instilled in me a good work ethic, a sense of organization, and a commitment to a greater cause. But I learned other powerful lessons from my military years that stay with me to this day—and they might surprise some civilians.

Hierarchy isn’t everything

People assume that when you’re an officer in the Army, you give orders and people obey, but the reality isn’t so clear cut. In the chain of command, you rely on the skills and experiences of the people below you to achieve shared goals. Yes, one leader must eventually make the decision and issue the order, but when that decision-maker pulls the team closer, solicits feedback, and values on-the-ground perspectives, the entire operation is strengthened. Put another way, the leader who relies solely on chain of command to engage a team is destined to fail.

My teams today always hear me ask everyone to participate. There are times when someone comes into my office to discuss a challenge or opportunity and it is tempting to just solve the issue, but it is critical to ask for their ideas and input. The team’s collective wisdom, experience and perspective is stronger than that of any one individual—regardless of their smarts or tenure. The very best leaders give enthusiastic credit to team members whose insight shaped successful outcomes.

Organize your “inbox”

This is not about managing email (though that’s a good idea, too). I always remember an exercise from when I was in ROTC in college. Well before computers became ubiquitous, we were each given an inbox—an actual container filled with papers. Our task was to go through the box, prioritize everything, and explain our choices.

Military life, like most of our professional lives, is characterized by constant demands. They come at us every day. That inbox exercise taught me the necessity of taking the time to spell out What’s most important? What do I have to get done? How do I rank my priorities? How should I allocate my time to deliver on the things that matter most—today, this week, and this quarter? That exercise gets me away from focusing on what’s convenient, what’s shouting the loudest, or what’s nipping at my heels.

Think about what you’re not thinking about

Few environments can feel as high-stakes as military operations, where comprehensive situation analysis and proper planning can be the difference between life and death. It’s critical to know your limitations and recognize the holes in your perspective. The same is true in business. What aren’t we considering? What do our customers need? How are new technologies creating opportunities to solve persistent problems?

It can be tempting to focus entirely on moving forward, but it’s essential to step back sometimes and take in the fuller picture.

In the military and in business, we’re constantly presented with situations that don’t have obvious answers. Effective leaders leverage their teams to weigh potential options—and their impacts—quickly and effectively, engage the right stakeholders then execute the plan. I’ll always be grateful to the Army for giving me the foundational skills that make this possible. Hooah!

Originally published on Glassdoor.

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