6 Leadership Lessons from the Military

I’m ashamed to admit it, but for a long time, even though I have tremendous admiration for the military — for all they do and have done for America, for the great sacrifices made by them and their families — I believed military leadership was much different than business or corporate leadership. But wow, was I wrong.

Can we sharpen our leadership skills and capabilities from the experiences of our military leaders? You bet — absolutely.

Recently I heard Jocko Willink speak on Extreme Leadership at a corporate event. He was impressive, but you can get only so much from a one-hour stage presentation. So I added the book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win” by Willink and Leif Babin, to the many books on leadership I’ve read and accumulated over the years.

I’m in awe of the immense courage the Navy SEALs and their military comrades have as they execute their missions and assignments. But that aside, the leadership lessons and disciplines of the military are just as relevant for business. If you really want to excel as a leader, read or listen to “Extreme Ownership.”

I identify with many of the concepts discussed in the book and have used my own similar versions over the years. Without spoiling the book for you, I’ve put down some personal reminders that may also benefit you in your leadership journey.

If the team fails to achieve its goal or to excel, it’s the leader’s fault

It may be easy to blame others, but the responsibility for reaching a goal and achieving success rests squarely with the leader.

Take ownership and responsibility for all outcomes; the good ones and the bad ones, too. When an individual or the team falls short of success, could they have benefited from more clearly understanding their assignment, such as how it relates to the whole and the strategic rationale behind it? Or could they have benefited from knowing their job more clearly or being more fully trained in what they are being held accountable to deliver?

As the leader, that’s your responsibility. Take ownership of all the outcomes.

Believe in what you’re doing

If you don’t really believe in the goal, how can you possibly achieve it, let alone lead others to do so?

Ask more questions until you understand the bigger picture. Believing in what you’re doing is critical; you can’t fake it.

Once you understand and believe, then explain it clearly to those who look to you for leadership. The pathway to greater understanding will equip you to better lead on the journey.

Leave your ego at the door

For starters, we can all be better listeners. When we listen, we begin to realize that others have great ideas — maybe better than our own — and when we use their ideas, they really become committed to the results.

As an added benefit, careful listening can prompt you to come up with additional thoughts to enrich the plan. Have the patience to hear other team members’ thoughts and ideas, and don’t be afraid to give credit for the ideas of others. If their ideas won’t work, take the time to explain why. Bring the team along so they can become fully committed to the plan.

Manage well up and down the organization

I’ll always remember the CEO I once reported to who seldom liked any new idea I had. I learned to patiently wait for him to warm to the concept and then eventually it became his idea. Whatever it took was fine by me; I wanted the results, not the credit.

I have often found it easier to manage down than up. Help those above and below you understand your perspective, what you’re doing and why.

Keep it simple

Some people can keep a lot in their heads and remember it all, but I’ve found that you can only manage so much. For big plans, know where you’re headed but think in terms of 30-, 60- or 90-day increments; it’s easier to grasp.

Achieving success is sequential, and usually not overnight. Less is really more. Be open to challenges, but don’t take on too much — otherwise you may jeopardize the plan by not having enough resources or time to effectively execute.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially in the early stages, so keep it simple.

Plan well

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Planning is an essential part of doing it well.

Review the plan before you start a project and think of what could improve it; what would make it better. This should also be done at the end, too, when the work is complete. If some aspects of the plan didn’t succeed, work to understand what could have been done differently next time. Keep learning, evolving and improving.

I’ve heard it said that the devil is in the details; make sure your plan is complete.

And let me know what you thought of “Extreme Ownership.”



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