November 08

Leadership Lesson on Veterans Day

DF-SC-84-11899Veterans Day is an excellent opportunity to reflect on what the profession of arms in a democracy has given us over the past 200 years.  The United States, for most of its history has been a country where the military has represented an opportunity to improve one’s life potential, whether through experiences, skills, or education. Among the nations of the world during that same time span, it is unique in that respect. While our fathers and grandfathers may not reflect with total fondness on their military service, they would no doubt be able to immediately recall and transmit important lessons or moments that stuck with them throughout their lives.

From a leadership perspective, the service academies have been contributing to the education of leaders since the 1830’s, and long ago expanded their influence` beyond their narrow constitutional role in relation to their arm of service to provide material for leaders in all professions.  Outside the service academies, the services themselves are unique amongst employers with regard to the dedication of resources toward the pursuit of enhancing the leadership skills of its members. Consider a typical college curriculum today and ask yourself – which classes teach Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty?

The purpose for this intense focus on leadership is evident when one considers the type of jobs the military is handed.  The application to the civilian world can sometimes seem a great distance but not so much if one considers the core building blocks upon which the leadership programs in the military are based.vets day 5

The services stress teamwork, above all else. No task will ever be completed alone, but only in working in harmony with others.  To assist this harmony in developing, the services have also maintained a clear vision for their team and focused on goals, or “the mission”.  The Roman Army had a saying during their campaigns against the Teuton tribes in now-Germany that one Goth could easily best 10 Roman soldiers, while 100 Romans could easily dispatch 1,000 Goths.

vets day 4The principle of leading from the front, taking personal responsibility for your team, never putting yourself before them, and having the back of your teammates and subordinates is a distinctly military cultural expectation.  As a veteran of many a military chow line, the act of eating before your troops got fed would have resulted in a stern rebuke from every commanding officer and supervisor for which I have ever served, as well as a loss of respect from my troops who knew that the unspoken compact was that I share their struggles regardless of rank or privilege.

The profession of arms demands that one stays ahead of the competition. In order to do that, one must foster a culture of a “can-do” attitude, truth-telling, integrity, and robust organizational self-reflection.  Failure to do so will have you preparing to fight the last war with obsolete equipment and tactics.

vets day 1Lastly, the military demands that one be a continuous learner.  It demands that those who lead engage in learning throughout a career, to the very end.  In that culture you are always learning, and soon enough, always teaching.  It is a requirement because of the mission types that you know how to do the job of your boss, while at the same time ensuring that your team knows how to do your job. In the military, there is no time for ego or a concern that someone is angling for your job.  They are, and not because they want to, but because they have to.  Consider your team today – do you lead in such a way that you are indispensable?  If so, are you assuming you will always be there? On Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944,  in “A” Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, every officer was killed or wounded seven minutes after landing, and every sergeant was dead in 10 minutes.  Throughout all wars, there is a reason that a succession plan is practiced in training.

All of these cultural or organizational qualities may make the military distinct but the degree to which they are present or practiced in an organization will have an incredible effect on its cohesiveness, flexibility, morale, effectiveness, and ultimately, success.  These lessons have been paid for in blood for 200 years by our nation’s sons and daughters, so, on behalf of them, on Veterans Day 2013, …you are welcome!

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