With Veteran’s Day occurring yesterday on Friday November 11th, I wanted repost a prior blog on some learnings from Veterans in transition to corporate leadership roles.
There has been a great deal of progress over the years in supporting military veterans as they pursue employment opportunities after transitioning from their active duty service commitments.
As Senior Executives and the Top Talent on their teams work to build high performing teams with a diverse set of skills, I wanted to share a few thoughts that I provided to a friend who asked me, “What were some of the key learnings that you carried from West Point and the Army into your career in the business world.” My friend is a leadership consultant and he was preparing for a client meeting to discuss the importance of culture.
I thought the principles contained in my response maybe helpful to others as we all continue to build and strengthen our leadership. The below is basically a “cut and paste” of some points from the email:
Set the example
At West Point we all lived the “Follow Me” mindset (US Army Infantry motto is “Follow Me”). You must be willing to stand up and lead when everyone else is scared, tired, confused, and bullets are flying. The simple and courageous act of “modeling the way” by standing up and leading into the fire to accomplish a goal was a day in, day out lesson we all learned by doing and by watching others. The reality is that with the noise, confusion, and extreme chaos on the battlefield, the only effective means of communicating and leading a team is to lead by example and that means moving forward into fire to encourage others to move on to the objective with you.
In terms of transferring that to corporate life, much of the above holds true. People need to see the leader who is leading the way in terms of making principle-based decisions, treating people with dignity and respect, and giving their full, committed effort to accomplishing the objectives. In the corporate world, the inevitable atmosphere of “politics”, “perception”, “turf wars”, etc. will always be there as a potential hindrance to serving customers and getting things done. However, it has been my experience that the leader who humbly and persistently sets the example by mere day in, day out actions, will ensure the team achieves their objectives more times than not. All the great memos, corporate communications, and employee briefings are important, but it seems the daily actions of a leader will always be the element that will rally a team to deliver.
Continuously learn and grow (remain teachable)
At West Point, there was a tremendous amount of regimented process as you would expect, but inside that regimentation, the situation was always changing and you had to be committed to learn and grow otherwise you would not survive. As a plebe (freshman) you had a constantly changing set of assigned tasks to support your company. As upperclassmen, you were given new leadership assignments constantly so there was always new people and new situations that you had to deal with to accomplish the objectives. In addition, you had a front row seat to constantly observing others in leadership positions so you could be aware of learnings to apply when you were in those positions. Regular Army training and the experience gained after graduation gave additional learnings. Situations in combat can be very fluid and leaders need to be prepared to adjust plans and techniques to accomplish the mission. You are learning in both success and failure. The environment keeps you humble, and humility is critical to remain teachable.
In the corporate world, there is a whole field of study around the “change management process” because it is so difficult for people to understand the need to change, embrace it, and then effectively deliver on the needed change. However, most veterans thrive on change as it became a way of life in the military. The business world continues to grow in uncertainty and intensity. Competitive threats emerge so quickly, business plans can become meaningless in a matter of months, not years like in the past. Leaders must be insatiable in the desire to learn, grow, and adapt to a very fluid marketplace. Without a humble and proactive willingness to learn and grow, one’s leadership effectiveness and one’s business may die a quick death in today’s hypercompetitive and fast-moving global marketplace.
Service to others and a cause greater than oneself
The entire military experience falls under the umbrella of “service” to our nation and very tactically, service to others in our squads, platoons, and companies. There is so much written today about having a “true north” to guide personal growth and organizations. Service to our nation was that “true north” at West Point and it solidified the sense that our entire journey of life is about something bigger and greater than ourselves. Tied very directly to that sense of service was sacrifice. You cannot have one without the other. Sacrifices daily that then ultimately prepared one to give the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of freedom.
In the corporate world, there seems to be a more consistent drumbeat from leaders about the aspect of service to their people, teams, and customers. However, there is still a strong gravitational pull to “my title, my paycheck and my accomplishments” that undergird personal motivation. Some very practical realities like paying bills, supporting personal responsibilities, etc. make those motivations important. However, when leaders place those things above the call of service to their people, customers, and the cause of the organization they lead, they are missing a critical element to achieving a sustainable, high performing business.
The principles of effective leadership transcend industries and markets. Senior Executives and the Top Talent on their teams may utilize various techniques to accomplish business objectives given the many variables in a complex marketplace. However, just like in the military, techniques can change given the situation, but principles should not be violated.
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