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Understanding and Applying Military Leadership Principles to Business

This post is for business leaders of who want to learn a little bit more about how and why you should trust the opinions and insight from veterans when it comes to business leadership. Some of you may already fully embrace the potential benefits of seeking the guidance of former military leaders. Other readers may doubt the ability for someone without an MBA to tell them anything about business.

The post covers a few basics concepts of leadership followed by a detailed overview of military organization and leadership, as well as some background on how military leaders are educated and a few more specific take-aways from military leadership that could help you in your own leadership struggles.

This is only a primer. There are many books that exist that go into much more detail than provided here, several of which are included in our leadership book club series, which is a series of leadership book talks moderated by military leaders.

Hopefully this post inspires some of you to take a few minutes to reflect on what kind of leader you want to become and what kind of organization you want to lead. I also hope that when you look to hire or partner with someone to help you grow the size of your team, that you hire a veteran who has served in a military leadership position.

Leadership Basics

Leadership in its most basic form is defined by Oxford as: “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” Exploring this idea a little further can lead to breaking leadership down into three distinct tasks: creating a vision, establishing standards for performance, training and motivating subordinates to the task at hand, leading people under pressure, and providing effective feedback and mentorship.

Creating a Vision. If you are leading an organization your first job is to decide on what goal or goals are you leading the organization towards. You may have an annual sales goal broken into quarterly goals, or you may have a loftier, less tangible goal. The choice is up to you, and there is plenty of literature to help you set goals, but you can’t lead an organization towards an undefined goal.

Training and Motivating Subordinates. The next part of leadership is to train and motivate those you lead so that they are capable of and interested in helping your organization reach the goal or goals you set.

Training depends greatly on the size and structure of your organization. A larger company may subsidize internal training courses, while other companies may pay for employees to attend continuing education or seminars. As a leader your responsibility is to ensure that your subordinates are aware of the opportunities available to them and provide them the time and space to attend the programs.

Like training, motivating employees will depend in part on the size of the company and the benefits available. Those employed at larger companies may be motivated by stability or opportunities for advancement within the firm. Startup employees are potentially motivated by more than just a pay check, even if that is simply equity and a greater sense of ownership. You must take the time to get to know your charges in order to understand their individual motivations, and then structure requests to reflect the motivations of the subordinate to whom you assigned the task.

need to add in more sub paras on training and motivating

Planning and Executing. With a vision or goal set and well trained, motivated subordinates, you are set for success. All you need to do now is plan and execute on your plan. Depending on the size of the organization and the nature of the goals, it may be smart to seek input from subordinates on developing the plan. Other times there may not be enough time or it may not be appropriate to do so. Likewise, your style of execution, in particular how you issue directions and manage the process, will have to be adjusted based on the goals and the personalities involved. Arguably this is the key portion of leadership, as it is the time that you may be most likely to be “out in front,” but the reality is all portions of leadership described here are important.

Providing Feedback. Feedback, be it positive or negative, is a critical component of leadership that cannot be overlooked. Useful feedback requires that you track the progress of your organization’s success and failures as you move towards the goals you set, and accurately assess how each member of your team contributed to either the successes at failures.

Military Organizational Structure

Before examining any potential application of military leadership principles to business, it is first necessary to provide some background on how military units are organized and led, and how those leaders are trained. This post uses the US Army as an example.

The easiest way to describe the military command structure may be to compare it to a factory. We will start at the “battalion” level of command, which is approximately 500 soldiers, and call our battalion the “factory.” This factory operates 24 hours a day, with 3 shifts. Each shift is made up of about 120 employees. There is an addition shift of 120 employees that come around to do maintenance, and a small group of employees that work in the factory office (planning, marketing, sales, HR). In military terms each shift is a “company” and the factory leadership staff is the “natal lion headquarters.” The factory workers are dedicated on each shift to producing 3 products, and each product has 4 steps, with each step having 10 workers required. Reverting to military terms, each company is broken into 3 platoons, and each platoon is broken up into 4 squads, each comprised of 10 soldiers.

We can continue with our factory example to describe the different people that work there. While you probably know that officers lead enlisted soldiers, you may not know all the intricacies, such as that officers may hold non-leadership positions and enlisted personnel may hold leadership positions.

In general, officers are similar to the white collar workers in a business. In our factory example, officers are the key decision makers such as the president of the factory and the staff that supports the president (VPs of HR, sales, and operations, etc). In military terms the president of the factory is the “battalion commander” and those that support the battalion commander are called the “battalion staff” or “staff officers.” Staff officers handle HR issues, prepare intelligence reports, and help design operations the unit will undertake. Unsurprisingly, a battalion commander holds a leadership position while a staff officer is in a non leadership position. Officers occupy the leadership position of each company (called “company commanders”) and each platoon (called “platoon leaders”).

A battalion commander usually holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and will likely have approximately 15 years of experience. Staff officers are a mix of Majors and Captains. Company commanders are captains. Platoon leaders are first lieutenants and second lieutenants. Companies also may have an “executive officer” who functions as a second in command and are first lieutenants.

Enlisted soldiers are the “blue collar” workers at the factory and the majority of soldiers are just like factory workers. They spend their time making the widgets. In the case of soldiers, this means combat if at war, or conducting training and learning new skills during peace time. However, as I mentioned above, enlisted soldiers do hold leadership positions, generally once promoted to a “non-commissioned officer,” or NCO, rank. A sergeant is the first US Army NCO rank, and various sergeant ranks exist.

Each squad in a platoon is lead by a sergeant, called a Squad Leader, and a more senior platoon sergeant oversees the squad leaders. Generally speaking, the platoon sergeant reports to the platoon leader. However, a platoon leader is generally a very junior officer, so while a platoon leader is senior to the platoon sergeant, smarter platoon leaders lean heavily on their sergeants to provide guidance.

The senior enlisted member in a company is the first sergeant, and in a similar manner, company commanders will seek input from their first sergeants. The senior enlisted leader in a battalion is the sergeant major. Usually an imposing figure, sergeant majors have years of experience and are leaned on by battalion commanders. While a second lieutenant may put rank a sergeant major, many a second lieutenant has quickly been put in their place by other officers after somehow crossing a sergeant major.

Military Leadership Training

Both officers and enlisted receive significant leadership training throughout their careers.

Officers either participate in Reserve Officer Training in college or attend Officer Basic Course. While you do not need a bachelors degree to become an officer, you must have one to be promoted to captain. After becoming an officer, officers attend technical training on their specialty where they also receive additional instruction on leadership. Officers again attend several months of leadership training as captains in order to prepare them to serve on a staff and better understand the military decision making process.

As officers rise into the more senior ranks, Officers may attend Intermediate Level Education and the Army War College, which is an almost one year graduate degree program.

Enlisted members have equivalent training as they are selected to become NCOs and advance through the NCO ranks into more senior leadership positions.

Basic Military Leadership Principles

Ultimately military leadership is about forming a group of civilians into an organization that is willing and able to conduct or provide support to combat operations, be they offensive, or defensive in nature. The same leadership principles described above are evident in the military.

As for leaders of any group within a larger organization, military leaders are somewhat constrained in creating a vision for their organization by the larger organization’s culture and the goals of more senior leadership. However, even leaders at the lowest level are usually given the ability to set standards and motivate their troops towards those standards. Much like in the civilian world, smart leaders first assess the current environment before implementing any major changes. Since you are probably involved in setting goals from the start this will be less of a concern, but is something to keep in mind if and when you decide to pivot.

The most basic need for the military to function is to provide training to those who enter the military. Without a properly trained force, a military will be unable to effectively operate. The standards to which individuals must be trained needs to be established and then training must be conducted in a manner that those subjected to the training reach the standard or are removed from the organization.

Officers are responsible for developing training plans for the units under their command and the enlisted leaders are charged with conducting the training, which happens regularly. Outside of scheduled training exercises and classes, leaders at the lowest levels are ready during any slow period to introduce additional training.

The Army uses Operational Orders to standardize the issuance of orders. Orders are divided into five sections, some of which have sub-sections: situation, mission, execution, communication, and service and support. Battalion level orders are developed by the battalion staff, who along with the battalion commander, use the “military decision making process” to create and evaluate possible plans to achieve the mission. Lower level planning may be more hastily developed, with fewer details provided, and the execution will depend on a team’s ability to conduct activity previously practiced in training.

While an operational order does not necessarily apply to business functions, some of the planning practices do apply. One easy take away is the “one-thirds, two-thirds rule.” When a task includes a time component, only one-third of the allotted time should be spent by the leadership developing the plan, leaving two-thirds of the time for subordinates to execute their plan, which they may then further divide by the same rule if they need to provide instructions to their own subordinates. Additionally, leadership may issue a Warning Order, which is a brief order written in advance of a full Operational Order to allow subordinates extra time to begin their own planning and preparation.

One final principle is that “leaders eat last.” If you go into a dining facility you will see officers pushing their soldiers to eat before the officers. Leaders take care of their subordinates because they know that their own survival depends on the well being and support of those that they lead. Leaders eat last.

A Few Final Words

Leadership can be learned, as it is taught to thousands of leaders within the US military. That doesn’t meant learning leadership is easy, and it doesn’t mean you get to stop learning once you are in a leadership position. Leadership is a profession, meaning that it requires constant education, ongoing peer discussion, and personal reflection on your own progress in the work.

If you are still reading and want to find others who value the importance of leadership as much as you do, join one of the moderated leadership book series. Current and former military members will guide discussions on leadership using a mix of well-known business and military history books.

Introducing Our Leadership Book Series 08 February 2021