I am a former commissioned U.S. Army officer. I also have two master’s degrees and a lot of great business experience. But, out of everything I’ve done in my life, becoming a commissioned officer and serving in the military is the one thing I’m most proud of, and what I think I’ve gained the most from. In this article I’m going to talk about military leadership training; and after that, how it applies in a practical sense in the business world.
Job descriptions are forever using the same tired clichés. Must have proven leadership experience! Must be a team player! Must have strong communication skills! Of course, these things are practically impossible to evaluate in a job interview. Fortunately, as a hiring manager, when you come across someone who was (honorably) discharged from the military, you already know, automatically, that they have leadership experience, are a good team player, and have strong communication skills. Having people with military experience in your business is a significant competitive advantage, because soldiers typically exemplify work ethic, discipline, leadership, teamwork, and strong communications and problem-solving skills.
I joined the military because I came from a poor family, one that couldn’t, and didn’t, pay for my college education. I also thought it would be interesting, and would give me experiences that other people my age would not have. I was right on both counts. I became an enlisted soldier first; I went through army basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and became an artilleryman. Later, during college, I joined the ROTC program.
For those of you who don’t know about military leadership training, let me say this: The United States military has the best leadership training in the world. It has to be, or people die. That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration; it is absolutely true. In the civilian world, bad leaders cause people to leave companies, and companies to fail. On the battlefield, bad leadership can cost lives. So, the United States has invested greatly in its leadership training.
In the U.S. Army, there are three basic ways to become an army officer: 1) graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point; 2) graduate from the ROTC program at a major university; or 3) graduate from Officer Candidate School (OCS). In all three cases, you must have a college degree before commissioning. These are all good sources; I’ve known officers from all three sources, and each path has its pros and cons. Generally speaking though, the lessons learned are the same, even if the path towards commissioning is different.
Let me also talk about non-commissioned officers, or NCOs. Those are what civilians know as “sergeants”, mostly. There are also great leaders who are not commissioned officers. The military also spends considerable resources training NCOs. Their training is different, but still highly effective. They go to formal classroom training, and then they live it every single day in training exercises or in actual combat situations. The NCOs are the backbone of the army, and good officers trust their NCOs completely. My stepfather was a Command Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank, so I know a little bit about this topic.
So, what do military leaders learn that makes their leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, and communication skills superior to those who do not have this training or experience? So glad you asked!
The army put me through basic training, airborne school, air assault school, the six-week ROTC Advanced camp at Fort Lewis, and two years of ROTC classes at the University of Wisconsin, before pinning a gold 2nd Lieutenant rank on me, and sending me to the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC) at Fort Benning for four months. During all this time, we studied stacks of books, the most important of which was FM 22-100, Army Leadership. I’ve read every word of it, multiple times. I’ve even loaned it out to some HR managers! That book thoroughly discusses character-based leadership, talks about about clarifying values, and establishing attributes as part of character. It does not talk about “how to give orders”. The book should be required reading for anyone who leads people. Let me clarify one more thing for those of you who watch too many movies: military leadership is leadership. It’s not what you see in old movies, guys barking orders at each other. That is not leadership, and that is not what the army teaches.
The army uses an arsenal of books to provide a framework for leadership training, but most training is actually hands-on. I’ve been through countless (and exhausting) Field Training Exercises (FTXs) and Leadership Reaction Courses (LRCs), very often under very stressful situations. It’s designed that way. We start out with small, short situations, and as you grow, you are put into much bigger scenarios, sometimes lasting multiple weeks.
Field training exercises are hands-on and practical. You get to lead in a situation where almost anything can happen, and they’re more stressful than anything you’ll encounter in civilian life or in the business world. They require and develop exceptional leadership skills, teamwork, and communication skills.
Here’s an example. I was the Platoon Leader for a TOW missile platoon (a special type of infantry unit) that was being evaluated by an external army unit, what we call an EXTEV. This is not just training, it’s an actual evaluation of my unit’s readiness and my leadership. This was a ten-day event, and my orders were to lead my platoon through multiple “tax lanes” (tactical exercise), each of which simulated a combat mission. I would receive an Operations Order from my commander, and in turn, formulate a tactical plan, then give my Operations Order to my platoon. This particular event was very memorable because we had a rash of serious freak injuries and illnesses. My platoon should have had 28 soldiers, but by the time we finished the event, we were down to seven. We had knee injuries, severely sprained ankles, broken arms, strep throat, and so on. Still, the mission requirements were never modified; wars don’t get called off due to strep throat.
Teamwork. So, my guys were spread thin, and not getting much sleep. Fortunately, we WERE very well trained. My guys knew their jobs well, and they knew each other’s jobs too. That became important as we lost people. We worked very well as a team, picking each other up on a minute-by-minute basis, and taking initiative to make sure required tasks were done. As an officer, I’m technically never supposed to pull guard duty in the field at night (officers are expected to be well-rested in order to think clearly and be able to lead), but in this exceptional case, I did pull guard duty because I also knew when my team needed sleep. When one of our vehicles threw a track, our medic helped get the track put back on. That’s not something a medic is expected to do. This emphasis on teamwork and cross-training is a lesson I took with me to my civilian career. So later, when I opened a bunch of stores for a large retailer, my team was so awesome that they could do each other’s jobs; they could recognize when something needed to be done, and they just did it. My store openings were a model of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Communication. Our unique situation also required that we all communicate effectively with each other; which we did. Communication is hard enough sometimes, but when you’re tired, under fire, at night, and under great stress, it becomes harder, but it’s still incredibly important to be clear and concise. We “check for understanding”, to ensure what we’ve ordered or requested or informed is not only heard, but understood. Our lives depend on that. As spread out as we were, and sometimes with radios that didn’t work, my guys sometimes had to run from track to track to communicate information, or I did. In the business world, sometimes things don’t go smoothly, sometimes there is stress. You want people who can communicate effectively during stressful times, and you want people who “check for understanding”, to ensure that everyone understands the project’s objectives, for example.
Leadership. Under the circumstances, we focused on the most important things and did them well. I led a diminished team of very tired, beat-up soldiers, somehow kept up their morale, and earned passing scores on every single tax lane. Out of the 24 platoons in the event, my platoon was one of only two that can say that, and it earned me a hand-written letter of commendation from the Governor of Wisconsin (This EXTEV was conducted on his turf, at Fort McCoy, WI). I think the most important thing I did as a leader was in the months leading up to the exercise, by ensuring that my platoon was well-trained, worked well together, and knew how to communicate well. The second most valuable thing I did was to establish a vision; to help my guys visualize what successful accomplishment of our EXTEV would look like, what it would take, what it would be like as we went through it. That goal-setting had us all visualizing the same thing and rowing in the same direction. It was also in developing my guys, so well that I knew I could trust them to do what was needed in the absence of orders. I especially trusted my NCOs to lead when necessary, and they always did.
Could I give you more examples? Yup. But you could also get more examples just by having some ex-soldiers, sailors, or marines in your business. Military units are a LOT like businesses. Both are organizations that are working towards common objectives; they require people with technical skills, and they need people who can work together.
Lastly – every business leader should read The Art of War by Sun Tzu; almost everything in that book applies to businesses too.