All too often I encounter the idea that the military promotes blindly following orders, rigid conformity, and a dictatorship style of leading. This is understandable since most people nowadays don’t have any contact with the military world and likely don’t have close relationships with those who have served. Before listening to the experiences of several Canadian Veterans throughout my research, I had similar prejudices.
Here I will dispel these myths about military leadership and highlight what we can learn from it. But this does not mean it is perfect. Since the military functions in high pressure political contexts, it brings out the worst and the best in individuals. When leadership fails, it fails hard; but when it succeeds, it far surpasses any Fortune 500 company in terms of its functional efficacy and capacity to create a meaningful work environment. This is particularly the case regarding life on deployment.
Besides a few horror stories I heard regarding career-obsessed officers and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from ground-level service-members who participated in operations in Afghanistan. As stated previously, these are also reasons why “hiring a vet” is not an act of charity. Organizations that claim they ‘hire veterans’ in the same way they claim they are ‘going green’ are missing the point, and here is why:
Veterans Know The Real Meaning of a “Mission Statement”
We’re all familiar with the stuffy and stale company mission statements: vague, jargon-laden, and neglected. McDonalds is a great example of this with their fancy buzzwords and lack of grammar. Barnes and Noble is another typical example with their vague aspiration: “…to operate the best specialty retail business in America, regardless of the product we sell.” Mission statements need to be actionable missions, not PR statements.
Veterans know the true value of a mission. When asked about their motivation in combat, the most common answer I received was to get the mission done and to do it while keeping themselves and those around them alive. Missions in combat are not statements of vague idealistic philosophical aspirations, they are practical, specific, are held in high regard due to the operational importance of group integration.
Mission statements should be specific, able to guide everyday practice, and function as an integrating force that a great leader draws upon an exemplifies to rally a team toward a common cause. Rather than robotically following a mere series of orders, good missions provide an overarching sense of collective purpose that makes the smaller tasks meaningful.
Veterans Know About Strategic Adaptability
In our risk-laden era of market fluidity, a firm’s strategic adaptability is key to it’s success. Take the example of HBR who survived the recent market crash by fully embracing this flexible organizational approach. On the contrary, take the examples of Kodak and blockbuster whose inflexible approach to new market conditions lead to severe consequences. With the rise of small firms, niche markets, and the increasingly low cost of entry for entrepreneurial startups, we are living in an age where light and fluid wins.
Although the military institution as a whole is anything BUT light and fluid, operational strategy for counter-terrorism measures requires a high degree of strategic adaptability. Several Veterans I spoke with served in small remotely posted units, as part of the light infantry. Distinct from the old chessboard “clash of nations,” the contemporary battlefield is highly ambiguous. Fatal attacks are a constantly looming threat – landmines, IED’s and an enemy who blends in with the general population are a few examples. In addition, Veterans have had to adapt to the extreme conditions of a military deployment. One Veteran I spoke with said that working in the baking industry afterwards seemed far more rigid and uniform than his dynamic experience leading a combat unit.
The need for strategic adaptability in a constantly changing battlefield produces dynamic leaders throughout the ranks. Battled conditions and market conditions are mirroring each other to a degree. Distinct from the stereotype of perpetually punitive drill-instructor, military operations develops adaptive skills and the ability to motivate a team amidst the constant uncertainty of life on deployment.
Veterans Know The Value of Service
The idea of leading from the ground-level is beginning to catch on in the business world. The most obvious example of this is Zappos’ Tony Hsieh who is leading the charge for “flat” organizational structure. He has recently taken this to the radical point of removing job-titles and management positions. Although the military is very hierarchical, there is a commonality between the two: the value of leadership through service.
The common theme amongst the Veterans I spoke with regarding their experience with/ as great leaders is that great leaders have this pastoral quality. Soldiers in combat don’t take bullets for one another because they were instructed to do so by “senior management;” they do it because of their passionate commitment to their unit. The ideal leader is someone who demonstrates passionate commitment, care, and service by example.
Veterans know about leadership at a deep level because it is so fundamentally essential in the life or death conditions of military operations. This deep understanding makes them highly valuable to civilian organizations. Veterans are like “military alumni” who have graduated with, “…an MBA in enduring adversity and a PhD in resourcefulness,” as Steven Pressfield states. Veterans know the meaning of “mission,” the function of “strategic adaptability,” and the value of “service;” in other words, they deeply understand the attributes of a great leader.
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