Military Sociology

What Veterans Know About Leadership


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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  1. I agree with so much of what JohnBerk has already said. I would agree that there are many wonderful leadership skills and other assets that may help a veteran to be a valuable member of a team in a corporate environment. Certainly discipline, focus, the ability to make quick decisions, the ability to inspire camaraderie, and a passionate commitment to a vision or mission statement — those are all respectable qualities that can make one a great employee or manager. But perhaps not always. It is one thing to be strategic and adaptable in a combat zone, when everyone shares the same mission, has had the same training, and is more or less on the same page within the military culture. But how do those skills translate in the modern corporate environment, where values such as soft leadership, flexibility, and mutual respect are becoming more commonplace than the traditional rigid hierarchy? Do the experiences of the vet still offer him or her an advantage, or are they likely to struggle with adapting to the changed expectations?

  2. Interesting: great point about the whole “mission statement” thing (not sure what else to call it) having worked in an organisation that spent twelve plus months trying to frame a generic acceptable-to-the-customers one, rather than say what it should have done.
    fair points well made; but how do these people then re-integrate into the bland society?

  3. Your point is clearly well crafted and I believe that you are right about the fact that the adaptability of veterans is higher, and they do have an important advantage in their ability to develop strong leadership skills. Yet this is based on a very strong and rigid hierarchy, and I’m somehow not very convinced that the world of private business really values such a specific leadership Soft skills is what is needed now, the ability to negotiate, to create ideas in the team and cooperate. In the army, this can have a different connotation. Is there any empirical evidence that supports your claim for the improved leadership among veterans? I know that studies have suggested that they are less stable, that they tend to have many problems connected to their experience in the military, and that many of them rather tend to do bar trips than business trips. I don’t know, it is difficult for me to judge this, but this is where your blog provides me with more insights.

  4. I’m an engineer. I’ve spent my adult life managing major construction projects. The one thing I’ve learned:

    Resumes with a service record go to the top of the pile.

    I don’t care if he or she is fresh out of the service. I don’t care if he or she has never worked on a project like the one I’m doing. I don’t care if he or she is underqualified. He or she gets hired first. And I have never been disappointed. They always exceed my high expectations.

    They get things done. They adapt. They overcome. They improvise.

    Most important: They get people to work together.

    Anyone who has served in combat has had responsibilities that we civilians cannot comprehend. They’re out in the middle of nowhere, with vague orders and responsibilities for the life and death of others – their comrades, the civilians around them and the person who might be an enemy, but might not.

  5. Hey Steve,

    I have read through many of your posts on and off for a few months and I just want to let you know that I very much appreciate your writing.

    I blog occasionally about politics at and I would love it if you could check it out sometime! I have blogged about partisanship, drug testing for welfare recipients and the future of the Republican Party among other things. One of my stories even got published in my local newspaper. Thank you! 🙂

  6. Overall, this is a great piece. In many cases, corporate or political goals are meant to enhance the profits and potential bonuses, for businesses, or the campaign contributions and ideology for politicians. But, in the civilian world, sometimes–especially in the U S–things have to be dumbed-down. In the military world, the ultimate reason for a mission statement may be a matter of life or death–yours or your teammates. Thus, there can only be one page, and everyone has to be on it.

    The Barnes and Noble example, however, is somewhat unfair. Yes it is unfair; but, consider that each and every retail store–not just B & N–has to be aware of the immediate market area in which they operate. The customer needs and preferences may vary according to demographics, such as: a large number of immigrants; many retirees; a nearby college; families with young children; a military base; etc. So, the company truly has to be all things to all people, on a store-by-store basis.

    In the civilian world, basic concepts–such as open architecture office layouts and management by objective–are often implemented quite differently than the way they were designed, or described in HBR. They are often merely a name snatched literally our of the conceptual air, implemented totally out of context and, then rolled-out in a form that merely is designed to accomplish the corporate goals.

    In a military context, the assumedly rote training is not to provide automatons; but, rather to enable soldiers, marines, etc. to react, instead of taking precious moments to think. Since time is eerily of the essence, a military context has very little application in the corporate or political world. Instead, a military background can indicate a certain level of: maturity; discipline; clear thinking and, at its highest level, inspiring others, as veterans return to civilian life.

  7. This is a fascinating subject area. The chopped logic of a populace cheering their men off to war, then somehow being embarrassed by their existence when the conflict is over has always concerned me. Perhaps in a sense the war veteran becomes our scape-goat; we subconsciously dump on them our guilt at the bloodshed/jingoism/aftermath consequences. We don’t even want to consider how their skills, discipline and ability to focus on objectives would fit into civilian life. Excellent essay.

  8. Great post, thanks for sharing! I am interested to hear more about your statement, “they do it because of their passionate commitment to their unit.” How do you invoke that type of commitment within an organization?

  9. Thanks for your statement about service. Too many successful “leaders” in the world simply want power and perks. The experience of failure – and losing a comrade to death can only be interpreted in that way – is humbling, and perhaps many that claim to “lead” would benefit from that deepening of the spirit.

  10. Well done. I’ve worked with military guys, and their commitment to their troops (their staff) is very obvious, and very well received. One of those leaders . . . everybody wanted to work for him, no matter how hard he pushed us to get the work done and get it done right.

  11. our veterans are loved and welcomed in the U.S. There are many snafus and problems getting through the government red tape to access some earned benefits, but this is where resilience and persistence are so critical. Those who haven’t served may not understand the value of team in quite the same way. This frustrates veterans the most and doesn’t help their readjustment. Love your blog! Good luck with your PhD.

  12. A well thought out post with profound lessons for those who are receptive. One can understand that the discipline of management, particularly the command-and-control structure, has its roots in military life.

  13. It is unfortunate all companies do not adhere to this valuable post. Their company would be successful as well as the people they employ. Many people did not like the “draft” era, but it was valuable in so many ways and this post gives insight to that.

  14. Hi Steve – Thank you for your well written and deeply considered blog post. Recognition of the skill set and unique experience of veterans should not evoke a sense of unworthiness by non-serving civilians but rather respect and consideration upon re-entry into non-military service. I particularly connected to your statement about passionate commitment, compassion and service. These are strategic pillars, that all organisations aspire to engage their employees to demonstrate, however this requires leading by example, not dictatorship. I am unsure our Australian veterans re-engage in employment, however I know our domestic suicide rate is 7 per day. It was the veterans of 1914 who returned with ‘shell shock’ that paved the way for a change in recognition that the experience of battle resulted in a range of mental health conditions. The elephant was simply too big to hide. My latest blog post address the unwillingness of the Australian Federal Government to release a report by the Mental Health Commission which outlines how ‘broken’ our system is.
    Your PD thesis will be great reading!

  15. Hi, Steve: Another great essay. I am the former wife of a Navy Intel guy and the mother of a current intel guy, and although it depends on the individual, and politics aside, I agree that a military atmosphere can spawn keen leadership abilities. I enjoy reading your posts.

  16. I know it seems stupid watching those useless fillers on news about our communities and what’s on but I would trade all the war and never having to see what some people are doing for a little more family and community involvement. Sad part is the news stations probably do use what they have since the people aren’t out doing community services or just helping the community they live in which should be more important but is shadowed by going to the bar on the weekend sports and just the entertainment industry in general.

  17. My difficulty here is that I see so many articles about war and not even close to that amount doI see articles about solutions to preventing from ever starting.

    1. I agree. We need more of those type of discussions. This post is focused on those who are sent to fight them and how we can reintegrate these individuals when they come home.

  18. Define how anyone can feel successful in a war? I find war pointless considering that our government managed to tracked to Saddam Hussein and yet can’t seem to find the weapons development plant and shut it down ending the war without death. Oh yeah if we did that we couldn’t sell more bullets.

    1. you need to separate the individual soldier from the state that sends them to war, they are two different things. The solider goes where he is sent, take you gripe up with the politicians, leave the soldiers out of that one

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