Military leadership: Lessons in Military Leadership for Civilians

BG Swan in Iraq doing what he does best, leading.

BG Swan in Iraq doing what he does best, leading.

By: Peter Sessum

Many techniques of military leadership that translate into the civilian world. It is why many corporations like to hire vets. Even though the day-to-day activities are different, anyone that can lead a team into combat can lead a department in a civilian job. Unfortunately, not every person with rank and position in the military is a good leader. As we like to say in the Army, “The rank doesn’t make the man, the man makes the rank.” Here are a few examples of good military leadership for the civilian world.

Know what you don’t know and trust those that know

Not surprisingly, admitting to not knowing everything is difficult for many people. It might sound counter intuitive but the person that admits he or she is not all knowing gets more respect than the person that tries to fake it. Knowledge is one of those things you can’t fake it till you make it.

Before all the maneuver units were removed from Fort Knox it was a dumping ground for some of the soldiers as the bases in Panama were shutting down. A Specialist arrived to one of the two mortar platoons on base and since he had the promotion points, was promoted to Sergeant in short order. He was immediately given his own gun squad.

A month earlier he had been in a light Airborne unit and was now in the home of armor and was mechanized. One of the first things he did was tell his squad that he was going to lean on them to teach him everything he needed to know about mechanized Infantry. Instead of his soldiers thinking he was stupid, they bragged about how they had the best squad leader. There was no doubt who was in charge but the fact that he trusted them and didn’t try to pretend to be perfect made them respect him and work harder for their leader.

This is in stark contrast to the sergeant in Germany on his second time physically being on a mechanized vehicle in his life tried to direct experienced mech soldiers how to do things despite them trying to advise otherwise. Instantly, he lost the respect of the soldiers that barely knew him. His new ideas made him stand out during a walk-through by the Battalion XO and he was quickly singled out in the bad way. Instead of taking accountability he tried to throw the soldier not in attendance under the bus, a classic blue falcon move. That too came to light and he was a considered a POS soldier from then on.

The takeaway is that no one looks bad saying, “I don’t know.” In fact, any time someone says that the other person will fill them in and now they know. It is literally that simple. Trying to pretend to know and make decisions or give directions off misunderstanding will only reflect poorly. Do the right thing and your subordinate will tell everyone and respect will build, half step and that will also be spread among the troops and it will reflect poorly.

Use your resources for team success rather than personal glory

There are two kinds of officers when it is time to take the metaphorical “hill” in the military. The first is the blood and guts commander that wants to storm the hill and take it by force fighting for every inch of dirt so he can climb over dead bodies and be the one to plant a flag on the summit. The second one throws every bit of ordnance to soften the enemy, uses superior tactics and calmly walks up the hill with all his men in tow to see an American flag proudly swaying in the breeze.

Lieutenant Colonel, now Brigadier General retired, Swan was the second type. For some reason the geniuses at the training center in Hohenfels Germany decided that a four deuce (107 mm) mortar was about as powerful as a .22 pistol. It was determined that it would take six rounds to kill a dismount. Which is outrageous for a weapon system with a 50 meter kill radius. To take out a fire team a mortar platoon would have to simulate dropping 30 rounds. To top it off, the mounted .50 cals couldn’t take out the simulated T-72s the OPFOR used so a valuable resource in the mortar platoon was basically useless. Fortunately, Swan is smarter than your average bear and engaged his mortars on every operation.

He ordered the platoon to load up and drop only smoke rounds. He would send out both mortar sections each with a five ton truck in tow to firing positions and obscure the battalion’s movement from the enemy. In a simulated environment it was pretty silly. The truck was to provide an additional 350 rounds for the section but since it was all simulated it was just an ammo can with 175 pieces of paper with “Two mortar rounds” written on it. To simulate the rounds downrange the observer controllers would light smoke pots in the impact area.

Each mission the mortar platoon would roll out at 0-stupid-30 and be rounds complete by noon. Then they just had to stay out of the way (read: nap) until the assault was over. He understood how to utilize his assets and that is why LTC Swan was successful.

By not employing the same tactics, his light Infantry counterpart during a Fort Polk rotation had his ass handed to him by OPFOR. This CO had 120mm mortars with a tactical situation far more favorable. The damage of his 120s were set at more realistic levels. In a flash of brilliance he would send his mortars out in front of the main element unprotected or forget about them all together. Had Swan had them, they would have been dropping rounds all day long. This mortar platoon “fired” four rounds for the entire rotation.

The civilian takeaway is to use the resources you have to the best of their ability, not the way you want them to work. Put the task and team ahead of the idea of personal glory. While Swan was taking what seemed like a more cautious approach, he did more damage to the enemy and had more success than the ones that want to storm the beach when there is a better way just to say that they stormed the beach. In this situation, the subordinates will know when they are being used poorly and it is a reflection on the person in the leadership position. In the Army, like in the civilian world, the success of the team is the leader’s success. Help the team succeed and everyone wins.

Know who works for whom

During his change of command ceremony, Captain Colb shared his leadership philosophy, “The more rank and position you have, the more people you work for.” As an Infantry company commander he believed that it was the Soldier’s duty to do his job, it was the commander’s job to take care of the soldiers.

The commander has a driver and it is the driver’s job to make sure that the vehicle is in good working order. If the vehicles is good, the Soldier’s job is done. It is the job of everyone senior to that Soldier to make sure that Soldier is getting paid, leave, awards and promotions if they are deserved and punishment if it is warranted.

When supervisors “work” for their subordinates they develop more trust and respect in the work environment. That may not mean a lot in the civilian workplace, but it means that men will follow you into the gates of hell without a second thought. When an officer said that he worked for the men and women in his command and not the other way around you would be hard pressed to find someone that wouldn’t follow that man anywhere. That statement made such an impact it is still being talked about more than 15 years later and has shaped the leadership styles of many NCOs and officers since.

Anyone that doesn’t think these work should just look to the head coach for the Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll. He put his people in positions that they were good at rather than what they were slated for. He trusted in his team (or subordinates) and considered it his job to make the work environment positive. In other words, he worked for his players rather than the other way around. It was a novel concept, a positive work environment that included meditation instead of constant yelling, but at the end everyone was wearing Super Bowl rings so you can bet that other teams will be trying it this year.

Having subordinates follow because they are paid to makes someone a manager, having people follow because they want to makes someone a leader. By knowing what you don’t know (and asking for help), using the strengths of the resources and people for team success instead of personal glory and by working for your team instead of the other way around is a good start to positive leadership. If someone needs any other motivation needs to realize that in the military a person can’t quit because of poor leadership, but they can in the civilian world.

A successful happy team reflects well on a leader, having people quit like rats fleeing a sinking ship reflects poorly on the manager to the higher ups and sooner or later, it catches up to them. The last thing any smart CEO will want is to hemorrhage talent to the competition because of a bad manager and in an industry where everyone knows each other, being a bad manager will hurt future opportunities while being an excellent leader will open doors. In the military, being a good leader will result in fewer soldier issues and that is what saves lives in the combat zone.

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2 Responses to Military leadership: Lessons in Military Leadership for Civilians

  1. Pingback: #TChat Preview: Inspire Or Retire Leadership Theorem - TalentCulture

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