Army Principles in a Business World

For those of you who aren’t familiar with me, I was once a paratrooper, an airborne infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. Also, to be fair and to avoid any perception of stolen valor, I did not serve during times of combat. I arrived at my unit after Operation Desert Storm and left the military in 1994 well before any of the hijinks going on in the Middle East today.

While serving in the army I was exposed to many leaders and many different styles of leadership. Some of my leaders were charismatic, and some were very blunt and direct. Naturally, I liked some more than others.

As I studied that time in my life, I often wondered what made these leaders successful. Several thoughts came to mind immediately, such as discipline and rank and the associated punishments, but none of those things were the key reasons we followed. Certainly they were a factor because, let’s face it, being in the infantry is different than being a middle manager at a biotech company. However, all organizations have leaders, and good leaders share some common traits.

The primary reason, in my experience, that we followed our leaders was because our leaders’ primary goal was the success of the team. That 6’4” 230lb sergeant cursing my existence (I don’t recommend this strategy in the business world) did so because I failed the team. While he was cursing my existence, he was simply trying to ensure the team was the best that it could be and that failing was unacceptable. In business, the team is just as important.

If we examine a business, it really isn’t that different from an army unit. Businesses have small teams that are part of a bigger unit. Larger businesses have more teams that are part of a larger division with multiple divisions that make up the whole organization. It’s not so different. What is different is the stress and focus on the team. In the army, team leaders make sure their teams are taken care of first, then worry about themselves. In a sense, this is servant leadership. What ever the team needs, the team leader ensures the team has it or gets it.

In the business world we find many people trying to advance themselves, to get that title or higher paying job. Too often this results in stepping on their team mates or letting their team struggle while they are advancing themselves.

I think about this and know it doesn’t have to be this way in the business world. Good workers will leave great companies because of bad bosses. This is damaging to the company, so great companies must sniff out the bad leaders and expunge them from their organization as quickly as possible. Good workers, if treated well and handled correctly, can make their leaders look like geniuses.

Now, in defense of leaders, not all workers are good workers. There are some who do the bare minimum to skate by, some don’t want to work at all, and there are some who incessantly complain about everything they don’t like or disagree with. Good leaders can work through this by inspiring those who are inspirable and ridding the team of those who refuse to be team players. Good leaders will move swiftly on this lest it spreads throughout the team.

 Good workers with good bosses can transform a bad company into a great company. The first thought that comes to mind is, if you had good workers and good bosses how can you have a bad company? The answer to that is market conditions. In an army unit, you can have the best troops with the best leaders who are just in horrible conditions or locations. In business, you might be in the coal industry in an anti-coal political environment or the auto industry in a recession. In these situations you may find yourself in a bad company or industry. However, the company with good workers and good leaders finds a way to hunker down, to adjust to the conditions and fight through the problems while their competitors close down or go bankrupt.

I believe businesses can learn from the army and start (or continue) to stress that the success of the organization is dependent upon the successes of the smallest teams in the company. The teams have valuable information and critical missions, let them know that they are valued and how important they are to the organization as a whole. If you build your teams and give them value, they will give you more than you ever expected you could get.

*previously published on LinkedIn

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