Leadership Lessons Learned in the Military

I believe my journey of leadership began with a decision I made at the age of 18 to join the military. As a method to pay for my 4-year college education, I joined the United States Air Force. It was a bold move at the time. All my friends were headed off to college.

I still recall arriving at San Antonio, Texas, to begin my basic training. Being a kid from Little Falls, Minnesota, I became exposed to a very new culture where demands were many, the organizational chart was evident and you wore your status on your sleeve. I was at the bottom of the food chain.

Little did I know that it was a defining decision that would expose me to the fundamentals of leadership – and the importance of getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Here are seven lessons I learned in the military that I believe have influenced my leadership:

1.       Discipline.
Mastering discipline is essential in the military and a key to thriving in business. Whether it’s launching new products, acquiring companies, or executing a business plan, it takes discipline to stay the course and achieve results. I’m still working on this one.

2.      Teamwork.
Teamwork is a “motherhood” term. Whether you’re part of a military squadron or a leadership group, I have recognized the importance of diverse skills and personality traits in building an effective team. I augment my own weaknesses with team members that have strengths in the areas I don’t. I believe this has been essential in developing a high-performing leadership team at Marco.

3.       Psychological hardiness.
You can’t wear your emotions on your sleeve in the military – or as a CEO. Whether you’re navigating through boot camp or a recession, success relies on your ability to remain calm and overcome stress even when times get tough. The last couple of years have certainly put this to the test.

4.      Motivation – fear is a good motivator.
Fear certainly was a motivator in basic training and it still motivates me today. Andy Grove (CEO of Intel) is quoted as saying “only the paranoid survive.” There were times that perhaps we let complacency set in and were caught off guard. The fear of failure motivated us to make the changes to correct a situation that probably should never have happened. A good practice is to always be looking over your shoulder.

5.       Making the most of your time.
I could have showed up at the Grand Forks Air Force base, took an easy assignment and simply completed my time in the military. Instead, I chose to challenge myself (and be uncomfortable) by taking a position that required me to speak in front of a group of base arrivals ranging from new recruits to generals each day. That public speaking experience has been invaluable in my professional career. It’s a skill I continue to rely on.

6.      Understanding your circle of influence.
Because of that challenging assignment, I was able to broaden my network of peers – and superiors. Understanding and eventually leveraging my circle of influence, I was promoted ahead of my contemporaries to the grade of sergeant, which meant more pay and more responsibility. I learned how to earn respect and connect with people who could help accomplish my goals.

7.       Importance of a mentor.
Every successful leader has had a good mentor – and likely many. The first one I recall was Master Sergeant David Beard, a tough career military professional who most would rather not have as their boss. The truth is at 18, I needed someone to be tough and hold me accountable. I learned all the common – and absolutely essential – life lessons from him that influence my leadership style today like “do it right the first time.” Master Sergeant Beard is what good looks like in a mentor.

When I reflect back on my time in the military, I can’t think of another time in my life when I learned as much about being a leader as in those four years. I feel fortunate to have had that experience. Now I’m not advocating that everyone who wants to be a leader needs to join the military, because I know these lessons can be learned through other experiences – if you’re looking for them. My military experience certainly was an early influence that showed me what it meant to be a leader. 

Next time, I will share more about the responsibility of mentoring.

Topics: Leadership, Lessons