Transformational leadership lessons learned in the military: what every MBA needs to know

Military leaders are trained as nimble strategists, values-based leaders, and have always valued diversity as a key to building effective organisations. They can lead companies to greatness around the world and MBAs have much to learn from them, says Paul A Dillon

Leadership is a subject much discussed in both MBA programmes and in business circles today. Indeed, many academicians and business professionals include aspects of leadership in their academic curricula or corporate training programs.

But, for those of us who have served in leadership positions in the military – my experience was as a junior officer in the US Army in the Vietnam war – and, have put those leadership skills that we learned from that military service into practice in our business careers, we understand that leadership traits and skills can only be nurtured in those who have a proclivity towards them – and, that the best way to learn how to be a leader is by example.

Here are the transformational leadership skills that I have learned in my more than forty-seven years in the professional services industry that successful leaders need to possess to grow their businesses – integrity, decisiveness, good judgment, a sound work ethic, the ability to form a vision and execute it, and confidence in your own competence, among others. But, without the ability to be selfless, to put the needs and wants of others before your own, you will never get people to ‘follow you to a place where they wouldn’t go to by themselves.’

One other important thing: Practice ‘servant leadership’. If you take care of your employees and customers or clients, profits will come. Don’t put profits before people.

Quite interestingly, here are the transformational leadership skills that military service instills in its leaders that closely parallels the skills that I mentioned, and that MBA’s can use to successfully navigate the complex work environment of the future and grow their respective businesses. These leadership skills are applicable to those who have served in the armed forces in most countries, I suspect.

Focus on accomplishing the mission

The military is extremely mission focused. The whole idea in the armed forces is to seize the objective – to capture or kill the enemy–while, at the same time, ensuring the integrity and welfare of your troops. You can’t get distracted by small things along the way. You need a vision – yes, the ‘vision thing’ – of what your battle plan is going to accomplish, and then execute that plan flawlessly. 

A commitment to hard work

Anyone who has served in the armed forces knows what I mean. The days are long. The work is hard – very hard. Combat, and the preparation for combat, doesn’t take a holiday. There are no weekends. You don’t go home at 5:00pm. The US Army once had a slogan, ‘We do more by 9:00am than most people do all day.’ That is true.

Interestingly, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, in their book Start-up Nation say one of the principal reasons Israel is one of the most successful entrepreneurial nations on earth on a per capita basis is the country’s compulsory military service, which creates an environment for hard work and a common commitment to accomplish the mission.

Ability to lead and function as a team

The whole armed forces are built on the ‘buddy system’. Nobody accomplishes the mission alone. If you’re going to be successful in the military, you need to work with all types and kinds of people, from all races, creeds, genders, backgrounds and persuasions, and weld all of these disparate interests into a fighting force that’s going to defeat the enemy. successful military leaders relied on diversity well before it the term ‘diversity and inclusion’ was ever mentioned in corporate boardrooms.

Service in the military makes you understand the concept of ‘teamwork’ perfectly. And, as an officer, or non-commissioned officer, you learn how to lead a team to accomplish the mission. If you can’t do this – if you can’t forge your troops into an effective fighting force – you’re mustered out of the service quickly. There’s no margin for error here. There are no second chances. This is serious business. This isn’t just about corporate profits. Lives are at stake.

Ability to pivot on a moment’s notice from plans that aren’t working to plans that do

When most people think about military service, they think that it’s all just about the rigidity of following orders. Well. That’s true – in part. Of course, you need to follow orders. But what most people never see is that the military teaches you to think and act flexibly, so that if your battle plan isn’t working, you pivot immediately to a plan that does. You have to do that, if your plan isn’t working—you have to be quick and think on your feet – or you risk defeat and death at the hands of the enemy. Flexibility and immediate action are key to survival.

Duty before self and taking care of your people

Finally, the best leadership training in the world is the training that is given to commissioned officers, and senior non-commissioned officers, in the Armed Forces of the United States. And, I suspect that is also true of the armed forces in most countries, as well.

As young US Army officers, we were taught to take care of our troops first, if you want them to follow you. An officer has to convince the people under his or her command that they have their best interests in mind, while they are accomplishing the mission. An officer doesn’t eat until all his or her troops have eaten. An officer is the last to sleep and walks the perimeter of the camp to ensure that their troops are safe and sound. An officer doesn’t change into a dry pair of socks, until he or she is satisfied that their troops are dry and warm. Otherwise, the troops just aren’t going to follow you to places where they wouldn’t go by themselves.

And that’s the best definition of leadership that I have ever encountered. A leader is someone who people will follow to a place where they wouldn’t go by themselves. Service in the military makes you understand the concept of ‘servant leadership’ perfectly. And some of us got to test out that ‘servant leadership’ training on the battlefields of Vietnam – and carry those valuable leadership lessons with us into our business careers.

Military leaders at all levels are trained as nimble strategists, values-based leaders, and have always valued diversity as a key to building effective organisations. They can lead companies to greatness around the world.

MBA students – and others who aspire to corporate leadership – should consider military service at the officer, or senior non-commissioned officer levels, as a part of their leadership training. At the very least, they should seek out those who have undergone this type of training as mentors in their business careers and learn from them.

The transformational leadership traits that I have mentioned are common to all who have served in the military in leadership positions, and are embodied in the words, ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ – the motto of the Armed Forces of the United States. They can profoundly influence and inspire a business or entrepreneurial career.

MBA students would be well advised to acquire these skills if they want to lead their businesses to successfully navigate the complex work environment of the future.

Paul A Dillon is a former US Army Reserve Officer and Vietnam War veteran.

He is President and CEO of Dillon Consulting Services LLC, and teaches a course on veterans’ issues as an Adjunct Instructor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

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