Military Leadership Doesn’t Work in the “Real World”

Apr 12, 2022

Are processes, precision, and professionalism important to your company?

I was afforded the opportunity to lead 3 Air Force Squadrons during my career,  commanding over 1000 people and retiring after 23 years of service.  After 9 years in the private sector, one thing is certain we need more military professionals leading businesses, the government, and local organizations.


Do you want your organization to perform like a well-oiled machine?  Are you tired of folks in your company that can’t solve problems?  If you answered yes to either of these questions then you need to start leading like a military commander.


It makes me laugh out loud when I go into an organization and people say, “In the military, you can just order someone to go do something and they will do it.  It’s not like that in the ‘civilian world’.”  Or better yet they tell me every way that a problem can’t be solved instead of searching for the ways it can be solved.  

For my military friends out there please don’t take this next comment the wrong way even though you know it’s true.  The military is filled with a bunch of misfits from broken families looking for something better.  I don’t mean this in a bad way.  My father died in front of me when I was 14.  My mom raised me by herself.  I was amazed when I joined the military and found so many people with similar stories.  I was looking for a mission that mattered.  Here is the craziest part.  So was everyone else.  The Generals, the Colonels, the Chiefs, the NCOs, and even the lowest ranking airmen.  We did what the boss asked or ordered because we believed in the mission.  Even if the commander was a complete jerk.   

I walk into organizations today and I see a whole lot of people collecting a paycheck.  They have no idea what their company's mission is or the impact their job has on accomplishing the mission.  You want your team to be hugely successful.  Define your mission, goals, and objectives.  Let every team member know exactly how their job impacts each of these.  Be completely transparent about the company’s success and failures.  Give your team a voice in defining the vision.  They will take ownership and ownership instills pride, boosts confidence, and creates problem solvers.  

Military leaders running an operation solve problems because they know that their inability to solve each challenge they face may result in the death of a team member.  The team is uniquely focused on preventing failure and ensuring success.  Each member knows their role and its impact.  They celebrate success as a team and learn from failure.  Military leaders are always working with multiple generations and being a Gen Xer, Millennial, etc. is no excuse.  Corporate leaders must understand their role and its impact.  They must figure out how to lead and inspire every generation.  They must be able to communicate across the organization and they must communicate.  They can sit stagnantly and rely on hope.  Hope is not a strategy.

Let’s digress for a second.  Can we all agree that the military has a distinct culture?  Why do you think that is?  The answer is simple.  The military utilizes a specific process to tear each team member down and then rebuild them in their form.  It's called basic training.  This culture teaches the team to handle challenges and solve complex problems at the lowest level.  Peer-to-peer accountability strengthens performance because of the team mentality instilled during initial training.  Does your company have an onboarding process?  Does it include cultural development or is it a bunch of HR mumbo jumbo to fill a box?  Do you as the owner, president, and CEO define your organization’s values during the onboarding process.  Would I be able to ask any employee in the organization what your mission is and how their role ensures success? If the answer is no, you are missing a huge opportunity to empower your team and build an incredibly fruitful culture. 


Every innovative organization in the world should be longing to embrace the lessons learned through the trials and tribulations of military leadership.  Military leaders are specifically developed throughout their careers.  They are challenged.  They are given complex problems to solve and empowered to solve them.  While specific boundaries are defined by regulations early in one’s career, leadership development requires that these young leaders take appropriate risks to get the mission accomplished.  Acceptance of risks increases with experience. Do you have a leadership development program?  Have you set boundaries for your team?  Do you empower your team to take risks and innovate or are you beating the horse until it dies and then hiring another one?


If you haven’t thought about developing your team in the past, hopefully, you are today.  Remember I said earlier hope is not a course of action.  So let’s give you some action steps.  First, please don’t go out and hire some ridiculously priced consultant.  Heck, I know one group that charges organizations $120,000 per year and teaches people how to be in the correct gear.  It’s a great gimmick and they are really skilled at selling it, but you don’t need it.  Learn from other organizations, take some time and read, listen to Bold Leadership Episode 35: How to build an innovative culture, or just shoot me an email and let’s schedule a time to chat.  My email is in the show notes.  Culture development is not new and it does not change with generations.  The core remains the same. As Kouzes and Posner defined years ago:

Model the Way 

Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there, and they create opportunities for victory.

Inspire a Shared Vision 

Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

Challenge the Process 

Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

Enable Others to Act 

Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

Encourage the Heart 

Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.

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