(Mis)perceptions of Military Leadership

“I wouldn’t make it in the military…I couldn’t handle being ordered around and screamed at everyday.”

For most veterans, it’s comments such as these from friends and family alike, harkening images straight out of Stanley Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket.  Most react with laughter at the thought that military service is anything like the interactions between Gunnery Sergeant Harkin and Private Pyle.  Oh sure, boot camp or basic training is full of unpleasant and uncomfortable exchanges.  Having endured the wraths of Army Drill Sergeants, Navy Company Commanders, and eventually Marine Corps Drill Instructors (who inexplicitly torment Navy Officer Candidates), there is admittedly some truth to the perceptions of most civilians.    But for the most part, that’s where the stereotypes disappear.

Autocratic. Dictatorial. Command & Control. Among others, these are the dictums of military leadership through the eyes of many non-military types.  These are also descriptions that could apply to many non-military leaders.  So too, characteristics of modern leadership – emotional intelligence, transformational, servant leadership, and others – can be found, in great abundance, amongst seasoned military leaders.  In fact, the most emotionally intelligent leader under whom I served was a tabbed-out, combat veteran Army Ranger Captain.  By no means was he the exception, but rather the rule.

Innovate. Reinvent. Change. These are notions receiving tremendous attention in the business world today.  Change has become the only constant within most organizations.  Customer expectations are shifting rapidly.  Companies must reinvent themselves and their products to simply survive.  Workforces are increasingly mobile and surprisingly lacking in traditional loyalty (with a weak economy providing only a slight reprieve from the inevitable mass exodus of Baby Boomers).  Now compare that picture to this….

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. The informal mantra of the Marine Corps, these are some of the competencies exemplified by military leaders, and they are hardly new traits to veteran leaders.  Imagine a scenario in the corporate world where you are faced with cumulative 3-year attrition of nearly 100% of your direct workforce, including top leadership.  This is the world of the military leader, a sink-or-swim, crash course in necessary change management.

The application of military leadership is remarkable.  In fact, entire works (Michael Abrashoff’s classic It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy and Oren Harari’s The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, to name just a couple) adorn the business book sections of most chain retailers.  And yet, most organizations still underestimate (and underutilize) the role seasoned veteran leaders can play within their walls.

With a looming leadership gap in the next several years, organizations (both public and private) would do well to better recruit, support, and benefit from the thousands of retiring and transitioning military leaders every year.  It’s time for organizations to improvise, adapt and overcome traditional sourcing and staffing processes to take advantage of this underutilized pool of leadership talent.  Those that do so will gain a competitive advantage over those whose perceptions of military leadership remain misperceptions.

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