Military Leadership Skills Create Great Employee Engagement, Business Results

One of the most underappreciated and undervalued skill sets that veterans possess for civilian employers is the ability to combine a command and control culture with the room and understanding for individual initiative.  The combination of an adherence to process while exercising individual thought and initiative to adapt and adjust as business conditions change is an extraordinary asset in an economic climate characterized by doubt, risk aversion, and apprehension.

Civilian employers often have a Love-Hate relationship with the command and control style of leadership and with a leadership style that emphasizes personal initiative and innovation.  In short, employers both want and fear an employee that will either only follow instructions or that will only exercise initiative.

Military Leadership Is More Than Command & Control

A common criticism by of business professionals on military planning is a command and control leadership style is incompatible in a business world driven by initiative and a rapidly changing landscape.

The truth for employers is that military planning principles, especially those embraced by Special Operations Forces (SOF) such as the Army Rangers, Green Berets, and US Air Force Combat Controllers, excel in both leadership frameworks.  SOF Forces know how to follow orders and they know when to step beyond their orders and use initiative to accomplish the organization’s goals.

Imagine a Special Forces team conducting an attack in Afghanistan.  The unit employs a great deal of standard procedures in radio communications, orders process, set up procedures for crew, served weapons and the like.  Leaders and individual soldiers exercise initiative in deciding how to plan and conduct the attack.  Conformance to both vital processes and individual initiative are essential components of a successful operation.

Likewise, a retail store manager will use standardized accounting, inventory, and other retail sales procedures as she operates the store.  However, retailers like Old Navy want her to use initiative to identify new trends, clothing styles, and potential employees.

Leadership Skills + Agility + Improvisation = Success

Military and business people have to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they follow a plan.  As they adapt the plan to meet Commander’s Intent (or goals), they do not want to change proven processes and other common work techniques that are part of the plan and strengthen outcomes.  Many times the plan is a source of strength; business leaders need to adapt only the portions of a plan that require adjustment.

The Spectrum of Improvisation is to retain processes and systems that support mission excellence and adapt only necessary elements.  Military veterans add value to businesses because they know both how to follow and adapt a plan to reach and surpass the business goals.

Here are three ideas how military skills add value to organizations:

  1. Use Commander’s Intent to support individual initiative.  Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission.  In brief, Commander’s Intent describes what success will look like and thus allows an individual to exercise initiative and adjust the plan or process so that even as conditions change, the goal of the plan can still be achieved.Businesses and organizations can use Commander’s Intent to maintain relevance and applicability in chaotic, dynamic, and resource-constrained environments.  Does your team and business know what success looks like?  Have you focused too much on the plan and not enough on defining success?
  2. Utilize the After Action Review (AAR). The purpose of the AAR is to conduct a fact based and intensive review of an operation to determine what went well, what did not go well, and how to improve the operation in the future.  The AAR is a vehicle for continuous improvement, and it is employed in every facet of operations from supply convoys to data processing to small-unit attacks.
    The AAR brings all people involved in an operation together, seeks to understand what happened and why, and then seeks to implement a training plan to correct mistakes and incorporate positive outcomes into future mission execution.  The final step of the AAR is to create a defined, understood, and time-based organizational improvement plan.  When was the last time that you critiqued a success to define and remember what to do again?
  3. Establish and follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) to create flexibility and encourage initiative.  SOPs are every day, common and vital activities whose performance is a foundation for the success of the organization.  To be successful and to ensure adoption, SOPs must be based upon employee input and design.
    McDonald’s is an unrivaled master at common food preparation and food service procedures.  The incorporation of employees and management to draft, test, and finalize important procedures are essential.  The more common the procedures, the greater the value when conditions change.  Do you have any common customer complaints that an SOP can address to resolve the issues?

Military skill sets that encourage and direct individual initiative, that help employees self-identify areas of improvement and their solutions, and establish standard procedures to ensure high quality to customers can benefit all businesses and organizations.

Chad Storlie Chad Storlie is the author of two books:  Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success.  Chad’s brand message is that organizations & individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective.  Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is also an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

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