5 Leadership Lessons for the C-Suite from Combat and the Classroom

In a world of exponentially increasing business tempo for C-Suite executives to adapt, innovate,  improve their products, services, profitability, and standing against the competition, where should they turn for insights and direction?  C-Suite leaders need clear, simple, and workable concepts that they can use immediately.  The perspectives that the C-Suite needs come not from consultants, glossy marketing brochures, or politicians but from the very people that they lead. 

I have seen mass graves in Bosnia, participated in the invasion of Iraq, and watched students come alive in the classroom as they explored and mastered new content while developing their own voice in how they want to lead in life and in business.  Reinforcing observations from combat and the classroom offer the insights to senior business leaders to overcome current and future challenges.  Implementing and valuing internal employee perspectives produces the outcomes that they want for their customers and for their business results.

1. It Is a Privilege, Not a Right, To Lead

Leadership in the military, in business, and in education must always be treated as a privilege and not as a right.  Military leaders often go astray, especially at the senior level, when they come to believe that they are owed respect, a promotion, or deferential treatment because of their years of service or their title.  This identical phenomenon takes place in nearly every profession.

Thinking of leadership as a privilege creates a character of service, humility, passion, and persistence that is necessary to enable great teams and organizations.  Great leaders always think about what they can do for an organization, its team, and its customers versus what the organization can do for them.

2. Your Employees Are Your #1 Responsibility

In education and in the military, there are distractions of funding, statutory requirements, departmental requirements, and any number of pressing, but mundane, tasks that detract attention and focus from soldiers and students.  In the U.S. Army, we had the leadership maxim, “Mission First, Men [Team] Always,” to ensure that we were constantly focused on the welfare of those we led.

In the military, a poorly conducted mission leads to casualties that create the impossibility to carry out the next mission.  In business, if we place the customer first without thought to the employee, there may be no employee there the next time to serve the customer.

Employees, soldiers, and students are the reason leaders, commanders, and teachers exist.  Those we lead must always be the first consideration and never the last.  In order to place the customer first, the employee must also be first in order to serve the customer.

3. Live and Teach What Is Right, Not What Is Easy

Teaching is the foundation of business, the military, and all levels of education.  Teaching is more than the routine transmission of existing concepts, facts, and methodologies.  Rather, true teaching is challenging students, employees, and soldiers to obtain a true grasp and understanding of the material and how they will use it to meet both today’s challenges and future challenges.

Great teaching is to prepare others to use the best that we know today to meet the challenges of an unknown future.  Alongside teaching is the incorporation of ethics, respect for individuals, and a call to action of how to create great organizations that are good for customers, employees, and other stakeholders.  Teaching is never easy, but it is always infinitely rewarding to an organization.

4. Strategy Is Multiple Possible Paths To Reach a Common Goal

Too often business strategy tends to focus on the way as opposed to the ways.  This is a vitally important differentiation that military strategy and education approaches both embrace.

Military strategy is formed around the concept of “Commander’s Intent.”  Commander’s Intent helps military units envision how the military commander views the purpose for the mission and what success looks like at the end of the mission.  Likewise, teaching approaches focus on how to get a student to master the material using various educational approaches to make the student successful.

Business strategy needs to embrace the concept of maximizing the use of individual decision-making paired with individual initiative to reach a common, unified goal.  Strategy is all about achieving the outcome, not dictating precisely how the outcome will be achieved.

Great military strategy, like great teaching, finds multiple avenues to reach the commonly understood objective.

5. Ask Your Team if They Would Recommend You

The U.S. Army used an anonymous “Command Climate” survey to assess the performance of its junior military leaders with feedback directly from those they led.  This method, like post-class teacher assessments by their students, emphasizes the likelihood of students and soldiers who would recommend their teacher or military leader to others.

This question is so simple and so telling that it is vital that business leaders ask their employees this one question in an anonymous, consistent, well distributed format.  Leaders, commanders, and teachers that are recommended by their organization are the leaders that produce the great results.

Leading, commanding, and teaching are never easy, and  involve a constant challenge to innovate, adapt, and overcome unseen challenges to reach the objective.  From the boardroom to the classroom to the plains of Afghanistan—when we place the welfare of those we have the privilege to lead first, results follow.  C-Suite leaders must remember to look inside their organizations to value employees at all levels as the critical path to the continued success of their ventures.

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.