History has given us many fine examples of leaders who once served in the military. George Washington set the standard that many others would follow; 31 of the first 44 American presidents were commissioned officers.
Overseas, the likes of Charles de Gaulle and Otto von Bismarck were noted politicians. In other domains, Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson, Robert A. McDonald of Procter & Gamble, and Neo Kian Hong of SMRT have helmed significant companies.
Many organizations feel the need for strong leadership. And having a military background can boost one’s reputation in that regard. But when you cross over into civil service or the corporate world, does a record of military service make you more effective? Or is there some other quality that these successful leaders possess?
The focus of military leadership
Societies have been waging war with one another for thousands of years. When humans began to settle and organize themselves into states, they could afford, and needed, to support a specialized group to fight their enemies.
From the beginning, the military has been concerned with matters of life and death. Survival often led to prestige and conquest. Failure meant death and subjugation.
With the stakes so high, it’s only natural that military organizations put a premium on training their members to be influential leaders. Not only do you need to protect your people, but you also have to ensure that there are capable replacements in waiting. After all, military leaders could quickly die on the job.
Modern military training might have developed ever more sophisticated methods and practices. But the emphasis on traits remains the same. They seek to develop qualities such as agility, mental and physical resilience and adaptability, competence, and character.
These traits don’t just define a good military leader; they are timeless for any aspiring leader in any field. Thus, having a military background certainly equips most individuals with an advantage in terms of transferable skills.
Emerging differences across domains
There are many similarities between leadership in the military and leadership in business or the public sector. No matter the domain, being a leader invokes the same broad challenges.
You have to be capable of managing organizations, applying top-level insights to drive performance. You never do this work alone; the ability to manage and motivate subordinates will be critical to your success. These tasks will push your personal leadership skills to the limit.
However, in spite of their similarities, leadership across different domains presents certain variations. There are subtleties and nuances involved which you begin to notice once you’re involved in day-to-day operations.
A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership noted that while civil leaders and military leaders encountered the same broad categories of difficulty, they ranked the impacts differently. For instance, military leaders had greater issues with managing subordinates but found it easier to develop, motivate, and deal with problem subordinates.
These variations in impact hint at the domain-specific differences involved. The military context is different when it comes to superior-subordinate relations, for instance. Due to a culture of camaraderie and discipline, you can issue orders to a military subordinate and assume that they will do their utmost to fulfill a task.
The same thing can’t be said of the civil or business world, where subordinates might have their own motivations and priorities. They aren’t compelled to obey. Trust in the relationship must be built.
Learning to adapt
This shows that you can’t merely assume that military leadership will translate into another field. An individual might have transferable skills, but they still need to adjust to their new context to apply them effectively.
Military leaders aren’t just highly trained to be good leaders; like-minded individuals also surround them. They work in an organization that has, out of necessity, evolved to be hierarchical in command, yet capable of being decentralized in execution, doing what it takes to survive. They have an innate grasp of accountability and expect no less from their comrades.
Take anybody out of that setting, and put them in a corporate setting or government organization, and they might struggle. The culture is different. The tools at their disposal don’t function as expected. People don’t always pull out all the stops in service of the common cause.
The good news is that there’s one specific quality that good leaders possess, which can help overcome this challenge: adaptability. And military training hones that with the practice of the OODA Loop. By applying this continuous process of learning and adjustment, a leader will recognize the different particulars of their situation and make the necessary changes to apply their winning qualities.