Military leadership lessons for civilian CEOs

Media depictions of military service often show no-nonsense commanding officers barking orders at troops, aggressively leading them through punishing drills with little regard for how the recruits are faring. Despite what movies and TV shows depict, there isn’t much truth to these ruthless leadership tactics.

In the military, 'protecting your team' doesn't just mean physical safety, but also ensuring their well-being and fostering a supportive environment. Many current and former armed services members will tell you that people always come first in the military. Protecting your team is the first order of business, followed by successfully completing the mission.

The same can be said for running a successful business: take care of your people first, then focus on meeting objectives. Trust is the foundation for almost every successful operation — and that’s just one military takeaway CEOs can use in their leadership skill set. For instance, the military principle of 'mission first, people always' emphasizes the importance of balancing the needs of the mission with the well-being of the team. Here are other valuable leadership lessons from the military that business leaders can use, too.

1. Take Ownership of the Leadership Role

Leading is essential to embody the position in your decisions and actions. Your ability to set the tone and demonstrate earned authority will determine your team’s level of confidence in you. Gallup research shows, “[W]hen leaders communicate clearly, lead and support change, and inspire confidence in the future, 95% of employees say they fully trust their leaders,” so embrace the opportunity to lead with decisiveness.

2. Lean Into Taking Action

The best strategies in the world mean nothing if they’re never executed. Put it in motion once you’ve developed a plan with data, input, and stakeholder buy-in. A great idea on paper doesn’t accomplish anything. Failing to act just hinders your teams from learning through experience and adjusting for better future outcomes.

3. Empower Teams Through Trust and Collaboration

Military service members follow commands, but that doesn’t always guarantee success — or even always get their best effort. Teams are more apt to follow leaders who devote time to building trust with their teams through collaborative exercises and shared resources. Show that you support their success, and they’ll be more inclined to support your efforts.

4. Practice Consistency

Instill confidence in your team while strengthening their belief in you. Consistent, decisive action drives teams toward results, and consistently proceeding in this way lets teams know what to expect from you. Leaders must make dozens of decisions daily, and CEOs, in particular, have a higher percentage of tough decisions. Relying on well-developed decision-making skills and remaining consistent in your process creates team stability.

5. Focus on the Mission but Prioritize People

The task is important but only possible to achieve by first caring for your people. John Petrie, Deputy CISO of NTT Security, views General Alfred M. Gray as the leader who exemplified this leadership principle.

“[Gray’s] only guiding principle was that leaders had to take the responsibility to take care of their Marines, no matter what the situations were — that was their first goal and objective,” Petrie, a former Marine himself and now Deputy CISO of NTT Security, said. “The second goal and objective was to win the battle.”

Your team’s well-being must be considered as you develop business objectives and create a roadmap. Taking care of your people first isn’t just the right thing; it’s an essential part of building a team that rallies around company goals and works toward success together.

Written by

Megan Snyder
Megan Snyder

Senior Editor | CEO.com

Daily Newsletter

For Leaders

Subscribe to the newsletter read by the world's most influential CEOs.