In my previous life as a Soldier in the U.S. Army, my standards for leadership were pretty high. We weren’t infantry, artillery, or Special Forces. I served in the Army Corps of Engineers, and we were building roads, fortifying bases, and hauling supplies. The blue-collar workers of the military — they don’t make movies out of folks like us. While we weren’t doing anything particularly newsworthy, to keep a platoon focused on a mission in a combat zone still takes a special kind of leadership.
Among many other demands, my platoon leader in Iraq needed to ensure, every day, that we a) were trained for a hundred different worst-case scenarios, b) had the right equipment for the job, c) were fed, d) had enough rest, e) didn’t get complacent (a lot harder than it sounds), and f) continued the mission until it was 100 percent complete.
Sound familiar? If you’re responsible for getting children to school safely, your role isn’t any less demanding. While the meaning of the word “leadership” may shift over the course of one’s life, or may mean different things to different industries, the root of its purpose is almost always the same: keeping people safe. Simon Sinek argues in his wonderful TED talk Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe (which is absolutely worth your time) that in any industry, there are always threats coming at your employees — economic insecurity, new technologies, regulatory changes, competition—and it is the role of the leader to make sure their people feel safe and protected.
Sinek also discusses the military culture and why it’s different. It’s not the people, he argues, it’s the environment. Based on my own experiences, here are four virtues from the military that you can adopt for your organization starting now:
1. Discipline — Do it right, every time, even when you think it doesn’t matter. In every moment, as leaders (or as parents, spouses, and friends) we are choosing in our relationships with others to have the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. Neither is easy, but the difference is that the pain of regret compounds over time. The pain of discipline gets lighter.
2. Courage — I know, you’re picturing Rambo, but physical courage is only one form. When you need to, be brave enough to stand up for someone else. Find the courage to admit when you’re wrong. Be fearless by putting your trust in others.
3. Composure — Soldiers train a scenario the same way a football team runs the same play until it’s muscle memory, so in the heat of the moment they can keep their cool. Take a valuable lesson from this. A leader recently told me that when something in his company doesn’t go right, he asks two questions: 1) Do I have enough information to go berserk? If not, I need to ask more questions, and 2) Once I have enough information to go berserk, will going berserk help? The answer is always no.
4. Humility — In a society that stresses personal identity, independence, selfies, and “likes,” humility may seem like an endangered species. However, again, it’s all about the environment.
Military culture instills humility because “success” means relying on others. And it’s easy to keep everyday problems in perspective when you’ve lived in a combat zone.
When adopted, these four virtues all lead to is one personal quality that is extremely powerful: accountability. Whether you’ve been running a 50,000 student operation for years or you’re a brand new substitute driver, your attitude is a form of leadership to those around you. If you want others to trust you, then put your trust in them. If you want others to sacrifice their time, then sacrifice yours. You think people need to be better listeners when you’re giving instruction? Then be present and actively listen when they’re talking to you.
When I got out of the Army, even though I was still in the business of hauling supplies in trucks, I never expected to find the same caliber of leadership in the civilian world. I assumed I could forgive poor leadership because, after all, the stakes just weren’t as high. I was wrong. Just because the stakes are lower doesn’t mean the standards have to sink too.