Leadership Lessons from My Time in the Military

Kirkuk, Iraq, 2008

It’s been over a decade since I returned from a year-long Army deployment to Iraq. It’s been over six years since I finished my military obligations altogether. Even though I’ve all but forgotten my initial trip to the recruiter’s office, some things will stick with me for life.

From time to time, I’m asked how my military experience informed my leadership. Here is a small sample of my lessons learned.

Ready or Not… Lead

When I showed up at my initial training unit, I was immediately assigned to a platoon leader role. I felt completely inadequate for the responsibility… because I was. But as I looked at the other soldiers lined up to my left and to my right, I realized something. They weren’t ready for the job either. So it might as well be me!

Robert J. Thomas famously said, “Sometimes events can conspire to make you a leader.” You might be a new soldier with his first leadership assignment or a new executive getting thrown off the deep end. Whether you’re ready or not, it’s time to lead.

No Excuses

In case you haven’t seen enough military movies, I can confirm for you that the military has low patience for excuses. Wearing the wrong uniform? Showing up late to formation? Forget having a good excuse. Accept the responsibility for being wrong and don’t let it happen again.

Ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink put it best in his book NYT bestselling book Extreme Ownership, “The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame.”

Examples Galore

There are so many opportunities to lead in the military that anytime you turn your head, you get the benefit of observation – provided you take it. Experienced senior leaders, new junior leaders, commanders, team leaders, friendly leaders, gruff leaders – take your pick. If you pay attention, there’s always something to learn. As I shared in my book Ignite Your Leadership Expertise, observation is the best leadership education you can receive for free.

Quick Feedback = Quick Improvement

One of the big shocks for most new recruits is having a drill sergeant get in your face about something, especially if you don’t think the real (or made up) infraction was your fault. The longer it takes to accept the feedback, the more painful the process and the longer it takes to improve.

Getting feedback from an authority figure is one thing, but quite another coming from a peer. I still remember my battle buddy Josh Erickson quickly pulling me to the side one day and telling me in no uncertain terms that if I was going to complain about a work process I disagreed with, to “spout off” to my peers if necessary but not in front of junior soldiers – ever. He was right and I knew it. His feedback helped me get back on track quickly.

The military not only taught me how to give better feedback, but how to receive feedback as well.

Collaboration is King

The oft forgotten SOF Truth (SOF stands for Special Operations Forces) is “Most special operations require non-SOF assistance.” I’ve come to appreciate this truth more and more over time. Without collaboration, performance suffers tremendously.

Even in highly autocratic leadership cultures, collaboration (even with – and sometimes especially with – less “elite” groups) opens the door to high performance.

Results & Relationships

One of the great dichotomies of leadership is trying to balance the need for positive relationships and positive results. My brother Capt Cale “Rowdy” Magnuson wrote about the importance of love in the Marine Corps. And any military leader understands the importance of completing the mission.

This dichotomy isn’t unique to the military though. No one respects a leader who can’t get results and no one wants to work for a leader who is a big jerk.

The military taught me that “balance” may not be the answer after all. It’s better to be great at both.

Life or Death Leadership

In the military, the implications of leadership were fully felt. In many instances, leadership was the difference between life and death. I assumed that would change once I transitioned to civilian occupations. But it hasn’t.

When I served as a consultant to the FBI, poor leadership could have fatal implications. When I worked for a construction company, failing to follow safety standards could result in death. When I worked for a hospital company, a study was released showing that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death post-birth. And somehow I’ve never been able to forget a report showing that on the day workers get laid off, police respond to higher than normal levels of domestic abuse reports that evening.

Leadership isn’t about winning and losing. It’s often life and death – literally. The military showed me how to take it seriously.

I wish that everyone had the opportunity to serve a stint in the military, but I know it’s not for everyone. If you have military experience – I encourage you to generate and share your own leadership reflections. If not, look for an accelerator experience that can speed up your leadership competency.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting work Nathan is doing with young professionals.