Applying Military Leadership Lessons to a Civilian Career


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Too often, military leadership styles are over hyped as the “most effective,” or “the only” or “the best” way to inspire and to lead groups of people to success. Military leadership skills can be incredibly effective at inspiring a team; however, they don’t work for everyone and usually must be tweaked for civilian organizations. 


Great leadership techniques inspire others to do more, provide direction and vision towards success, instill confidence in others and the team, enforces an atmosphere of honesty and ethics, incorporates individual initiative, and builds the skills of all team members so they can advance their careers as the team advances towards its goals. If any leadership technique does not build the team and its members, whether it comes from Fort Benning, the Naval Academy, or Harvard University, then it is not the best choice for the organization.


Follow these pieces of advice to help apply military leadership skills within your organization.


Don’t Raise Your Voice – Increase Your Teaching. The use of strong military voice inflection, quickly from soft-to-loud-to-soft, is a standard practice for all military services. This technique is used to alert people to dangers, highlight a mistake, or get people’s attention. It is used more often among new military members than seasoned military members, but it remains a solid tactic for correcting behavior and to attract people’s attention. The greatest danger to this technique is that most civilian employees dislike when people yell at them and it can be unfitting in an office environment. Instead of yelling, examine why you want to yell. It might be that ninety percent of the time, you want to yell because of a breakdown in standards of performance.  So, instead of yelling, spend more time teaching and guiding other leaders in the team to lead by example. 


Don’t Talk Down to People – Do Stop & Listen to the Ideas of Others. Military personnel soon master the ability to “talk down” to the new military person once they have been promoted, completed their first deployment, or moved from a new arrivals position into a more seasoned role. In civilian roles, there is an inability to “talk down” to any employee, even a new one, because all civilian employees have vastly different backgrounds and experiences even when occupying an entry level role. Instead of “talking down” to someone, civilian employees want someone who stops and listens to their ideas, innovations, and solutions to business challenges. The military has a long history and a culture of respect for senior ranks and a respect for greater experience that is missing or not as present in civilian occupations. Civilian leaders win equal respect from employees when they stop, listen, and let others share their ideas for improvements, innovations, and ideas to make the business better.  Instead of talking, create great results through listening to others. 


Don’t Use the “Knife” Hand to Point at Employees – Draw an Illustration on Paper. I was a fanatical user of the “knife” hand for pointing out errors and improvements for military subordinates. From jumpmaster operations to air assaults to weapons maintenance, I had the “knife” hand out. This manner of pointing is exclusively military, and its use puts civilian employees both on edge in terms of tension and on the edge of laughter. Today, instead of the “knife” hand, I make a quick sketch on paper and then point on the paper and not at the person where the improvement needs to be. This creates a much more “relaxed” version of the problem, the hand drawn illustration aids in the problem discussion, and it helps the person’s understanding of the issue when they take the person away. Put your hand in your pocket (you can do that now – it’s not against regulations) and use a quick sketch to discuss problems.  


Don’t Expect a Common Standard – Create a Group to Build a Common Standard. One of the greatest challenges in civilian organizations is the creation and maintenance of a common standard of performance for routine tasks and training. In the military, if I saw unsafe behavior at the small arms range, I could yell because there was a common standard of safety training and safe operations. In the civilian workforce, if a purchase agreement is filled out wrong, can I yell? Is there a common standard? Is there common training? Have new employees been trained? Civilian workplaces need the military attention to common standards and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Don’t yell, create and teach a common standard. 


Civilian organizations can benefit from military leadership, when applied in the right way.


Share Your Story – What is a military leadership skill or style that did work in your civilian workplace?


Related Information:


  1. Business Lessons from US Navy Veterans
  2. Lessons from US Air Force Veterans
  3. The Number One Thing That I Learned from My Military Service
  4. US Army Veterans Share Their Business Lessons for Success
  5. USAA Leaving the Military Page

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About the Blogger: 

Chad Storlie is a Retired US Army Officer, the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leaderand has published over 360 articles in over 185 publications on military veterans, career advancement, business, leadership, strategy, education, financial planning, and national security topics.  Chad excels as an author, mentor, speaker, and teacher showing business leaders and military veterans how military skills make lives, careers, and businesses better. Chad is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management.  Chad has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.  Follow Chad @CombatToCorp and