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Six Things Business Leaders Can Learn from the Military

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News.

The military is one of the most well-respected institutions in the United States. In a recent Pew Research study, nearly 81% of Americans expressed confidence that the military will act in the best interests of the public. That is compared to only 45% for CEOs, 40% for the news media and 25% for elected officials.

Unlike the shabby way we treated the Vietnam-era veterans, my own generation of veterans, the post 9/11 cohort, has enjoyed nearly universal support from both the left and the right, especially among business leaders.

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In fact, the modern U.S. military is one of the few organizations that hasn’t been split by the bitter partisan bickering that is consuming every corner of the country.

Aside from keeping America safe and acting as a deterrent against numerous unsavory nation-states, the military is full of valuable lessons for savvy business leaders with an open mind. In an era when the economy is booming, competition is fiercer than ever. Modern business leaders are increasingly turning to unorthodox strategies to give their brand a competitive edge.

It’s in this climate that successful managers and business leaders often turn to high-speed organizations outside their own for inspiration. So, what lessons can the military impart to make your company faster, stronger and more resilient?

1. Successful Business Strategies Start with a Protective Leader

While serving in the 101st Airborne Division, I witnessed one of my squad mates, a big Samoan we called Jonesy, start convulsing violently. Before we could reach him, Jonesy went stiff, lost consciousness and fell like a mighty oak taken down with an ax.

I’ll never forget the sound of his head hitting the ground with a sickening crack. I had never seen so much blood come out of one person. Jonesy had had an epileptic seizure, a condition that even he wasn’t aware of. Now he likely had a concussion as well.

Our First Sergeant ran over as if Jonesy was one of his own children. As the EMTs were wheeling him away, the sergeant leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.

In the military, a leader isn’t a title defined by rank or time in service. A leader is someone who protects those in his care. Jonesy, or any other soldier, getting hurt on the First Sergeant’s watch somehow affected him as if it were a personal failure of his leadership.

In a TED talk by Simon Sinek called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” Sinek makes the observation that “in the military, they give medals to people who sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. But in corporate America, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

It sounds to me like corporate America has it backward.

What’s happening here? Are good people attracted to the military because of their sense of service? And are other people attracted to business because of a sense of selfishness? Not at all.

If Your CEO Isn’t Setting the Proper Culture, There Is Nothing Stopping You from Defining It

It comes down to a word we all likely have heard many times: culture.

Culture is more than just a buzzword. It is the very reason why the U.S. military is both nurturing yet able to project devastating firepower to any corner of the globe with extreme efficiency.

In business, the obligation for setting the right culture ultimately resides with the chief executive. But if your CEO isn’t setting the proper culture, there is nothing stopping you from defining it for your department or team. Everyone at any company can care for the employees around them. The goal is to build up the weaker members of the team rather than looking for reasons to cut them loose.

In the military, our lives depend on the professional development and personal well-being of those around us. In business, taking good care of your people means happier, more productive employees and greater revenue. Business gets better when everyone, from intern to manager to VP, takes their direct report’s personal and professional development seriously.

Perhaps it’s time for a culture shift at your company? Caring for your people will make your company a “preferred employer” like Apple or Google, where people are lined up hoping to get a job inside. Being labeled a “preferred employer” gives you the pick of the best talent and will boost the bottom line.

If your company has to have a reputation for something, why not be “that company that really takes care of its employees”?

2. Businesses Must Get Rid of Internal Feudalism

My time working at the German multinational conglomerate Siemens was short, but it was enlightening about taking care of one’s employees. Siemens was an excellent company to work for. The employee benefits have achieved mythic status in HR circles: Remote work, low health insurance premiums, free European travel, a new company car, free gas and a mountain of paid vacation.

And yet, I noticed a disturbing trend in my work area: Teams in the same department would often compete with each other for budget and recognition.

Competition is healthy, but what I witnessed was petty cannibalization and outright deception so egregious that one team’s budget and job security was guaranteed only at the expense of another team.

This territoriality hurts everyone, company profits most of all.

In the military, there is a “one team, one fight” mentality. Sure, the different branches have their petty rivalries. But any member of any unit from any branch would gladly ask “How can I help?” when the task is essential to mission accomplishment.

This might come as a shock to some business types, but the overwhelming majority of servicemembers don’t care about personal recognition. I didn’t volunteer for special duty because I expected to get an Army Commendation Medal. I volunteered because the job needed to get done.

As our 16th President said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

3. Diversity and Inclusion in Action

In 1965, a black U.S. Army soldier named Milton Olive III was on patrol with his squad in Vietnam. They made contact with the enemy and the Viet Cong retreated into the jungle. Private Olive’s squad gave chase and during the pursuit, a Viet Cong soldier threw a grenade that landed in the middle of the Americans. Private Olive nonchalantly raised his hand and said, “I got it,” grabbed the grenade, tucked it into his chest and then laid down on it.

Private Olive was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and was the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War. In jumping on that grenade, he saved the lives of his squad, both black men and white men. In doing so, he showed us all how we ought to live.

Our nation has been called a melting pot because of the many nationalities and ethnicities that make up this great nation. But melting pot implies that everything becomes homogeneous, the same color and consistency. I prefer to think of America as a pizza.

That’s right, you heard it here first: America is a pizza! Its separate ingredients are unique and distinct, but they contribute to a delicious whole.

The US Military Is a Cross-Section of American Society

Make no mistake. America is powerful because of its diversity, and the military is a cross-section of American society. Different people bring a wealth of different experiences and backgrounds that make it easier for us to adapt to a world that is changing fast. Servicemembers know, perhaps better than anyone, that mission accomplishment doesn’t care about race, religion or gender.

In corporate America, diversity initiatives are legion. Nearly every Fortune 500 company website has a page or pages dedicated to diversity. The bottom line is this: Not only are diversity and inclusion the moral and ethical ways corporations should behave. But ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform the national median and average 24% higher year-over-year revenue growth than businesses with less varied workforces.

4. Businesses Should Hire Veterans for a Competitive Edge

I’ve made a career speaking about the benefits of hiring veterans. In fact, I’m speaking at the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association annual event in Puerto Rico in February about why hiring veterans is good for business.

I typically start the speech by dispelling some of the common myths about hiring veterans:

  • Veterans are foul-mouthed and noisy
  • The military doesn’t teach transferable skills
  • All veterans served in combat
  • Veterans don’t possess creativity and only follow orders
  • Veterans don’t possess emotional intelligence thus aren’t suited for customer-facing roles

Like all myths, these myths are categorically false.

In reality, servicemembers display leadership at virtually every level. At 19, I was put in charge of $6 million worth of government equipment. I had colleagues in their 20s who were appointed interim governors of entire towns in the Middle East. There is no better anvil on the planet to forge a 21st-century leader.

Servicemembers Possess Composure and Even Creativity under Extreme Pressure

In addition, servicemembers possess composure and even creativity under extreme pressure. Recently The Air Force Times told about an F-16 Fighting Falcon that suffered a fuel malfunction while performing operations against the Islamic State. Instruments showed the pilot he had only 500 lbs. of fuel left and he would soon have to eject over ISIS-controlled territory.

There are very few things that can scare an Air Force F-16 fighter pilot. Ejecting over ISIS-controlled territory is one of them.

What happened next? The savvy crew of a KC-135 Stratotanker (basically a flying gas tank) nearby stepped up to lend a hand. The KC-135 escorted the Falcon all the way back to base while refueling his F-16 every 15 minutes. Aerial refueling is an endeavor filled with risk. It’s a task that takes concentration and calm under dangerous, nerve-racking conditions.

This is the very definition of composure and creativity under extreme pressure. And there are hundreds of examples of these qualities happening daily around the U.S. military.

Veterans also have something of a superpower: the ability to “solve for the unknown.” That means that, as a byproduct of their military service, former servicemembers often come up with solutions to problems that haven’t popped up yet. This military version of “blue-sky thinking” keeps people alive by predicting all of the possible outcomes of a mission. Translated to business, your veteran hire might often have the answer to a problem the moment it appears.

Veterans are the business managers’ secret weapon. With their integrity, habitual goal orientation and a habit of diversity and inclusion in action, hiring veterans could be the best thing your company does in 2020.

5. OPSEC — A Process to Deny an Adversary Information that Could Compromise a Mission

Derived from the military and intelligence communities, OPSEC is a process that we use to deny an adversary information that could compromise a mission.

For example, while deployed to Kuwait we were encouraged not to wear our uniform while in a heavily populated place like Kuwait City. Such a blunder could make public what units are deployed where and for how long.

In fact, military units will often notify servicemembers and families not to discuss current or future deployment destinations on social media because the enemy is always trying to collect information.

In today’s extremely vulnerable cybersecurity landscape, a day rarely goes by without reading about a data breach somewhere in the world. Cybercrime in the U.S. cost its victims at least $1.4 billion in 2017, according to a report released by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Companies Conducting Routine Business on the Internet Often Leave Traces of Themselves Online

As companies go about conducting routine business online, they often leave traces of themselves, like breadcrumbs, all over the internet. Press releases, social media, chat rooms, forum postings, and even their own websites can be ample hunting ground for attackers looking to exploit careless employees.

Adopt the military’s five basic steps of OPSEC and make your company safer from cyber-attack:

  1. Identify critical information
  2. Analyze threats
  3. Analyze vulnerabilities
  4. Assess risk
  5. Apply countermeasures

According to Chris Cox, president of the Operations Security Professional Association (OSPA): “Although OPSEC formally has five steps, you can break it down into what Layne Marino from the Department of Energy once called the ’OPSEC Two-Step.’ First, consider the threats to your organization. Think about who or what is out there that would want to intrude or do harm, and what it is they want. Then simply consider how they may go about getting it, and what you can do to stop them. Suddenly, you’re OPSEC’ing!”

6. Adopt the Debrief in Business for Flawless Execution

In the army, we called it the AAR, for After-Action Report. In the air force, we called it the debrief. Former F-15 fighter pilot James Murphy at Afterburner, Inc., established a program called Flawless Execution whereby he and his team of elite military operators train companies on the Flawless Execution model.

Having served across two branches of the military over 10 years, I can report that Murphy is on to something.

In the military, we often plan a mission, brief the team, execute the operation, debrief to talk about how the mission went, and do it all again, only smarter.

Why smarter? Because of the debrief.

In this crucial phase, we discuss what went right, what went wrong, and how we can improve the variables for next time. It’s the same reason that professional athletes and coaches watch their game tapes.

In business, the debrief occurs when your team gathers to dissect the results of the sales meeting you just had. You emerge with deliverables that will make the next meeting more productive. I wouldn’t advocate the debrief for every business interaction; after all, the last thing we need are more meetings! But I have no doubt that there are key engagements with stakeholders or customers when the debrief makes perfect sense.

The debrief is simple, scalable and proven.

Today’s Business Landscape Is Full of Both Threats and Opportunities

Today’s business landscape, like that of the recent past, is full of both threats and opportunities. The difference now? The velocity of today’s information flow has increased exponentially.

To stay competitive in the 2020 economy, business leaders must look outside their organizations for inspiration. In the race to innovate, everyone is always talking about “blue-sky thinking” and “outside the box” solutions. Why not look to the military, the oldest organization in America, for solutions to tomorrow’s business problems?

You might be surprised at what you find.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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