Does military experience translate into leadership and business savvy? According to researchers at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, organizations run by CEOs with military experience perform better than those led by CEOs who never served. In fact, many renowned leaders in the business world have military backgrounds, including Johnson & Johnson’s Alex Gorsky, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, and ex-General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson.
How did military experience help these businessmen and women become leaders at major corporations? What lessons can military training teach us about productivity and leadership? After examining interviews with influential American businessmen and women, certain patterns began to emerge. These are the common threads which stood out to me:
- Be approachable and take good care of your people. Whether you oversee an international corporation, or run a small company, you can’t be an effective leader if people are hesitant to approach you. Good leaders promote a culture of transparency and candor. Contrary to what many people think, most people do not respond well “tough love.” An effective leader is someone who is open and approachable–someone who provides positive encouragement to all members of their team. When you respect your employees, they will respect you, and when people believe in their leader, they are more likely to perform well. When they do, thank them. Good leaders acknowledge the hard work of others. They show appreciation for a job well done.
- Lead by example. This is especially true in the face of adversity. A good leader keeps their cool always; they remain calm and their positive attitude doesn’t waver, even when the rubber meets the road. Think about it: you’re the captain of the ship. If you freak out, your entire team will follow suit–tenfold. While it is OK to show frustration on occasion, complaining in front of others and/or speaking negatively about other people on your team is not. It sounds cliche, but your enthusiasm and attitude are contagious. A happy team is a productive team.
- Diversity benefits the team. Diverse teams generate better ideas than homogenous ones. Diversity in its broadest sense (think of diversity in terms of personalities, backgrounds, and experiences in addition to race, ethnicity, and gender) is advantageous to groups in all contexts–business, military, or otherwise. When it comes to making organizational decisions and solving sophisticated problems, leaders who appreciate diversity and consider a range of perspectives are most likely to persevere. Whether you’re in the military or at a fortune 500 company, the same concept applies. People have the most to learn from people who are least like themselves. Heterogenous groups make for more collaborative environments.