While it is true that the military has practices that wouldn't necessarily work well in the civilian world, we could all take some direction from military leaders on how to lead our teams.
I have to admit something here: I've always been a little afraid of the military's harsh, regimented image. This perception was always colored by movies about insanely cruel drill sergeants. But the older I get, and the more I see the meaning of the term political correctness pushed past the point of common sense, the more I see the benefits of military leadership. Here are some hard-and-fast military leadership practices that, in my opinion, could use some corporate prime time:
Leading by example
Military leaders know that setting a good example is the best way to mold the behavior you want to see in subordinates. (Note: I don't really like the word subordinates in civilian arenas. It sounds demeaning to me, even though I know it's meant to indicate a work hierarchy and not a personal judgement, but I just can't warm up to using a prefix that means below or beneath when referring to corporate staff. However, for the purposes of this blog, which discusses military leadership, I will refer to staff members as subordinates.)
There's no better way to garner the respect of those who look to you for cues about work ethic than to have a great one yourself. Nothing kills the spirit of a team faster than a leader who sees himself separate from and above the standards he sets for them.
With the military, there is obviously a lot more at stake than corporate profit. The ability of a group of people to work together and to trust each other can mean the difference between life and death. But there are lots of other tangible benefits of great teamwork, including greater efficiency, clearer role sets, and an infusion of different ideas into a process.
This is where it seems to me that the corporate world is most deficient, and many of the communication issues stem from the top down. Leaders should share the vision with everyone who has a role in making it happen.
No sugar coating
In the military, if someone is exhibiting a pattern of behavior that could be detrimental to him or to his peers, that person is told about it. Military leaders are working to build better people. If honest appraisals make that happen, then more power to them. None of the corporate HR double-talk that has arisen due to a fear of lawsuits or hurt feelings. If someone misses deadlines on your staff, then just say it. Don't try to "soften the blow" by saying, "Deadlines were missed." I'm not suggesting you get in an employee's face and scream like a drill sargeant, but give that person an opportunity to correct the unacceptable behavior.
Being explicit with expectations
It may be drilled into their heads, but military personnel understand what is expected of them. And again, this is easier to do in that case because the repercussions are more black and white. You don't do your job in a situation of conflict and someone could die. But good managers can and should make expectations clear (and not just "make us more money") in the corporate world.
Maybe this is a naive way of thinking, but wouldn't it be nice if corporate employees could wear ribbons or medals indicating their accomplishments in the field? Actual recognition for an achievement that might otherwise be forgotten about months down the road? Maybe it would be harder for executives to lay off older workers if those employees had rows of medals on their lapels.
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Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.