Friday, May 19, 2017

6 Lessons the Military Can Teach Business about Leadership





Our country is suffering from an enormous deficit that’s growing exponentially every year. I’m not speaking of our mind-boggling foreign debt, nor am I speaking of our dwindling supply of intellectual capital. I am referring to the deficit in Corporate America of the brave and pioneering leadership that made the United States the premier global economy.

The most unfortunate piece of this reality is that we don’t suffer from a lack of qualified leadership to lead us back into economic prosperity. Rather, an insulated business community doesn’t truly understand that this resource is readily available.

Recruiters and Human Resource personnel can debate indefinitely regarding which Ivy League institutions have the best business schools in the country, and which produce the most highly qualified graduates. That said, I believe very few people will disagree that the top leadership training program in the United States is, and will continue to be, the U.S. Military.

Given the fact that we have no shortage of MBA graduates – yet we still show signs of a deficit in true business leadership – I have a suggestion for our business and corporate communities.


Start hiring proven leaders and teach them your business instead of hiring business graduates and praying they become leaders.

There are 6 lessons in particular that I leaned in the military which I’ve found to be critical in my 25-years of business experience. Irrespective of the position or career level, these lessons apply to every business model.

1. Taking the first step is always the most difficult decision.
Whether we’re making our first parachute jump from an aircraft, our first fast-rope from a helicopter or our first SCUBA dive from a zodiac craft … our ability to take that first step dictates our success or failure. All of us ask ourselves “Can I do it when the time comes?,” and when that answer is “yes” we succeed.

Ideation without execution has no value, and they’re many more “dreamers” than “doers.” Those who don’t hesitate in taking the first step – taking the difficult assignment and accepting additional responsibility – are a valuable commodity. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

2. Accepting RISK is a requirement, tolerating RECKLESSNESS is not.
When friends first learned I was going to Airborne School they all had the same response: “Kaplan, you’re crazy.” Perhaps. However, after undergoing numerous pre-flight inspections and observing the multiple layers of safety precautions inherent to each jump, I soon realized the risk associated with the action was much less than I had anticipated.

In the business world, the ability to be able to make a distinction between mitigated risk and recklessness is critical: mistakes in judgment can cause entire business units to lose millions of dollars and fail. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

3. Faith in your team, training and equipment significantly reduces fear.
I remember standing at the edge of a 40-foot rappelling tower, preparing to step off and run down its side face-first in an Australian rappel. Would I fall? Would the rope snap? As I stepped off the tower, the instructor on belay pulled tightly on my rope and froze my descent instantly. I learned instantly to have faith in my equipment and my team.

It doesn’t matter if your business employs business consultants, hair stylists or vehicle mechanics. Those employees who have developed this mindset manage their fear response and stress levels much more effectively than those who haven’t. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

4. Never forget the reason you decided to pursue your mission.
Everyone in the military who has ever attended a rigorous training project thought about quitting at some point during the course, me included. When the environment gets miserable and you’re exhausted, those thoughts are natural. We reach down deep, find a reason to persevere and remember what inspired us to voluntarily subject ourselves to these conditions.

Intolerable conditions exist in all business environments: abusive managers, terrible clients and co-workers who would sell out their soul (and you along with it) at the first chance possible. Many times, the first reaction is to quit … unless you have the mindset to persevere. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

5. Despite the best planning, unforeseen things happen.
I remember a parachute jump I made in Israel while participating in a joint training exercise with the Israeli Defense Forces. Their Jumpmasters were great, their pilots were great and their Drop Zone Safety Officers were great. The jump itself was terrible – it involved an olive tree and a cactus – I’ll spare you the details. Things happen; deal with it. Adapt and overcome. Drive on and move forward.

Things regularly go wrong in the world of business. Pipes break, contracts fall through and expected promotions don’t happen as planned. It can be confusing, stressful and even demoralizing. The employees who survive these situations psychologically are the ones who have been trained to do so. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

6. Successful accomplishments make the journey worth the effort.
During my term of military service, US Army Airborne School was the most difficult for me to complete. It wasn’t the most difficult training by any stretch – Airborne School is only the first (and easiest) of many that follow on the SOCOM path – but I had no mental benchmark from which to orient my mindset. When I got my jump wings and realized I accomplished my goal, I realized the pain was worth the effort. Every school that followed gave me the opportunity to prove that if I could survive the experience, the suffering would be worth the effort.

While this lesson may seem the most obvious, it is also the most difficult to follow. One can never truly know this until one has survived the adverse circumstance and persevered until successful. After numerous adversities and numerous successes, this belief becomes intrinsic and non-negotiable. A textbook on business leadership may convey this concept, but it can’t convey the experience that makes it real. The military teaches this to its personnel every day. It’s called “LEADERSHIP.”

I fully understand that graduates of our country’s top “leadership school” must still acquire the education and skills necessary that will allow them the opportunity to be successful in the civilian business world. With all due respect to Corporate America and the Ivy League business schools, however, the coveted skills piece is the easy part.

The mindset, character and experience that create true leaders of industry are what are missing. And that’s the piece our country most desperately needs.

The next time your company is required to choose between a 24-year old MBA with no life experience, and a leader willing and able to acquire the skills you need, choose wisely.

Cultivating the next generation of business leaders who can lead our country onto a path of economic prosperity is the primary line-item of your job description that matters most.

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Michael I. Kaplan is a professional speaker, bestselling author and instructor.  You're invited to connect with Michael on LinkedInTwitter, and Facebook.  Or, contact Michael by email.

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