Like all entrepreneurs, I know that success requires strategic thinking, risk-taking, and leadership skills. But unlike most people who start their own businesses, I was trained by the greatest institution on Earth: the United States Army, where I served as an intelligence officer.
Trading my uniforms for a pair of jeans and sneakers, then going to work for Amazon, Etsy and other leading technology companies, I realized just how applicable are the lessons I learned while in the service to the constant, joyful struggle of running a business.
Seven lessons in particular stand out:
1. "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." This quip by Eisenhower is absolutely true. Few operations go according to plan but building a good plan forces you to think through constraints, resources and contingencies.
A good leader knows to plan. A great leader anticipates no plan will survive first contact with the enemy and knows just what to do about it. It's hard to train your mind for both the rigidity necessary to come up with good blueprints and the flexibility to improvise when plans fall apart but, on the battlefield or in the boardroom, it is crucial.
2. "Mission first, people always." The first time I heard this military adage I thought it was just another one of those feel-good sayings that had little to do with reality, but the more I experienced army and corporate life, the more I realized it is absolutely true. Accomplishing your missions and taking care of your team are one and the same. No victory ever is won single handedly. First-rate leaders treat glory as a communal reward to be shared and enjoyed by all.
3. "Drive on, private." When I was in basic training, there were some scenarios that were extremely demanding and offered no alternatives. I won’t gross you out with the details but imagine being as tired, dirty, itchy and dispirited as you’ve ever been. Imagine being willing to pay any price just for a 10-minute nap, a hot shower or a juicy burger but knowing that no comfort is to be had. There is no choice other than driving on, pulling through, getting past the hardship and persevering.
The cliché is true. Sometimes you can only grit your teeth and put one foot in front of the other. Starting a business is one of the times. There are fun and easy parts but the hard parts are many, lonely and testing. When they come along you have no choice but to close your eyes, grit your teeth and keep going.
4. Officers eat last. Anyone who has been in the U.S. military knows that when food is served, officers eat last. It's a way of showing your team that you're putting their needs above your own.
It’s a shame we’ve lost some of that spirit in the age of massive executive bonuses and other perks for corporate leaders. The leader who truly cares about the team is guaranteed to produce better results in the long run.
5. Lead from the front. Strong leaders lead by example, which means they take on all the same challenges as their team, if not more. In the army, this means being the first one to storm into the line of fire. At the office, this means working harder and longer, and being the first to take a hit if things go south for a spell.
The worst leaders make demands on their people that they themselves have no intention of following. The best ones make no demands but simply behave as they wish their employees would, too. It works every time.
6. The buck stops with you. Real leaders realize the great wisdom of that saying by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility. They never blame others, even when others are to blame. They know that there’s always a time and a place for learning lessons, but that publicly, the only right thing to do is to stand up and own up to their decisions.
7. This isn’t about you. If you’re any good, you know that this isn’t about you. There’s a company of men depending on you with their lives, or a corporation of people who rely on you for employment. It’s about your team, the passion you share and how you put that passion to work making something great. Act accordingly. Ask your team more questions, listen intently to the answers and take their ideas and feelings into consideration.
Being in the army was a distinct privilege during a period of my life that made me who I am today. While everyone doesn’t need to join the ranks in order to run a company, my hope is that business leaders of all stripes will apply these ideas in their own endeavors. That’s something I can solute.
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