07 Nov 2015

5 Leadership Development Lessons Business Can Learn From The Military


As a child, I wanted to be a great tennis player. I harassed my parents to buy me a racquet so I could play against my brother after School. I quickly learned that if I wanted to get better (rather than constantly hit balls over the fence), I needed to work with a coach. Glen (my coach) showed me the right way to hold the racquet, how to swing through the ball and get the best power out of my shots. I needed someone to focus on what I was doing well and what I needed to work on. After all, hitting 1000 balls the wrong way only reinforced a bad shot, it didn’t develop a good one.


The military has understood for centuries the need to develop leadership early in a career. Basic military training is far more than the movie stereotype of push-ups, yelling and polishing shoes. It is the opportunity to introduce and develop values, traits, behaviours and skills that will be utilised for an entire career. Values such as integrity, teamwork and responsibility – similar to values on the walls of most businesses – are more than words, they are discussed, broken down, reinforced through behaviours and practiced constantly.

The same applies to leadership training. For middle and senior managers to meet the leadership expectations placed upon them, their first leadership experience can’t be as they’re appointed, it has to be early in their career. Some of the best and most respected leaders in the world say they learnt how to lead from experience, and from making and learning from mistakes. Wouldn’t it be preferable for leaders to make little mistakes early in their career and learn how to correct them, rather than making big mistakes (involving more money, people and responsibility) later in their careers?

The military model grows leadership talent in 5 ways:

1. Praise good behavior and correct poor behaviour for all new or junior staff.

Both new and junior team members are highly impressionable. Often their behaviour is ignored until they are more senior, which means the example they follow is largely up to themselves. The military uses senior staff to train junior staff – nothing new there – except that it is more than buddying. It is expected that the senior team member will embody the types of behaviour and values you want to replicate, as well as demonstrate the best way to do something the first time and reinforce it.

Managers often assume that new staff know how to send an email, how to run a structured meeting, how to develop a proposal, how to provide feedback. Of the many businesses I have worked with, all have complained about poor communication from top down, from bottom up and across business units. The cause is very simple – their team members have never been told or shown the right way (your way) to do things. In addition, the good behaviour they do demonstrate has not been priased and reinforced.

2. Identify leadership potential early.

Leadership should not be a skill that is added on after someone has demonstrated 5 years of technical (job specific)  skill. It should be in core tasks as early as possible, so that expectations of responsibility become a normal part of doing business. It is easy to identify those team members that relish the extra responsibility and those that prefer to shy away from it. If you don’t identify it early, someone else will. This generation are not going to wait 5 years for an opportunity to lead – they want to do it now. You can challenge that notion and force them to do the same apprenticeship you did – and lose them – or follow the military example and nurture leadership talent early.

3. Provide leadership opportunities.

There is no point identifying your leadership talent and then not getting them to do anything. This could be simple things like running a meeting or planning a project, or larger tasks like running a small team. The important ingredient is guidance – and it is where business differs from the military dramatically.

After completing my leadership training in the military, my first role was leading a staff of 7 in administering a Language School. My second role, at the age of 24, was managing a staff of 60 with a budget of $10 million. These opportunities don’t often happen in business. I will admit, I spent a good portion of time ‘drowning and not waving’ through that period, but I had experienced staff (many of whom were 20 years older than me) to guide me and assist me. The role, the opportunity and the guidance from staff were invaluable experience for more expansive roles later in my career. They provided me with a wealth of experience to draw upon when leadership situations became more difficult and complex.

Officer Holding Sword close up4. Provide leadership skills training and build relationships.

After identifying talent and providing opportunity, the military requires all leaders to continue their leadership training as they progress through the ranks. Leadership training provides not only the opportunity to learn new skills and experience best practice, it provides an opportunity for leaders to network with their peers and build relationships.

The peer network is one of the most underrated in business today. In my military career, it was my peers that I often turned to for advice, help and suggestions, not my boss or peers. That group of people were the most effective sounding board because they knew exactly what you were dealing with. Your Manager and your team can be great help, but they also judge you at the same time. Your peers should be seen as part of your team, not competition.

5. Train for war, not for peace.

When times get difficult in business, training (and in particular leadership training) is one of the first costs removed. This is the complete reverse of what should happen. Most businesses train for peace, whereas the military trains for war. In business, leadership training is undertaken when staff are absolutely available, revenue is high and the workload is light. There is no pressure on time, money or personnel, so the lessons learnt often can’t be applied straight away. I am not suggesting to only train when times are bad – train for all situations. It makes no sense to cut training when sales are down or when the business is facing difficulty – surely that is the time when training and guidance are most needed!

Leadership and its development is a life-long skill that should be developed and maintained from an early stage in any career, military or business. I might not have become the great tennis player I wanted to be as a child, but I recognise that all the good players, ranked from 500 to number 1, have a coach that not only has their best interest at heart – they want their charge to succeed. In good times and in bad, that coach provides advice and guidance to become better – to become great. A great business leader recognises that they should do the same for their team from the very beginning of their careers.


Media Release – Lack of Leadership Development Opportunities Reflected in Talent Loss…Or Worse!