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Leading questions

Leading questions


10 Jan, 2023

If you have been in a leadership role while in uniform, have you stopped to consider whether military leadership differs from that found in the civilian workplace? Is a similar leadership philosophy required? What about leadership style? And do both sectors hold to the same leadership values? Former Army Captain turned fiction author Steve Higgs is here with some answers …

Can military leadership skills be seamlessly transferred to the civilian workplace?

Having spent almost 25 years in the military and served on the board of directors of a thriving civilian engineering firm, I have decided the answer is largely ‘yes’ – but with some caveats. While some basic principles do apply – for instance, all people are individuals and everyone has a different source of motivation – there are some stark differences between the two environments.

Although military leadership is built on the same foundations as leadership in all other fields, an additional element is added to the mix: discipline. Leaders in the military still have to earn the respect of their followers, but military discipline involves two other components:

  1. respect for the rank as distinct from the man
  2. obedience to orders.

Respect for the rank means that the leader can expect compliance to rules and orders, but cannot expect personal respect from their followers – unless they, personally, deserve it.

Obedience to orders means that when an order is given it is obeyed without question – for the sake of the mission, the safety of all involved and to maintain discipline. This is where the two versions of leadership diverge and where the military leader may begin to struggle in their new civilian role. I will offer, though, that good leaders – military or otherwise – don’t issue orders, except when necessary. Instead, they use their leadership skills to influence others to follow their lead – and this is what you will need to do far more, or at least differently, as a civilian.

What’s their motivation?

Promotion is a key motivator for military personnel. It causes them to volunteer for extra tasks, makes them push themselves without you needing to use carrot or stick, but those in the civilian workforce often need to move to a new job in order to make progress upwards. Your staff – the ones you will need to motivate and inspire – will not have the rank structure you are used to. Many businesses have two ranks only: the chap (or chaps) in charge and everyone else. Furthermore, there is much less team bonding in the civilian workforce. This may seem obvious – they do not all do the assault course together at 0600hrs, nor do they all drink in the same bar and have consistently shared experiences. Encouraging my team to bond over a night out resulted in questions over whether the event would be classed as overtime and paid.

You will find as many well-motivated civilians as you will military personnel. However, they manifest differently and, in my experience, are generally more motivated by self than team.

So what advice do I have?

You will have several great strengths that most of your civilian peers will not:

  • you are used to planning for worst-case scenarios
  • you are used to dealing with things going wrong where the potential result is that someone will die
  • you know that there is a time to stop discussing and start acting.

I will now look at each of these in turn …

Strategy and planning

As a leader you will have to consider strategy. While the military has battlefield analysis, the business world has market study. Both have planning process, decision-making process and execution to get you to the objective. As military you evaluate best-case scenario, worst-case scenario and then plan for the most likely scenario, while business is considering different concepts, such as: Where is the market going? What is the market saturation? Do we need to diversify in order to grow? Should we consider acquisition? Understanding or considering what the worst version of events might be will strengthen your firm. I have introduced this as a new and revolutionary concept at firms I have worked for.

Troubleshooting (calmly!)

Military planning accepts that things usually don’t go as planned. That is the reason why they train and train – endlessly – which is not possible in business. The good news for you is that the training provided to military leaders teaches them to react when things are going wrong and also gives them the confidence to not react in a panic. In business, I have seen people around me panicking because a delivery is late or a vehicle has broken down. From your perspective, this is hardly a matter of life or death, so for most of you your reaction will manifest as an unflappable calmness among your civilian employees. You are more used to dealing with situations where things going wrong means act now or someone dies.

Time for action

In your new position in charge of a team of civilians, however big or small it might be, they are looking to you for leadership, guidance and advice. Many of them, though, will know far more about the nuances, intricacies and vagaries of the job you are doing than you do … at least to start with. Be prepared for staff to have seen all your ideas before; you will need to defend them more robustly than you have as a military leader. You are the person responsible, but while you may have encouraged ideas and openly reviewed the plan as a military leader, in that environment once your decision was made the team would enact it without further discussion. As a civilian I feel that the decision and the responsibility that follows with authority is not fully understood. People wish to continue the dialogue, even though you will feel it is now time to act. You have been on operations and know that there is no time or room for discussion in certain situations. However, finding the delicate balance so that you encourage your new team, but stop them from arguing or doing what they want regardless of what you have said, is not something I can help you with.

Adapt and thrive!

Take the skills you have – the ones that make you a great leader in your current role – and adapt them to fit your new role. Expect to have your instructions questioned, but know that ultimately you still outrank the members of your team. Be a leader – do as you ought, not as you want, and set the example to your new civilian staff in the same way you always have. They will not all follow you willingly, but when have they ever?


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