A Short Lesson on Leadership – from a Combat Veteran

Learn And Lead

 “Nothing replaces the power of earned trust”

 I had been in the military for nearly decade and the war on terror was picking up; military personnel were training around the clock in preparation for a very different type of warfare. I was on the phone talking to my dad about when I might be heading overseas.

Something my father said really stuck in my head, and taught me a lesson that changed my outlook on leadership. He told me, “If I were 20 years younger, I would be serving right beside you.”

Now, I know that – as a father – he meant he was proud of me and most likely wanted to protect me. But that’s not the only thing I took from this.

The leadership lesson I took from our exchange was something that I carried with me for another 12 years of service, and even into civilian life, and the workplace in which I now find myself.

When my dad said he would not hesitate to join me on assignment, I had suddenly pictured my father as a 25-year-old soldier in my unit: Someone for whom I was responsible; someone who counted on me to lead him into battle: someone who looked to me as a leader who was smart, and informed. Responsible. Grounded. Someone who could get him back home again, when it was over.

I pictured him as a young soldier, eager, yet nervous at the thought of combat. Then I thought of him as he was: My dad – close to retired, yet still so willing to lay down his life for his brothers in arms, if necessary.

It got me thinking. How would you want someone like your father to be treated? Or maybe your brother, or sister, mother, or even your child? Regardless of the circumstances, or the extent of your personal relationship,

  • You would want them treated fairly.
  • You would insist that they be spoken to with respect.
  • You would want them trained to the best of your ability, and to their maximum capability.
  • You would want them to be accountable for their actions and subject to fair discipline, if warranted.

The result was immediate self-reflection on my speech and actions. After all, it was someone’s brother, sister, mother and child I was put in charge of.

A civilian office in a major corporation can be a far less bloody version of a combat zone, but it is a battleground, nonetheless, with brutal office politics and stiff competition taking an emotional toll and ramping up the stress. However, the keys to team building are just as important in a temperature-controlled and well-equipped office, as in the muggy jungles of Southeast Asia, or the deserts of the Middle East.

You have to respect people in order to build and sustain mutual relationships of any duration.

Deep loyalties grow from shared experience, trust and confidence in each other’s abilities and dependability, and in recognizing and appreciating their strengths. People must feel that they are being treated equitably in order to build the camaraderie and esprit de corps in your team that can make the difference between a loosely organized group carrying guns – or running a business office – and a tightly knit fighting unit, able to stand and defend against an encroaching enemy, and ready to help at those times when you desperately need someone to cover you, and have your back, should a crisis at the office or serious combat situation rapidly deteriorate. If you don’t have the decency to treat your subordinates fairly and considerately at all times, you cannot demand their utmost effort when it is required of them.

If you aren’t treating your soldiers or your employees in a manner that affirms them and conveys respect, trust and commitment to their wellbeing, then – whether you are commanding from behind a desk, or on a battlefield – you do not deserve the honor of leading them.

One cannot diminish the strength, loyalty and commitment that can be built into the spirit of a cohesive organizational unit of disparate individuals who are accustomed to working together and sharing dangerous, stressful, or emotional moments, along with planned or spontaneous victories that often extend to the entire group, as the result of shared experience and dependence on one another to get the job done.

Interview after televised interview featuring wounded veterans often sound the same refrain as was uttered by my father: “If I was twenty years younger, I would be right there beside you.”

When asked about their regrets regarding a severe combat injury that has sidelined their military career, one veteran after another declares a readiness – but for their injury – to return, in a heartbeat, to fight side-by-side with their brothers. There is no hesitation.

If civilian companies can emulate the level of team-building that the military inspires, they, too, can tap into that endless reservoir of energy that our very human need to belong to something greater than oneself inspires, and can thereby encourage a similar commitment to the success of the company and to the support of their comrades-in-arms, thus enhancing both the level and degree of cooperative interaction between team members and departments under your charge.

And finally back to my father, I’m not sure if it was your intended lesson, but thank you for giving me -yet another- important lesson in being a person for others to look up to.


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