May 23, 2024


Leadership Lessons For All

By: Aaron T. Miller

After more than fifteen years in the military, I’ve learned a few things about leadership in and out of uniform. As I pursued a Master’s degree in Management with a concentration in Organizational Leadership, many of those lessons that had already been cemented were given clarity, proper titles, and a mental sorting in a way that helped me to make sense of them in a broader context. But one thing I took away from many of these lessons is that many of them are universally applicable. Whether you are performing manual labor on a jobsite, working administrative duties, or operating on a battlefield, some things never change. So here are some lessons that I learned in the military that you can apply to your own professional development and career:

“Prepare yourself for the position above yours, and prepare your subordinate for your current position.”

We all like promotions. It is one of the most common and celebrated forms of signaling one’s achievements as a professional in their field, and a raise certainly doesn’t hurt, either. This being the case, young leaders may seek out a mentor that can teach them how to climb that next rung in the corporate ladder. But what is often overlooked is the role that you can play in the life of the next up-and-comer in your organization. What if you make yourself a mentor to them? It can be difficult to put yourself in a position to mentor someone, especially as you are primarily concerned with your own advancement, but this kind of “chain mentorship” is what creates a strong organization in terms of culture, continuity, and bonding.

“Never promise or threaten that which you cannot enforce.”

Everyone is familiar with the “carrot and stick” approach. Rewarding good behavior and correcting bad behavior has been the gold standard of leadership since time immemorial. However, you should be cautious about overextending yourself. Any leadership-driven relationship has trust and respect at the heart of it, and these two things must be carefully cultivated and protected. One of the quickest ways to destroy them is to overstep the limitations of the authority that has been given to you. If you are given the authority to use certain reward systems and corrective actions, use them wisely. If you overpromise and undersell either, it diminishes the respect that your subordinates, peers, and superiors have for you. All three are looking to you to provide results, and not providing those results is reflective of a deficiency in you as a leader to them.

“Everyone is motivated by different things, identify and leverage them.”

It may seem obvious that each individual values things in an order that is unique to them, but the importance of this concept in the context of leadership cannot be understated. In both rewarding and correcting behaviors, some measures are more effective than others. Take for example, two Airmen that I had under my command at one point in my career: For Airman A, you could write a recommendation for a medal for him, or threaten him with corrective paperwork, he wouldn’t be swayed either way. But if you offered to cut him loose from work if he completed a certain task early, or floated the idea of having to spend more time at work than usual, he was off like a rocket to complete whatever needed doing. Airman B was the opposite. He didn’t care if he spent an eight hour shift or a twelve hour shift at work. To him, work was work. But he was highly motivated by being recognized for his achievements. Verbal encouragement, a letter of recommendation in his personnel file, or putting him in for an award brought out the best in him. As leaders, it is our responsibility to learn what motivates those that we are leading, and leverage those factors to help them reach their fullest potential.

“Do what you think your stripes can handle.”

“Do what you think your stripes can handle” was a common term when I was in the military, usually following a question like “Do you think I should do X?” or sometimes even “Hey, here’s a great idea!” (it was usually not, in fact, a good idea). The point of this phrase though, was to drive home the potential cost and benefit that we must weigh when making decisions as leaders. Some choices are riskier than others, especially when it comes to mission impact. In these cases, we had to make decisions with the weight of knowing that our stripes (our literal rank), position, and reputation were on the line if the decision turned out to be a bad one. As leaders, we are often expected to make these kinds of decisions, but it is important to mitigate that risk whenever possible, and to avoid overextending the reach of our own authority. Know where the limits of your authority lie, and keep in mind that risky strategies often have serious professional consequences.

Everyone is a Leader

It may sound cliche, but every single member of an organization is a leader. Every individual represents the organization, is responsible for some part, large or small, of its operations, and in turn, its success. Likewise, every individual in an organization is accountable to every other individual, no matter where they are in the chain of command. We are all responsible for bringing out the best in ourselves, and the best in our organization as a whole. By embracing our role as leaders, we benefit our organizations, communities and nation.