I have been out of the Navy for longer than I was in it, but some things will never fade. The friendships and life-lessons will remain with me until my last days. Since transitioning to the business world, more than 15 years ago, many of my colleagues have been intrigued by my military service. Some don’t ask about it at all and others bring it up every chance they get. But when it does come up, there is almost always a reluctance to believe that my military leadership experience can be applied in a civilian, business environment. After all, leading in the military is easy – you have rank; you have authority. You can yell at people. Right?
I can very clearly remember my first encounter with a Senior Chief Petty Officer onboard my first ship, a destroyer. I was a brand new Ensign, the most junior of officers, and just barley finding my way around. The Senior Chief introduced himself and said he wanted to talk to me. We stepped into a compartment, or “office”, on the ship. He closed the door and said “let’s get one thing straight, I don’t work for you – you work for me.” I had heard stories about the “salty” senior enlisted men and woman that I would meet, but this was my first real encounter with one. The fact that I outranked this guy meant nothing. Now, he would salute me and call me “sir”, and he would never be disrespectful in front of my Sailors, but he made it clear that there was going to be more to our relationship than rank. He was taking me under his care and, in his own very direct way, letting me know that he was going to look after my development. And I am forever grateful that he did.
Leading in the military does come with a structure that is often not present in the work place. It also comes with a set of stakes that are typically much higher. Most who served will tell you that they have never had to say “I order you!” or “that’s an order!” I never did – even when deployed to a combat zone – even when we thought we were under attack and decisions and actions had to happen instantly with no delay. That kind of teamwork, leadership and follower-ship, only comes with trust. And that trust is built on far more than a hierarchical leadership structure rooted in authority. Yes, you have rank – but it had better not be all that you rely on. You still have to influence and bring others along with you.
What about collaboration? With the weight of your rank behind you, why bother to collaborate?
When I was leading Boarding Teams in the Persian Gulf, we always had a plan. In an asymmetric environment with multiple unknowns, we had to think through the “what-ifs” and contingencies. Seven to eight armed and well-trained Sailors would go aboard commercial vessels and search for weapons and “persons of interest.” The commercial ships were big, often in poor condition, and the merchant sailors were not necessarily happy to see us. On any mission, we had to be prepared for a hostile situation where the team leader was wounded or killed. If that happened, would the team be capable of continuing with the operation? How could we truly instill a sense of ownership in the plan? For starters, each team member had to be part of the planning process. They had to be shaping the solutions to the problems we were anticipating. Collaboration wasn’t a “nice to have.” It was essential. But we also knew that once the team leader made a decision, each of us moved out as if the plan was our very own personally conceived thing of beauty.
Yes, there are Veterans out there who think they can step right out of the uniform and into a suit and tie – with no adjustment to how they interact with others. But that’s certainly the exception, not the rule – at least in my experience. Military service can be hard to translate into terms that others can understand or appreciate. But the fundamental lessons we learn in leadership are timeless and can be applied in any industry. When it comes to leading others, one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Leading teams is challenging anywhere you go, and having a set of bars on your collar doesn’t make it any easier.