Does Military Leadership Work Outside of the Military?

An interesting perspective from Ben Williams CMI ILM, Co-Founder at Vanguard Global Solutions – How organisations could learn a thing or two from our battle hardened leaders.

It was hot, sticky and extremely frightening. My first introduction to the Taliban quickly turned me into the commando I had trained tirelessly to become. They say you haven’t become a true soldier until you are engaged by your countries enemy. However, our battle-hardened troop would never have become such an outfit without the leaders within who relentlessly guided us through thick and thin, and often acted way above their pay-grade.

As the bullets snapped branches off trees, peppered the walls and kicked dust off the track, I threw all my training and skills out of the window and jumped head first into a deep stream to avoid the impending danger. My body had subconsciously entered ‘flight’ mode instead of ‘fight’, and I was going against everything I had been trained to do. Had it not been for my leader there and then, I may have stayed in the stream unaware as to what to do next, engulfed in a situation I’d never experienced before.

Peering out of the water I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only one who had jumped in the stream away from the Taliban, unsure of what to do in the life-threatening situation. The Taliban were close, maybe one-hundred and fifty meters away pinning us down with their accurate AK-47’s and PKM weapons. As well as the suppressing enemy fire targeting our location, a Taliban sniper was also taking pot shots at the tree line and ditch we all hid within, desperately trying to make our lives harder. ‘Welcome to Afghanistan’.

Stood on the track unmoved by the danger was our commander firing back at the enemy, completely in the open protecting the men he led who were completely new to such a situation. He was extremely experienced and had spent his entire career on operations throughout war-zones around the world. It took one look from him and minimal encouragement for us to feel inspired and suddenly courageous enough to join him where he stood and enter the fight. It felt natural and our training immediately kicked in. We didn’t want to leave him there, nor had we trained so long and hard to hide. We were commandos, and this is what commandos do; something our commander reminded us of.

This is a leader in the rawest form, they inspire others to follow. On that day we were not poorly trained marines who had bottled at the wrong moment. Far from. We were young Royal Marines who had never experienced such high pressure and violence launched on us in such a way; many miles from our wet and windy training on Dartmoor. We were all highly skilled, highly trained and more determined to take the fight to the Taliban; we just needed a little guidance and encouragement which our leader was there to provide. Our commander inspired, guided, and led us through an extreme and dangerous situation knowing for well the feelings and emotions we were experiencing. He knew the dangers we faced, but a mission needed completing and he needed us for that mission.

From that day we had changed. Our first firefight, and our commander’s leadership had inspired us into a different way of thinking, and within a heartbeat none of us turned our back on the enemy again. We had become a unified team of commandos born from high pressure and shared hardship.

Yet always there is the overhanging question asked, ‘does military leadership fit into, and is it accepted in business, sport and other organisations’. Of course it does, and why not? Bullets, enemies, warzones, searing heat and streams aren’t necessarily required to become a good leader or create cohesive and high-performance teams. The misconception is military leaders own huge moustaches, scream at you in well pressed tunics and own an aggressive approach to discipline. This is far from the truth, with such days almost completely gone. The military leaders of today have moved with the times just as quickly as the newest iPhone updates are released. With their leadership becoming increasingly more effective with every day. Empathy, empowerment, understanding of our cultures and people, and great belief in our values has created a new era of leaders; ‘millennial military leaders’.

Leadership isn’t just about command and authority. Leadership is about being emotionally in tune with those you lead, understanding everything they are going through, listening to opinions and ideas, yet upholding the capability to switch to authoritative leadership to make snap decisions when required; just like our commander on the track.

For the civilian world, huge lessons can be learnt and used by our experienced, professional and inspiring leaders. Exceptional judgement, willpower, integrity and courage are the four words necessary to describe good leadership. Every other word or attribute associated with leadership leads right back to these four, and it is these four words that exceptional leaders must draw from.

Leaders in the military are no different to those within any organisation. We are all human beings leading other human beings within our chosen tribes. Whatever your industry, every organisation is in some form of survival; it is literally that primitive. Survival changes us from someone in a position of command and management, to that of a person who is accountable for their subordinates, and also in turn depend on their own people for their survival; this is leadership, creating a vision and a path whilst in turn creating followers for that vision. The military regularly works in survival situations which is why our leaders are so effective and own great skill in leadership under such high intensity and pressure.

Don’t fall foul to the misconception that military leadership should stay in the military. Embrace it, learn from it and review the way leadership is thought of in our modern world. Remove the camouflage clothing and replace it with a suit means only the apparel has changed. The professional, disciplined and highly experienced leader is still underneath waiting to unleash.

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