One of my great privileges in recent years has been conducting leadership workshops for military audiences – officer groups, enlisted groups and groups that are mixtures of both.
At these workshops, the question is often asked, “What are the key differences between leadership in the military and leadership in the civilian world?” Here are some perspectives.
Military professionals get so many opportunities to lead in various settings and attend so many classes on leadership that they tend to perform well both in this country and overseas.
Most are serious students of their profession, are dedicated readers, get to places on time and are hard-working (very few are lazy, and those who are tend to be weeded out). They are flexible and know how to cut through bureaucracy to get important things done.
They understand “service above self,” and they often are heroic. They consider the military not a job but a calling, and feel it is a privilege to serve. They set high standards for themselves and for their units, and work hard to gain and maintain those standards. They care a great deal for their troops and follow the basic rule: Always be the last person in the chow line; if the food supply runs out, the leader goes hungry. Their combat experience has taught them solid lessons about crisis management, including the willingness to make decisions with less-than-perfect information.
They complain a great deal, but from the complaints good ideas often emerge. Their commitment to public service continues after they retire, often volunteering to support good causes within their communities.
THE MILITARY has produced in recent years some world-class leaders including Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf and David Petraeus. They can serve as role models for us all. I highly recommend a new biography of Petraeus – All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, by Paula Broadwell.
Weaknesses among military leaders include (on the part of some)
• They are too ambitious. Some look for their next promotion harder than they should. This phenomenon is more prevalent among officers than among enlisted troops.
• They sometimes look down on people who they feel are not disciplined (for instance, those who are morbidly obese).
• They retire when they are quite young, often opting to retire at 20 years rather than staying on for up to 30 years. They have so much talent and experience, it is a shame to see them leave the military so early.
• They sometimes get captured by the bureaucracy, which leads to the proclivity to say “no” when someone comes up with a fresh idea.
On the civilian side, let me focus on leadership here in the CSRA. The strengths are as follows:
• Many local leaders are very civic-minded. They volunteer their time and talent to serve on nonprofit boards (Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, various museums, libraries, United Way, Golden Harvest Food Bank, hospitals and clinics; it is a long and impressive list). They serve with dedication on church and temple leadership teams. They also coach youth sports teams. They pull out their checkbooks often to support worthy causes.
• Leaders in the CSRA tend to be very approachable, know every one of their employees, are hard-working and keep in close touch with the needs and concerns of their customers.
• Most local leaders are flexible and do not allow themselves to be tied up by the rigidities of government regulations and internal bureaucracy.
The weaknesses that I have observed in some local leaders are as follows:
• They tolerate incompetence and laziness.
• They fail to do thorough research during the hiring process.
• They lack the tough-mindedness needed to give proper counseling and guidance to those who underperform.
• They are overly loyal to an ineffective or lazy boss.
• They fail to think and act strategically.
• They fail to anticipate well by examining alternative ways of accomplishing a task before a decision is made.
WE CAN ALL learn from one another. As more and more military professionals spend multiple or extended tours of duty at Fort Gordon, they begin to consider Augusta their hometown. Hence, it is likely that many will retire in our area. This should be a big plus for the CSRA, as these dedicated and disciplined men and women ease into leadership roles in our community.
(The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – serves on the boards of the Augusta Museum of History, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation and the Augusta Warrior Project. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)