5 Military Leadership Lessons from a Combat Veteran

There is one organization that has produced more business owners than any other institution in the nation. It’s an organization that always has a clear strategy, a commitment to diversity and recruiting younger generations, and a proven track record of meeting and exceeding goals. You might be surprised to know that the organization that I am referring to is not a Fortune 500 company. It's not an innovative tech startup or expensive MBA program, either. It’s the United States Military. As a West Point graduate and U.S. Army combat veteran, the military has played a central role in my life. I started my career as a 22-year-old Army officer, which was an incredibly formative experience. Many of the lessons I learned were directly applicable to military strategy and functions, but many others have carried over into my post-military life. For example, making my bed is still the first thing that I do when I get up in the morning. It’s the first task that I accomplish each day, and it starts me off on the right foot to accomplish more and more as the day goes on. Transitioning from the military into civilian life was a big shift. I expected that many of the lessons I learned would become less useful, maybe even irrelevant. But after beginning my career in the business world, I found that the opposite was true. My military background quickly gave me a competitive edge – but not in the way that I expected. It’s not the tried-and-true tactical strategies or even the steadfast discipline that has benefited me the most in my post-military career. It has been the leadership skills that I learned as a U.S. Army Officer that have propelled me the most. In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’d like to share the 5 military leadership lessons that have stuck with me the most. They’ve helped me to inspire others, build and scale a successful startup, and most importantly, raise my three happy and healthy daughters.

1. Place your trust in others.

As a West Point cadet, I learned early on that the mentality “if you want it done right, do it yourself” was not going to fly. One person simply cannot accomplish enough to justify this mindset, and micromanaging your team will only lead to a lack of pride in work, and prolonged mistakes and resentment. General George Patton famously said, “Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” True leaders are able to fully place their trust in others. Handing over control is actually a sign of great strength that can make room for optimization and growth. This lesson has served me well in the startup world, where people need to be autonomous in order to innovate and execute.

2. Don’t be afraid to change your mind.

So often, people think that changing your mind will be viewed as a sign of weakness or cowardice. They think that you should always stick to a decision after it’s been made. For these reasons, the term “flip-flopping” has developed a negative connotation. However, in the military, you learn new facts all the time. These new facts reflect changing circumstances that sometimes warrant that a new decision be made. Don’t be too rigid and closed-minded to see that new information is pointing you in a new direction. Be adaptable.

3. Lift other people up.

Tearing other people down is a lose-lose situation. It makes other people feel bad about themselves, makes them dislike you, and it will make you dislike yourself, as well. This is especially true when you are working with a close-knit team. You want the people around you to feel supported and encouraged first and foremost. This means that sometimes you’ll have to pick your battles and decide when criticism and critique is worth it.

4. Always be authentic and confident.

People can sense when you aren’t being yourself, and it puts them on high alert. It’s difficult to fully trust someone when you can sense that they are hiding something or pretending to be a certain way. The authentic version of yourself is what others will gravitate toward. Be confident that being yourself is always the best way to bond with the team around you.

5. Choose the harder right over the easier wrong.

This last one is tricky. We’re confronted with all kinds of tough decisions that we must make while at work and at home. On the days when you are tired, busy, sick, or just not feeling 100%, it can be extremely tempting to do the easy thing. Maybe that’s skipping your kid’s basketball game, picking up fast food on your way home, or even finishing that work report late “just this one time.” Consider this your reminder: Don’t go down that road. It’s a slippery slope, and the people around you will remember the choices you make. Be religious about choosing the harder right. You’ll build confidence and be happier in the long run.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that all these lessons have something in common. They are all about focusing less on yourself, and more on the people around you. Remember that people don’t necessarily remember you – they remember the way that you make them feel. Happy Veterans Day to all who served. Keep sharing your unique perspective with the people around you. I hope these lessons can help to inspire you and the people around you.

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Meghan Golden

Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder of Cumulus Digital Systems

Meghan Golden is the Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer at Cumulus Digital Systems, a connected worker platform that combines digital tools with...

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