4 teamwork lessons you can learn from the military

Sophie Henderson
Founder and Managing Director
Derigo Solutions
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In the armed forces, effective teamwork is literally a matter of life and death, and leaders are taught to value teams over everything else. For many thousands of years, armies have been victorious not because of individual acts of heroism but through creating the ultimate teams.

Many successful entrepreneurs across the world have served in the military, and put their understanding of teams to good use including FedEx founder, Chairman and CEO Fred Smith; ex-SAS reservist and investor Ian HannamMike Gooley founder of travel business Trailfinders.

Today, the armed forces are dealing with some of the same issues as corporations; new cutting-edge technology, cybersecurity, upskilling a workforce and dealing with budget constraints. These commonalities mean that lessons learned from the military are more valuable and transferable than ever.

Here are just four lessons covering creating, managing and leading teams.

Lead by example

In the British military the first tenet of leadership states that ‘you cannot lead people beyond where you can, and are willing to go, yourself’. This is the key to building successful teams. No principle is more important than this one. And it’s all too often the first one the falls by the wayside in the profit-led, high-pressure corporate world.

This principle ensures that you have the full respect of your team. As leader, you are the role model and must be able to demonstrate that you’re willing, able and motivated to do the tasks you set for your team yourself. Yes, it’s not your job to do them – and you must not be tempted to interfere; once a job is allocated it becomes their responsibility to complete – but effective teams are run by active, engaged leaders who are as committed to the task as their team.

Leading by example also extends to your commitment to high personal standards. In the forces, the leader is expected to live the army’s values at all times, on duty or off. They must demonstrate integrity, self-discipline, courage, loyalty, respect for others and high performance; otherwise how can they expect their team to cultivate these qualities themselves? This might seem extreme in the business world, but let’s face it, these are the qualities we most admire in our own bosses.    

Take responsibility and ensure mutual accountability       

As a team leader in HR or any company department, the buck stops with you. This may seem obvious but when the pressure is on it’s very easy to start a blame-game. But in the military, as the leader, you are always at fault. Former Navy SEALS Jocko Willink and Leif Babin call this approach ‘extreme ownership’.  This means that if a member of your team makes a mistake on a task you assigned, it’s never their fault because it was your responsibility to ensure your instructions are understood.

It’s easy to pick holes in the military approach but there is a vital lesson here.  When you really take responsibility, truly accept that you own it, it pushes your performance and challenges you to become a better leader in a new way. It also, crucially, stops you from getting into a cycle of always blaming others and making excuses for poor performance.

This is not to say that your team members are never accountable, they are, and military teams take time to ensure feedback and review is integrated into everything that they do, however small. This leads to a culture where teams automatically analyse where they succeeded, where they failed and what lessons they can learn for next time. This builds a true, measurable cycle of continuous improvement.     

Encourage independent thinking and initiative

Despite the general view, troops are not robots who react only to the orders of their leaders. Yes, the military has a hierarchy and everyone is accountable but today the military goes out of its way to actively encourage independent thinking, taking the initiative and innovative problem solving skills because it’s just these qualities that define the success or failure of modern military operations.

In the corporate world, many businesses are lagging behind the military. They operate top-down and any dissent is met with harsh penalties; it’s safe to say that in many companies there is still a culture of blind obedience that you would not find in any military organisation today.

In the digital age where life is lived at breakneck speed, the time allowed for critical thinking is reducing – just when we need it most. To survive in the future, every organisation needs critical thinking, and must encourage dissenting voices and unique perspectives. Teams and individuals must feel confident in voicing their opinions or concerns, and making suggestions no matter how left-field. Only once you’ve created an environment where all views are welcome will your team bond and become an effective unit.    

Get ‘buy-in’ and move forward together

In the military, as in the business world, leaders make the final decisions. But they work hard to get buy-in from every team member because they are well aware of the dangers of the Abilene Paradox.

This phenomenon is where everyone agrees to do something that many of them don’t want to do based on the fact that everyone else has agreed to do it. They believe the outcome will be negative, and even while they’re engaged in the task this view does not change. It is a failure of communication between individual team members and their leader, and in the military it can end in the loss of life.

In a war zone for example, where 100% commitment to the objective is required, if half of the team are unsure, have misgivings and lack confidence in the solution, but feel unable to voice these concerns, the mission will likely fail. So in this era of almost constant organisational change, before you march on with a project, ensure everyone really is on board, even if this means talking to individuals privately.

Armed forces across the world are changing and transforming themselves to tackle the challenges created by the digital age. If we want to create effective teams with engaged, motivated employees, it makes sense to take a few lessons from the military.

About Sophie Henderson

Sophie Henderson

I am founder of Derigo Solutions (www.derigosolutions.com), a consultancy that provides HR and workforce advice to private and family-owned businesses.

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