Three Leadership Lessons I Learned After Leaving the Military

Like many veterans, my military career has greatly informed how I approach my civilian role as the CEO for a mid-sized company. Over the past two years, I’ve written about ways to take concepts from the military and apply them to a business setting or leadership style.

While I strongly believe the private sector can greatly benefit from these concepts, I’ve also learned a few lessons since I left the military that have provided incredible value to my leadership ethos.

**1 | Professional Growth Should be Ongoing and Intentional.**

In the military, there is a structured approach to professional development. Every commander has a reading list, and mentorship is emphasized throughout the ranks. When an individual is promoted to a leadership position, there is standard training that they are required to fulfill.

When I joined the private sector, I realized that there was no built-in structure for becoming a better leader. I had to be intentional about my own professional growth.

Now, as a civilian, I continue to maintain my reading list (see below). If you are like me, you may find great value in podcasts or audiobooks since not everyone has the time or ability to sit down and read. Use whatever method works best for you. The important thing is to learn methods and approaches from leaders you admire and begin to apply them yourself.

Becoming a better leader also means knowing your own blind spots. There are many professional tools available for this, like taking an online leadership assessment to illuminate the areas where you have room to grow.

But don’t stop there. Once you’ve taken the assessment and understand your leadership profile, work with an expert to help you move towards your goals and maintain momentum. Encourage others on your leadership team to do the same.

I also recommend taking the time to learn more about your own level of emotional intelligence, or EQ. In a nutshell, EQ is how you manage yourself and your relationships with those around you, but it can affect more than you might think. This area is critical when it comes to conversations about diversity and inclusion. Look inside to find ways to better lead with humility, and genuinely and actively listen to others.

**2 | Diversity is Imperative to Innovation.**

The military is a melting pot for people of all walks of life, backgrounds, interests, and values. You don’t choose your coworkers; military orders dictate your position and assignment at each duty station. From day one, you are learning how to work on a team of people who do not think the same way you do.

In the private sector, however, surrounding yourself with people different than you is more of an intentional process. To build a team that innovates and helps your company grow, you need individuals with different experiences, talents, and outlooks – and you need to listen to them.

Ray Dalio discusses the idea of meritocracy or “may the best idea win” in his book, Principles. The core of this belief is that, in order to allow for healthy conflict and to get to the best solution, it’s important to hear the opinions of others.

As a leader, it is your job to weigh the differing opinions and make a decision based on the information available. It is not your job to be the smartest person in the room. There is a famous quote that says, “If you are the smartest person in the room, there is no reason for you to be in that room.” Lean on your team and their varying experience and expertise.

When building your teams, look for the three C’s: Character, Culture, and Competence. Ask yourself: “Do they have the right character for our organization? Can they improve our culture? And do they have the competence?” Those are the areas that truly matter.

**3 | The Employee/Employer Relationship is a Partnership.**

In the military, roles and limits of authority are clearly defined. There are important reasons for this, of course, mostly to do with safety and protocol. However, that rigidity is not conducive to the corporate environment.

Instead, employer/employee relationships should be about how each party can help the other succeed. From the start, your employees should know what is expected of them. Equally important: You, as the employer, should make it your goal to support their professional aspirations.

Invest in your employees’ cross-skilling, training, and other opportunities, whenever possible. The key is that if this individual has improved your organization in some way, the company gets a return on investment.

Train yourself and your leadership team to be open-minded to the fact that someone’s career trajectory may eventually take them out of your ecosystem. That doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve any less support.

Remember, most of the time employees don’t quit because of their job, they quit a job because of their boss. Create an environment of mutual appreciation and support from the top down, and you will see loyalty and morale grow within the ranks.

Learning each of these lessons has required a level of humility and a desire to disrupt the status quo. Leadership is not just a skill, it’s a practice. Like everything else, it is something that you must continue to hone to bring out the best.

*Tim Best is CEO of RecruitMilitary and a former U.S. Army Special Forces aviation pilot.*

Note: Want to know what's on Tim Best's reading list? [We've compiled it here](