6 Eye-Opening Business Leadership Lessons from the Military

6 Eye-Opening Business Leadership Lessons from the Military

Today’s business leaders can look to a wide variety of places for inspiration on how to become better leaders, from major sports figures to classic films. One of the most fruitful targets for learning about leadership remains the military, including everything from the Navy SEALs to Army operations in the Middle East.

Just as members of the military are placed in strange and unfamiliar situations with little time to get their bearings, great leaders may face unknown circumstances on a regular basis. Below are some important leadership lessons that can be learned from the military and a look at how these principles can be applied in the business world.

  1. Focus on “better” rather than “best.”

When business leaders try to be the best, they can quickly feel overwhelmed and become scattered in efforts to improve. In the military, the point is not to be the best, but simply to be better than the current opponent. In the business world, leaders need to closely track their competitors, just as military leaders receive constant intel on the capabilities and advances of their enemies.

Understanding where the enemy stands creates a benchmark and the goal is to move past that line. By focusing on always being better in a given situation, leaders eventually improve their performance.


  1. Fit is more important than competence.

In the military, individuals need more than just great skills to secure a position. While skills are important, individuals also need to be trustworthy and dependable. Leaders can teach skills, but they have much more difficulty when they try to build character. For that reason, military leaders tend to place individuals according to their characters and train for competence later.

Coaching can help anyone who is dedicated improve their performance, but people who are undependable jeopardize a business’ chances of success no matter how skilled they are. Business leaders should take the same approach to hiring. Character comes first and training comes later.

  1. Time away is as important as time served.

No one can work all the time. Eventually, performance becomes sloppy and mistakes are made. Because these mistakes can cost lives in the military, many individuals, even high-ranking generals, are forced to take leave. This policy is even enforced in the middle of a war. One of the ideas behind forced leave is to encourage subordinates to take vacations, too.

When employees see their leaders on leave, they know that it is acceptable for them to do the same. Everyone returns refreshed and recommitted to the mission. Similarly, business leaders need to take time off and encourage their employees to do the same. When leaders put emphasis on their mental and emotional health, they help everyone develop a better work-life balance.

military uniform

  1. Belief in the cause is fundamental.

When soldiers return home from war, they may be contending with physical, emotional, and mental challenges. While some individuals may earn a medal for their bravery, this recognition of their sacrifice is not enough, nor is it what ultimately drives them while on the battlefield. Instead, they are motivated by a belief in freedom and by the understanding that what they are doing really matters and will make a tangible difference in the lives of those they serve.

In a similar way, monetary rewards for a job well done only go so far in the business world. What motivates people even more is the understanding that their work really matters. Business leaders need to connect the work of their employees to the mission of the company and make them feel less like cogs in the machine and more like warriors for a cause.

  1. The work starts after the order is given.

From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like most military leaders sit back once they give an order, but in truth the opposite is true. After the order, military leaders have a responsibility to monitor progress and change the order if necessary as the situation changes. Business leaders need to do the same thing once they delegate a task.

While micromanaging should be avoided, checking up on progress and ensuring that the work being done is contributing to the goal at hand is essential to good leadership. Leaders who take this approach are never surprised when things do not turn out as expected because they take control of the situation and redirect toward the goal when necessary.


  1. The past can never be changed.

One of the mottos used during a certain military training says, “The only easy day was yesterday.” Yesterday is only easy because it is over. This motto is meant to keep people focused on the present moment and how their work will bring them closer to the next goal. Business leaders need to take a similar approach to their own work.

Some businesses enter new fiscal quarters on a high and others on a low. In either situation, dwelling on the past is a waste of time and energy, and individuals need to look instead to the future. Learning from what has happened is important, but dwelling is not. Business leaders who get stuck trying to change the past waste all the energy they should be putting into the future.