15 Army Leaders Share 11 Leadership Lessons


How today’s Soldiers approach team building and mission success through leadership.

It was 7pm, the room was well lit and the soldiers looked at me with little emotion. If the room had been dimly lit and smoke filled it would have been more dramatic. I could see that it was late and they probably had things they would rather be doing. I ignored this and continued on with our discussion of leadership.

There were 15 Army Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) in the room. We assembled to talk about leadership and I wanted to know what they had learned over their years of experience—where leadership can be life or death.

It was a little intimidating since I knew their combined knowledge of leadership was far superior to my own but it was about the dialogue and not about me preaching some one liners or anecdotal stories. Here are the lessons I shared and some that developed through our discussion.

11 Lessons Learned

1.Lead Yourself First.

You can’t possibly expect to lead others if you can’t lead yourself. So what does that mean? If you can’t set and achieve goals, be on time, do what you say, act with integrity, and be the standard bearer then you can’t expect others to do the same. A leader must show that the things they expect of others is also an integral part of the leader’s character – not just a slogan.

2. Be the Example.

In the Army, they have a motto: “Be, Know, Do.” This means be the example, know what to do, and do what is expected (and much more). Knowing what to do and telling others what the standards are is much easier than being the standard. Inspiring others through your own action and motivating by being everything you want your leaders to be speaks much more loudly than words.

“We do not attract what we want, but what we are.” – James Allen


3. Do as I do, not as I say.

The team you lead doesn’t do what you say. They do what you do. Sure, they may do what you say for a short period or while you’re around, but that’s not team success. Teams take on the character, biases, moods and frustrations of their leader. If you’re not happy with your team, start by looking in the mirror and asking, “Am I the leader I want?”

4. You complain, they complain.

When and what you complain about is when and what they will complain about. Perpetuating negative thoughts such as the common cliche, “it’s always been like that” will kill your team’s creativity and innovation. As the leader of a team, you must see the future brighter than anyone else and then communicate that future in a way that motivates them to help create it.

5. Build up, not tear down.

Creating rituals and practices in your own daily routine to build yourself up, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually is key to building up your team. If you come in everyday on fire because you have taken the time to see the day and priorities clearly, then you are in a place to build people up, even in the face of error. Your mind is focused on the end results. Build yourself up and it will be much easier to build your team up. It’s not about ego and it’s not about you. Admit your errors openly and learn from them.

6. Listen – not waiting to speak.

I’ve struggled with this. You are listening to others but also formulating your response or anticipating their points. It’s a terrible way to actually hear and understand what others are saying. Listen with curiosity and fight the urge to begin crafting your reply. You will gain so much more insight and the respect of those who are speaking.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama XIV

7. Ask and you shall receive.

Ask questions and be curious about your people. It’s amazing the conversations and the things you can learn by simpling asking sincere questions and listening to what people have to say. You may learn what motivates them, what’s bothering them, their family situation, their career goals, and they may even give you some insight on how the team is functioning. People love to talk about themselves and leaders should love hearing about their team.

8. Conflict avoidance leads to confusion and frustration.

When leaders fail to have the tough conversations with team members it can often lead to confusion and frustration. It’s the team leader’s job to address inappropriate behavior – whatever it might be – and if it’s not done then other team members either silently protest or try to address it themselves. This is bad all around. Tact is required but having those uncomfortable discussions is mandatory for a healthy team.

9. Set expectations and communicate performance.

Often times leaders fail to set the exact expectations they want from their team. It’s easy to blame others but a leader must ensure they have communicated the expectations and then follow-up to let the team members know if they are meeting or exceeding expectations. The purpose is to develop leaders who can act independently. It’s good to think about this as if you were training your replacement. A team of leaders who know how to follow is far superior to a team of followers.

10. Spoken and written words have power.

Writing and speaking has tremendous power so use them well. When you speak or write poorly it not only detracts from what you are trying to convey but it also reflects poorly on you as a leader and role model. Take the extra time to consider your words or reread that email. It must be clear, concise, and carry the message you intend to communicate. Develop a habit of carefully choosing your words and over time your communication will become more efficient and effective.

11. Own the bad stuff; give credit away for the good stuff.

I so often seen leaders blame their team for something that went wrong as if the leader isn’t responsible. No matter the mistake, the leader is overall responsible for the team’s performance. It’s good practice to accept ownership of the failures even it wasn’t directly your fault and give credit to the team for the successes. The team will fight harder for you if they know you will carry the weight of all their mistakes. They will also appreciate the accolades when they succeed. In their heart of hearts, they know what’s your fault and what isn’t. Taking the blame and giving the credit will strengthen their loyalty to you and each other.

Ends Results

It was a great discussion and this post doesn’t capture the whole experience. The insights they had gained through leading soldiers also helped them lead in all areas of their lives to include their families – and not in bad ways.

The new leaders of the Army are not like the caricatures we read in comic strips or see in some bad movies. The leaders really understand their teams and showed great insight. They know when to use different tools to create team success. Not once did I hear anyone talk about degrading or hazing anyone. They were focused on the end result of mission success and growing new leaders.