4 Ways to Build Military Precision Into Civilian Leadership

There are parallels to leading on the battlefield and in civilian life.

Stefano Trojani | World Economic Forum

I remember the words of the commanding officer of a French Foreign Legion regiment saying that leading human beings was a love story, a very tough one, since it was about sending the very same loved ones to war, and possibly to death.

This was a dilemma I was presented with in April 2007, at the end of my Afghanistan deployment, when a suicide bomber struck close by. Ten policemen lost their lives, and another 25 were wounded. Our commanding officer ordered our military field hospital workers to help – many of whom were leaving the safety of the hospital for the first time.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that their fear of the unknown was a major concern. As part of a small unit very familiar with threats in the area, we were best placed to change that state of mind.

We had to build their trust in our expertise, and we had to give them trust in their capabilities. Put simply, we had to take the lead – and do it fast.

Source: Comparing Leadership Challenges white paper. Click to download report.

We addressed the response element, explaining the situation, emphasizing our knowledge about the area. Speaking calmly and clearly, choosing simple words and concepts. We made sure everybody knew each other’s skills and training, so as to know who to go in case of need.

We briefed everybody on how we should react in case of hostile contact and how to reduce the risk in case of another suicide attack.

Finally, we drove our vehicle ahead of the convoy because leading by example is better than a thousand words. This simple approach completely transformed the state of mind of the response unit into a can-do attitude. The action ended well, and some lives were saved.

Military life is characterized by strong bonds built in adversity, in danger, in shared emotional stress, but also in common success and achievements often considered impossible at the outset.

After spending more than 25 years as a career officer and participating in operations in Georgia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I wondered how leadership skills developed in such extreme circumstances also applied in civilian careers.

Research shows there are indeed major similarities in challenges for leaders in civilian and military careers. This 2016 study showed that military and civil service leaders agreed the top three challenges they faced were organizational efficiency, motivating subordinates and personal leadership.

After more than two years in the role of head of security affairs at the World Economic Forum, I find the two worlds have much more in common than people might imagine.

It’s still about identifying common goals and developing individuals to their highest capacity – optimally integrating all those personal strengths and weaknesses into the architecture of a team. It’s also about convincing, motivating and orchestrating an indomitable will to always go a little further, without going too fast … or too slow.

Here are the four methods I use to achieve such a mindset:

Establishing trust

Nature shows how leaders are chosen. There is a clear process in the animal world where the strongest and toughest of the group is accepted as leader after demonstrating the ability to outweigh the predecessor. The unique principle we can see at work in nature’s leadership process is trust. Any group of animals needs to trust the leader – who must protect and lead them through the seasons and through adversity.

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The first step as a leader should be to build trust in one’s own abilities, capacities and competencies.

In our world, things happens differently, and leaders are rarely chosen by the team they are supposed to lead. But a good way to start in a new leadership position is to restore the natural process of things and focus at first on demonstrating the ability to assume the role.

There are many ways of doing it, but the simplest, and eventually the most challenging, is leading by example and from the front – assuming responsibility and being accountable for the teamwork while taking time to help the team succeed.

Placed in charge, the first step as a leader should be to build trust in one’s own abilities, capacities and competencies in human interaction as well as in operational content. By doing so, natural selection will take hold, and the instinctive mistrust of an unknown leader will be contained.

Assessing individuals

To build a winning team, it’s essential to really know and understand each team member. It can be done by observing the way they structure and organize their work, by the clarity in their way of explaining and convincing, by their readiness to stand up for their ideas, by the way they interact within the team and by their ability to provide answers instead of asking questions.

Let the people work with only minimal guidance, so their potential will show. Simultaneously, as a leader, it is important to keep an eye on the big picture and recognize when more precise guidance is needed.

Let the team make mistakes, as long as they aren’t repeated and don’t affect operational expectations. In that case, a direct lead for the specific issue is needed.

Second, the team has to be put together according to each member’s expertise and potential. To have a successful team, every individual must first be put in a position in which they can succeed.

This is about never giving up on your team members, which will develop a can-do attitude, improve self-confidence and finally, increase trust in the leadership.

Finally, a team is led by common goals and motivated by common achievements. The leader’s core task is to steer, motivate, trust and let the team work.

He or she must find the right questions to ask and give advice, guidance or correction. Every team member must feel supported by the others, so an effective leader will always enhance discussion, encourage constructive criticism and let the team members help each other.

Building a team is about stimulating and helping the group see and understand the way ahead by themselves.

Fostering interaction

Like in any sports team or military platoon, all team members have to know exactly how to interact to achieve common goals – but they also need to have each other’s back.

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Like in any military platoon, all team members have to know exactly how to interact to achieve common goals.

Some call it standard operating procedure (SOP), others call it processes or guidelines. In the end, it’s all the same thing: While every team member is responsible for his or her part of the task, the leader is responsible for making the collective play in harmony like a symphony orchestra.

The interaction should be simple, standardized and clearly executed by the team. The role of a leader is to implement what those in the military call the battle wheel and what those in civil life could call a team-standard meeting rhythm.

Having implemented such a rhythm, the leader’s role is to lead through anticipation, enhancing activity and encouraging the team to bring their issues to meetings in a standardized way.

By doing so, every team member will be accountable to the rest of the team – probably the most effective motivation ever.

Coaching and training

There is no better way than coaching and training to build a team, demonstrate leadership and develop commitment to the overall tasks.

As discussed before, being a leader means taking responsibility and being accountable. Neither can be achieved without your direct commitment and involvement.

Individual and team training by the leader are essential to group success. Coaching and training by the team leader are the ultimate force multiplier and should not be outsourced.

Finally, there is perhaps no better definition of leadership than the one offered by the French writer and combat pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work. But rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

This article first appeared on World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.

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Stefano Trojani is the head of Security Affairs for the World Economic Forum.

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