Why effective managers act like military leaders

Managers at any level of an organisation would be wise to take a page out of military officers’ books.

That doesn’t necessarily entail ordering your reports to drop and give you 20 every time they’re late. Instead, it means always putting your team’s interests above your own.

So says management theorist Simon Sinek, who appeared on the TED stage explaining how leaders can create a company culture of trust and cooperation.

Sinek mentions Captain William Swenson, who was awarded the congressional Medal of Honour in 2013. When his column came under ambush in Afghanistan, Swenson ran into live fire to rescue the wounded officers. Someone captured the entire experience on camera, including the moment when Swenson bent over to kiss a wounded soldier before putting him in a helicopter.

At first, Sinek thought altruistic people like Swenson were simply drawn to military service. Then he realised it works the other way around — the military environment can prompt anyone to act selflessly.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the current environment in most organisations.

“In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards,” he quips.

But moving ahead at the expense of others teaches your subordinates to do the same, to the detriment of the organisation as a whole. That’s because employees spend time competing with and fearing each other instead of joining forces and protecting the company from external threats.

A truly effective leader knows to put her employees’ well-being before her own, so that her employees ultimately do the same for her and for the organisation.

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organisation first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen,” Sinek says.

Sinek is hardly the first person to find universal management lessons in military leadership.

In 2009, Colonel Tom Kolditz, professor and head of the department of Behavioural Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told The Harvard Business Review that military leaders he interviewed had in common “a tendency to focus on their followers, and to put their own personal well-being and safety behind that of the people that they were leading. They lived common lifestyles with their followers, they shared risks with their followers, and in general, by doing that, they developed high levels of trust and loyalty from the people who they were with.”

Similarly, the late Colonel Eric Kail extolled the virtue of selflessness in a Washington Post column. He quoted one of his own leaders: “To lead is to serve; nothing more, nothing less.” Whenever you give an order to one of your subordinates, you should ask yourself whether it’s something you’d also be willing to do.

Sinek wraps up his talk by explaining that the very definition of leadership is being the first one to head into dangerous territory: “We call them leaders because they take the risk before anybody else does. We call them leaders because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain, and when we do, the natural response is that our people will sacrifice for us.”

Watch Sinek’s┬áTED Talk here:

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