"One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change. Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment." – Robert E. Quinn
I’m writing this article many years after my first shot at being in an upper management position, over a group of civilians. This position was offered to me after being in the military, where I was trained how to “manage troops”. First of all, if you’re a veteran, thank you for your service. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I’m the daughter of a twenty year military veteran and my grandfather is a twenty year military veteran as well. I have several other family members who served honorably and I could list other family members who are presently serving in the military. I have a lot of respect for those who choose to serve our country.
I served in the Air Force as a reservist for ten years, working in the medical and flight medical service. I was honorably discharged as a Technical Sergeant (E-6). While being in the reserves, I also worked full time in civilian emergency medical services (EMS) as a Nationally Registered Paramedic, and I was often promoted to leadership positions at my civilian jobs because of my military training. I’ve learned a few important differences between these two leadership settings, and I wish to pass this along to other military veterans who may be placed in a position to lead civilian employees.
Due to our most recent military involvement around the world, there are a high number of veterans entering the civilian workforce who have extensive military leadership skills and experiences. Corporations and small businesses know this, and many are promoting the hiring of veterans. As a veteran, employers know most of us have qualities such as leadership, planning, structure, process improvement, and much more that will greatly benefit any organization.
I was fortunate that my civilian employers were great at seeing the benefit in my “military” way of thinking. The employees, on the other hand, had a different perspective on my military leadership skills. This is why I would like to pass my experience along to you. Most of the veterans reading this probably have far more military leadership experience than I have had, and I do not pretend to have done anything I haven’t. Rather, I see that even with my small scale military leadership experience, it greatly impacted how I thought I was supposed to lead civilian “troops”. Boy, was I wrong. This is a simple breakdown of three points you may not have thought about:
In the military you are typically leading people that have the same mission as you. You have all been through some “basic training.” By design, this has put you in a mindset in which you know the order of importance for certain things. The military teaches that God, country, military, and unit are the order of importance when it comes to making decisions and getting a job done. If you are told to do something, no matter how ridiculous it seems, you believe there is a justifiable cause somewhere up the line and you just do it for the greater good of nation, military and unit. There is not a lot of questioning that is done when you tell troops to get something done, they just do it. Most civilian employees do not typically have this mindset. Even in EMS, where they consider themselves as being “military-like,” it just doesn’t work this way most of the time. The typical civilian employee’s pattern of thinking is not necessarily unified, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing, but how do you adjust to this new way of leading?
Your military leadership experience is not wasted. On the contrary, it is very valuable because you will need it in your civilian job, but start now by making some adjustments and thinking of people as individuals instead of units of troops ready to get the job done. As a leader in the military you do have to care about people, so this is a quality you have, it just wasn’t a priority to individually lead like it will be now. This is not to say you will not be in charge of teams or groups of people, but even with that it will be different. I suggest finding out what the employee’s individual “basic training” is and what motivates each one of them.
You know what the *f#%! I’m talking about here. I’m a fairly quiet female. Not a timid or shy one, but quiet. I didn’t come from a home full of cursing or yelling and it just isn’t my way. But let me tell you this, the military changed that for me. Sure, it was ultimately my choice, but I did feel like I had to do it just to be respected or listened to at times. I joined the culture of cussing that the military is known for. We’ve all heard the saying “curses like a Sailor”, that saying works across the board for Soldier, Airmen and Marine. Here is what I’m telling you about your civilian job - stop cussing! You can be authoritative and respected, and you will be, when you talk to others without using such harsh language towards them. There will be times when you will be angry, and you will feel the urge to cuss to get a point across, but I urge you to work hard on this and clean up your potty mouth now. You will go farther in life. Even if you’re a man in a “manly business”, it will set you apart if you respect yourself and others by learning to use other colorful adjectives to describe things or to get a point across. Good luck with this one. This will probably help in your home life too. We have become a generation that swears too much so let us be the leaders in this way of honorable speaking.
In the military, chain of command brings an automatic form of respect. Naturally, we don’t always know the person wearing the uniform, but we tend to respect that uniform. That doesn’t guarantee everyone likes you, but as a veteran you know the feeling you have when you see a General walk into a room? It’s respect. You may not know the General or know what Command they are over, but you still have some form of respect for them. If a General walks into the room, you are willing to treat them with proper and even formal etiquette. In the civilian setting, you are really going to have to prove yourself to others to get this kind of respect.
Furthermore, just because you have a title, or are placed over a group of individuals, does not mean those employees will automatically respect you. This could be very hard if you know what you’ve done in the military is something these people could never imagine. I can’t imagine how difficult this could be for a veteran who has sacrificed a limb or been injured while serving, then has to deal with leading employees who may be very disrespectful to them. Respect cannot be demanded or forced; you will need to earn it from your employees, no matter how respectable you know you are. Many civilians will never fully understand what being a military veteran means and this will need to be something you come to terms with. I’m not suggesting you allow employees to walk all over you. You will still be a leader with all the responsibilities that comes with it. I’m hoping this insight allows you a chance to prepare for the differences you may experience. Bryant H. McGill is quoted as saying, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” So by respecting others, you should gain respect from them.
Basic training, cussing, and respect are the three points I have for you. Of course, there are a myriad of other points I could come up with, but for me, these are the three points I always think about when I recall a number of things that went wrong for me between employees and myself. Sometimes it was just a little misunderstanding, sometimes it was a huge mishap. I’m not too proud to say that I blame myself for many of those mishaps because I was the one in a leadership position. If I had only been cognizant of these three points I think I would have handled many situations differently. I know I’m a good leader, and I’m not afraid to lead others. I’m happy that I have taken a look at these differences in the military and civilian life and used them to help me now.
You’re a civilian now and you should be excited about your transition to the civilian sector. When you are given an opportunity to use the leadership skills you gained in the military, I hope you think of these three points and adjust your way of thinking about who you are leading now and what kind of leader they need. You have what you need to be successful. I believe the military can give you the greatest form of experience to learn about yourself and humanity. You’ve probably had experiences in difficult settings, and you proved you are capable of anything. You also proved you care about those you lead, but sometimes new settings require new ways of thinking, and it may only take a little shift in the way you’re used to doing things. So remember that everyone won’t have the same basic training as you, they may not be used to hearing a sailor talk, and they won’t interpret “chain of command” quite like you do. Keeping these things in mind could make the difference in the tone you set when you are in your new position for the first time. I wish you the best in all you do, and I welcome the value you bring to the civilian workforce!