For any transitioning veteran, this is a phrase you have more than likely heard in your new civilian role. There are times when a ‘military-style’ approach is not called for, though it may be ingrained in your leadership style. By ‘military-style,’ I mean a command and control-centric, authoritarian style of leadership that requires compliance and swift action that is directed, rather than arrived at through consensus.
I’m not a military apologist; far from it. I have studied leadership for the last 14 years and found that there are times and places for the leadership styles most commonly taught and exercised in the military (or the perceptions that people may have of military leadership and decision making styles)…
“Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way” – Patton
In the corporate environment, those opportunities are few and far between. That being said, there is a reason that many officers and enlisted soldiers, sailors, and airmen leave the service and take jobs in the corporate world. Chances are, they have prepared, done the research, studied and graduated with degrees in appropriate fields, and are the first to adopt the company’s modus operandi when it comes to corporate culture.
A colleague recently related a scenario that happened in his workplace that involved an ongoing change initiative they had been spearheading. The executive leadership had critiqued his performance in a perfunctory fashion by admonishing him that, “you aren’t in the military anymore, you can’t just tell people what to do.” Naturally, he was hurt. This individual is a high-performer. He’d chosen to separate from the service voluntarily to pursue a civilian career and had embraced the differences in the cultures willingly. After speaking to him to get a better sense of the situation, I had to agree that the criticism was unwarranted; my friend had followed the process outlined by the company for the change effort, held the appropriate meetings, and not made any decisions without molding consensus (please understand that this is not always the case; stereotypes do exist for a reason).
That single off-the-cuff remark is a disheartening and demoralizing judgment call on the part of a person we (separated/transitioning veterans) should be able to look up to for advice and leadership.
Many times, those quick words are a simple reaction; one that the leader does not realize will have a tangible negative effect on the veteran. That executive leader has many concerns; this one project is not on the top of her priority list, so she renders a snap judgment (never a good idea) and harms the veteran’s self-efficacy beliefs in the process.
Advice for the transitioning military or veteran already in the corporate world: don’t immediately fight the stereotype. Allowing yourself to react puts you on the defensive and that is never a good place to attack from. Take the time to understand the perception of your executive leader. What did s/he mean by the statement? What feedback had reached her/him that could have colored her/his perception of your leadership style? Have you been communicating appropriately (managing up)?
By working calmly and intentionally to change the perception of former military, you are helping yourself and the rest of your veteran brothers and sisters by easing an outdated stereotype.