Great Business Lessons From 8 Military Leaders

The very first business book I ever read wasn’t written by Dale Carnegie or Donald Trump. It was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Odd choice? Not really, if you think about it. In fact, the very biggest businesses operate much like the military does, so it’s no secret that the greatest military leaders have insight that can help us in our quest to be great business leaders. Let these lessons guide you and shape the way you think about leading your troops.

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.” Sun Tzu. The lesson here is that the company’s interest – rather than ego – guides the behavior of great business leaders. Forging ahead when it benefits the company and acknowledging and reacting to failure are essential skills. There’s no shame in admitting the failure of an attempt, as long as you’re willing to make decisions with the health of your company in mind. Leaders who refuse to admit defeat until they’ve squandered all their resources are poor leaders indeed.

“No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair.” George S. Patton, Jr. You must get your hands dirty. The very best business decisions are made by leaders who understand how the work in the company gets done – at every level. If you know the challenges faced by your warehouse, or your customer service reps, or your salespeople, you’re better equipped to make decisions that are not only logical, but also realistic. When your troops know that you can – and will – fight in the trenches with them, they will trust you to act in their best interest.

“My observation is that whenever one person is found adequate to the discharge of a duty… it is worse executed by two persons, and scarcely done at all if three or more are employed therein. “ George Washington. Much of what we do requires collaboration, but it’s important for teams to have a head – the single person on whose shoulders the responsibility rests. No finger pointing or blame – simple accountability. Simplify your office by designating a single person responsible for ensuring that a task is completed properly.

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. Trust your perceptions, your values, and your instincts over outside influences. Be true to yourself, and remember…if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

“Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” Winston Churchill. While raw energy and effort may be required to start a successful business, that energy is exhaustible. As a business grows, more of the work needs to be strategic – using less energy and more leverage. Planning and tactical decisions must replace sheer effort.

“I am concerned for the security of our great Nation; not so much because of any threat from without, but because of the insidious forces working from within.” Douglas MacArthur. The greatest threat a company faces may not even be from competition, but rather from a shift in the morale and health within the company. Cultivating positive energy and ensuring that your staff is focused and productive is fundamental to your success.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths.” Julius Caesar (via William Shakespeare.) Leaders must make the hard decisions. You’re responsible, not only for deciding your company’s direction, but also for getting your whole team moving toward the same goal. You must strategize, plan, and then commit. Wishy-washy won’t cut it.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.” Geronimo. This is perhaps the most profound insight of all. Our business and capabilities are limitless, but we often define our expectations based on industry norms, which inevitably limit our scope. We need to look for the open spaces – look for what people aren’t doing. If we set our sights on where the growth potential is, then we put ourselves and our companies in the unique position of creating new norms. Looking for what’s not being done frees you to work in ways no one has yet explored.

Applying the lessons of military leaders isn’t about crushing the competitor, rather it’s about leadership that’s based on integrity, strategy, and confidence in your vision, which puts you in a superior position to your competitor, every time.


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