Military Leaders can Make Great Managers
3 min read

Military Leaders can Make Great Managers

Most veterans have probably been asked a version of this question,  “What does your military service have to do with leading a team in tech?”

The first few times I heard this question I was blindsided. Defenses went up and my quick response was to elaborately describe the complexities of leading groups within a military organization. The goal was to tell the questioner the numerous points of intersection between the roles.

This approach led to absolute failure for me to reach my goal of becoming an engineering manager. The questioner would eventually stare back at me with a blank expression, confused by my military leadership jargon and completely missing the elaborate bridge I had built between military and civilian leadership.

How could they not see it? It was so obvious! Why could they not understand that I had numerous years of leadership experience and so much to offer them?

What were they not understanding?

I took some time to reflect on the frustration of this situation and came to the following conclusion, leadership is leadership, but military leadership viewed from the outside looks much different than reality. What I learned in the military absolutely applied, but I had to also consider what the perception of leaders in the US military is to those who have not served. Hollywood regularly uses the trope of military leaders that walk into a room, give an order, and people jump to action, no questions. Some show the folly of the Lieutenant or the ignorance of leaders that fail to heed the warnings of those around them, but I believe they fail to truly humanize the military leaders on a regular basis. There are exceptions of course.

A high-functioning military unit consists of talented individuals. Those individuals are trained to follow orders, but the best of them will ask questions and attempt to understand the why and how of every plan. The best military leaders will seek the questions and feedback because they realize that they have a wealth of experience and knowledge in those they lead. It is a lot easier to lead others that believe in the mission and understand your plans and objectives. You can only forcefully order people to do things for so long before they fight back in their own way. Leaders empower others to action rather than order them to get results.

As a young, prior-enlisted, Lieutenant and eventually Company Commander in the US Army National Guard I had a healthy respect for the senior enlisted I worked with. They were a guiding light for me in many situations. I was charged with leading, but leading did not mean commanding and ordering. It meant solving complex problems with intelligent solutions by working with the talented individuals assigned to me. It meant processing all of the inputs and coming to a decision with a reasonably strong foundation. I believe many of the skills required to be a successful military leader apply to technical leadership.

I had to show, not tell

After reflection, I took a moment to think about what I could do. Continuing with the same approach was going to fail. I needed a new approach. I needed to lead from the front. I needed to find opportunities of any size to demonstrate that I could lead people and projects. I did this using the following approaches.

  • I talked with my manager and explained that I would like to grow as a leader and asked for projects or teams that I could lead. I started small but made sure to reflect after each opportunity.
  • I looked for tasks in my team that others were less interested in and took them on. For example, very few engineers like to lead the Agile Scrum process. Taking these tasks on for your manager and team will provide you an opportunity to grow and others an opportunity to see you lead.
  • I looked for tasks that my manager was doing that I might be able to pick up and asked them if I could help. Many managers are overloaded and they might not have thought to delegate something.

The important thing here is to always keep your eyes open for opportunities. If your current job is not willing to provide you with those opportunities then you might need to look elsewhere. Once you have an opportunity apply the skills you learned and then later reflect on how things went. Show them that you can be flexible, learn quickly, and drive to results.

I have found many of my strengths are rooted in my experiences within the US Army. It was the Army that taught me to drive to solutions. It was the Army that taught me how to truly lead people. Most importantly it was the Army that taught me that a leader is always learning and reflecting deeply on their successes and failures.

Now when I am asked the question “What does your military service have to do with leading a team in tech?” my answer is fairly straightforward. Leadership is leadership and the military gave me the foundation I need to build strong resilient teams that can deliver.