six leadership lessons from six years in the navy

In an alternative life, this week would have been my ten-year anniversary in the Royal Australian Navy. I served six years to the day before leaving to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams, including a deployment to the Middle East. Over those six years, I learned many of the principles I use to this day.

Serving in the Navy wasn’t exactly what I expected. There are many different types of people who are attracted to this line of work. The majority of people are selfless and honourable, but not all have pure intentions. It is therefore a fantastic way to observe very diverse people in very diverse circumstances, bringing out the best and worst in each other.

Essentially, military service is just a very extreme version of what happens in everyday life. People are pushed to their limits physically, emotionally and mentally by each other and by the circumstances of the job.

You could say I wasn't a textbook fit for service as an enlisted man, mainly because of my persistent will to argue a point until I fully understood it. My father actually laughed at me when I told him I was enlisting, and a number of superiors I had over the years really disliked the curious edge of my personality that came across as argumentative. 

Experiencing a variety of leaders both great and not-so-great over my six years, as well as holding junior leadership positions myself as a Leading Seaman (equivalent to Army Corporal), taught me six principal lessons about leadership and dealing with other people:

Give and you shall receive

For it is in giving that we receive
- Francis of Assisi

I have noticed there are two kinds of people in this world, and the military is no different.

Firstly, there are those who are willing to go above and beyond, then reap the rewards their good will and perseverance inevitably brings. Secondly, there are those who expect to see reward before making greater contributions to their team or community.

I was fascinated by the latter. The arguments are usually either ‘the work is above my pay grade’ or ‘what have they ever done for me’. Of course, the people who succeeded in the military and later in their civilian careers were the ones that first went above and beyond before expecting anything in return.

Inspiration trumps dictation

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
- Antoine De Saint

There is little perceived need to inspire troops when you can just as easily order them to do your bidding with the threat of being charged for disobeying a lawful order. This is vital in the military because important decisions need to be responded to with immediacy and in dire times, these orders can be quite unpopular.

I found that leaders who were able to inspire their troops were able to deliver unpopular orders in a much more effective way than those who would resort to barking orders for any little thing ‘because I said so’. By no surprise, those who saw themselves as micro-dictators were usually also less competent in their role which had a compounding effect on how they were perceived by their troops.

Lead by example

A leader leads by example, not by force.
- Sun Tzu

It must be difficult to market yourself as a nutritionist or personal trainer when you have issues managing your weight. It must also be difficult to market yourself as a business coach when you have a scattering of failed businesses in your wake.

The most effective leaders I came across in the Navy embodied the values they espoused and had lived the experiences their troops were living. They did not give orders to clean the toilets while they watched television, they did not give orders to change oils while they had their second serving of dessert.

They were there with their troops, grinding through grit with them, showing them how to get it done, doing it faster and relaxing together afterward. Orders are much easier to take when the person giving them is leading the way, rather than sitting behind a desk.

Treat others with respect

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Similar to the concept of leading by example, there is little incentive to be a good bloke if you have a rank that excuses disrespectful behaviour. It was fascinating to see the differences in the content and delivery of conversation by someone talking to a superior, as opposed to a subordinate rank.

Of course, there is an essential military element to this. But rather than an exercise in discipline, I regularly saw this as a massaging of one’s ego. As a result, I did my best to address superior and subordinate ranks authentically, but this did not always work in my favour.

In the civilian environment, however, we find a similar phenomenon. Is the way you speak to clients and suppliers different? How do you speak to waiters, bar staff and supermarket checkout people? Is it in a consistent manner with how you would to somebody who stands to deliver you great benefit?

Don’t be a saviour

People don’t need to be saved or rescued. People need knowledge of their own power and how to access it.
- Tammy Plunkett

The saviour leader solves all the problems of their followers. They clothe them, they feed them, they sign them up for courses and write their CVs, they validate their insecurities and assure them their problems are everybody else’s fault. At face value, they seem like exceptional members of society but in truth, they are robbing people of the initiative to solve their own problems.

You can lead a horse to water, but you shouldn’t dunk its face in it.

A saviour leader is unconsciously insistent on solving other people’s problems because it gives them validity and after long enough, causes others to become dependent on them like an infant child. I made this mistake many times, some of the mistakes were in the military environment and others were in my personal life.

In the end, you can’t continue saving people but since both of you have formed a habit of it, the fall out is extremely painful. Hurtful accusations are thrown around and both parties likely feel they would have been better off without the whole experience.

For some, it is easier to lead when there is an enemy to fight

If there is not the war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get a great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.
- Theodore Roosevelt

There is much that has been said about militaries in relative peacetime. In times of war, the enemy is clearly defined. The ship over the horizon you’re tracking, or the pirates you’re intercepting (yes, there are still pirates). It’s why you’re there. Fighting is quite straightforward in that way; all the bullshit is cast aside, and the team focuses on the common goal of surviving and dealing with the enemy.

In peace, there are still enemies, but they tend to be internal.

If you are a wartime leader (like the founder of a floundering start up), chances are you’ll face challenges when you gain competitive advantage and find yourself in times of peace. A similar phenomenon occurred with Sir Winston Churchill after World War Two, as well as many higher-ranked veterans.

Starting a business or enduring a change program involves a whole lot of fighting and inspiration, akin to a nonviolent battle. When the business becomes well established, the fight isn’t as real and the troops start to seek stimulation in other ways. Infighting, rumours, unproductive work… this is the job of a peacetime leader who can play the political game and keep the business on top.

As for the wartime leader, they’ll have to adapt or perish.

Luke 🤓✌️