All Articles Leadership Management 5 reasons the military is the best training for entrepreneurs

5 reasons the military is the best training for entrepreneurs

5 min read


Dave Gowel, recognized as a “LinkedIn Jedi” by and The Boston Globe, is CEO of RockTech and author of “The Power in a Link: Open Doors, Close Deals and Change the Way You Do Business Using LinkedIn.” Gowel is a West Point graduate, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and as an assistant professor of military leadership at MIT. He’s spoken at various venues, including Harvard Business School, MIT, Babson College’s Graduate School of Business, Boston University, KPMG, the National Venture Capital Association and Private Equity International conferences. Gowel co-founded RockTech with Mark Rockefeller to build software tools that help corporations increase productivity through quicker adoption of underutilized technologies. He was recently a guest at The Presidential Town Hall on the Jobs Bill.

My career has maneuvered along what some say is an unusual path. I transitioned from Army Ranger to assistant professor at MIT to published author to tech entrepreneur. Somewhere along that path, I also earned the title of “LinkedIn Jedi.”

On that road, my military service taught me lessons as a leader and follower that I now find critical to entrepreneurial success. Military leaders acquire certain skills that may not be absorbed as quickly by civilians within the same time period because of the life-and-death nature of combat operations.

Some of the attributes I’ve seen in military leaders that are beneficial and contagious in an entrepreneurial environment include:

  • Emotional control in stressful situations. Overreacting to a bad situation can keep you from making good decisions during that critical time. On the other hand, emotions can provide motivation and adrenaline to keep you or your team willing and eager to work when times are tough due to stress from lack of sleep, limited funding, client issues, etc.
  • A focus on the team, not on your own rank. The General Officers I’d still follow into battle today are those who used their rank to support their troops; not the other way around. Some entrepreneurs think that because something is their idea, the resultant success from executing on that idea is credit waiting for them to claim. If success is attributable to that leader, it is most often because of their ability to build and support a successful team.
  • Knowing your limits and pushing them, but not going too far. Entrepreneurial egos often include the desire to be a hero. Despite the “G.I. Joe” stigma for the military, ironically, we’re often told “Don’t be a hero,” cautioning that we not bite off more than we can chew. When dealing with combat situations or even with combat equipment during training, lack of self-awareness for capabilities can lead to injury or worse. In a startup, this mentality can result in a blown deal, bad product release or a weak pitch to investors.
  • No fear of failure. In the military, certainty about anything is a rare luxury in battlefield decisions. Of course, the same applies to making significant decisions as entrepreneurs. It’s critically important to be able to rapidly plan, execute, delegate, supervise and review the outcome of an operation or initiative, and not get bogged down in the pursuit of perfection before you take your first step.
  • Strong ethical convictions. A moral compass is essential when you have absolute authority in a situation that could have life-or-death outcomes. As challenges, technical issues or other stresses creep into reality, some leaders can choose an unethical “easy wrong” over the “hard right,” rationalizing that it’s just a white lie or that it doesn’t hurt anybody. These decisions erode the fabric of integrity (both actual and perceived) and can destroy morale, if not an entire organization.

So, I have two suggestions for entrepreneurs who don’t have military experience.

First, evaluate yourself against these attributes to see if you have them. If not, you don’t need to don a uniform to gain them. Add the relevant ones to your personal goals and do what entrepreneurs do: Make it happen.

Second, hire (or make the recommendation to your HR leader to hire) military veterans who demonstrate these strengths. It’s your duty to make the effort in searching and recognizing the indicators of these strengths in military prospects. After all, they were likely in harm’s way defending your freedoms while you were writing or executing your business plan. However, you should ultimately hire a veteran only if they are a good fit, and if they are not a fit, your constructive feedback can help them realize where they might be.

Thanks to folks like Bill Aulet of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, who recognize the potential that lies in a military background to entrepreneurs, many people are looking to help returning service members find jobs where they can be successful. You should too.

For veterans seeking jobs, I have another suggestion. Having walked in your boots, but now reflecting on those challenges while leading a tech startup, I’ve seen firsthand the power that lies in having a strong network (this was the basis for my book, “The Power in a Link”). You can find a civilian job (or perhaps create your own) by using the relationships you’ve already made. Take advantage of LinkedIn’s free offer and our own, and stimulate warm introductions or gather intel from your network to help achieve your mission.