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What a tour in Iraq taught me about running a business

4 min read

Small Business

Spending time as a commissioned officer in Iraq gave me an unparalleled view of effective leadership. Not surprisingly, when failure is not an option, you tend to succeed more, and the leadership methods I learned and observed in combat made it possible for me to succeed in business, as well. I returned home with the courage to quit my job, start my own company, and lead my team to success.

These lessons are significant for any leader, even if your uniform looks a bit different.

1. The power of resilience

The military can be intense because there are literally lives on the line. This intensity turns teams into well-oiled machines and builds a tremendous amount of resilience in leaders. You take on an adapt-and-overcome mentality that helps you approach obstacles with determination instead of resignation. You also see problems with more perspective, understanding what qualify as truly immediate issues. This resilience allows leaders to remain calm and collected in stressful situations.

2. The importance of taking care of your team

In the armed forces, there is a deep understanding that all you do is in service of others. We fight so our citizens can live with freedom and dignity, and we serve the unit and the people next to us in the foxhole. This humility in leadership translates well to leading in business.

A leader is not a leader without followers, so don’t undervalue your team. At gothamCulture, we’ve created a culture where trust is at the core of all we do. My employees trust me, and I trust them; every new employee comes into an environment where he is valued and trusted from day one. If you selfishly use your team to accomplish your own goals, you won’t last long as a leader.

3. The value of rigorous talent management

In the military, you have to count on people to perform in their various roles and responsibilities for the group to be effective. In the civilian world, many people would rather be liked than respected, but this is no way to lead. People need leaders who can be decisive and build effective teams.

It’s your job to identify underperformers, work with them to improve their performance, and have the courage to remove them from the team if they are unwilling or unable to deliver. Many leaders take too long to make these critical decisions, leading to declined engagement and increased resentment among high performers.

4. The necessity of a maniacal pursuit of excellence

The military sets explicit, nonnegotiable standards. In the extreme, the expectation is that you accomplish your mission, no matter what. There is no “almost.” You commit to your goals and have to be a perfectionist in your execution.

This maniacal pursuit of excellence is one of the core values at our company, and it has made us highly effective and competitive. Any moment we don’t uphold our standards is an opportunity for competitors to get a step closer. Everyone in the company knows this and plays their part.

Above all, I learned that leaders who are able to provide a singular focus on the mission, who inspire others to get the job done, and who support the needs of individual team members consistently outperform leaders who can’t. The military may not be for everyone, but these lessons can make your team more effective — no matter what your mission is.

Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D, is managing partner and founder at gothamCulture. The team at gothamCulture focuses on identifying the underlying causes of organizational obstacles and assisting leaders in developing and executing breakthrough strategies to elevate performance.