The topic of leadership is front and center in most professional settings. Certainly the military and business worlds. Both have devoted themselves to the practice of leadership, contributing to the culture’s understanding of what it means to lead. However, in spite of agreement on this point, I am struck by the number of problems I see caused by assumptions about the meaning of the word leadership.
To put it simply, you as military leaders have a value in the civilian market based on your leadership experience; meanwhile the civilian world struggles to maintain a pipeline of strong leaders – in other words, they need what you have to offer. Here’s the rub: when you find each other, much of the opportunity is lost in translation.
Officers tell me that civilian organizations lack leadership. Further, organizations hire them for their military leadership experience but then won’t allow them to lead. Understandable complaint.
Organizations, on the other hand, tell me that they invest a lot of money in retired officers and receive slow return on that investment because their style of leadership doesn’t work in a civilian setting. So all kinds of bridges are burned, and opportunities lost as the former officer assimilates into the civilian workplace. Also an understandable complaint.
Aligning the expectations of these two stakeholder groups must begin at the most basic level imaginable: the word itself. Leadership. We all know the word but are we using the same definition? No. It means completely different things in military and civilian worlds.
Military leadership is trained and expected from day one. It has specific boundaries and activities associated with it, a clear protocol for accomplishing a clear mission, and a heavy strategic component. The organization is designed to build leaders. In contrast, civilian leaders may or may not be trained… leadership roles are often earned on the basis of good performance over time, subject matter expertise or technical prowess. The lack of standardized training, philosophy and role definition in civilian environments means leadership can look a hundred different ways, most of which are not recognizable as leadership to former military folks.
Understanding this basic reality is essential to calibrating expectations on both sides. Retiring military are best served by refraining from standing in judgment of what they see in the civilian world…in other words, rather than observing how ineffective things are, observe how interesting things are with the curiosity of an ethnographer. When you see something that makes no sense, rather than thinking (or saying), “that’s crazy – they don’t know what they’re doing,” try thinking (or saying), “hmm, this is something I obviously don’t know about…after all, these aren’t stupid people running the show.” By looking at civilian operations in context of civilian goals and norms rather than in military context, you will reduce your exasperation factor several-fold.
Likewise hiring organizations – including government entities – would be best served by looking underneath the label of “leader” to see what it actually means in terms of span of control, decision rights, capacity to influence people and events, etc. Understanding what a retired military officer is bringing to the table in tangible terms is key to fully leveraging him or her and accelerating return on the hiring investment.
Because leadership can be an amorphous concept in the civilian world – not lacking, necessarily, just loosely defined – organizations that hire military officers need to add a layer of rigor to their self-understanding. They must reflect on what leadership means and requires in their particular business model and culture. This last point applies to all civilian organizations, really, not just those that hire retired officers. “You get what you measure,” as they say, and you can’t measure something until you know how to recognize it.
Because of the leadership culture inherent to the military, it can come as quite a shock to retired officers when they discover that civilian organizations don’t have this squared away. To the contrary, some organizations revisit the subject on a regular basis. Organization consultants such as myself keep quite busy shaping leadership strategies for corporate clients.
For the sake of your own sanity and job satisfaction it is important to recognize this as not necessarily wrong or bad. Civilian organizations exist in a completely different realm from the military based on having to stay competitive/profitable in a constantly changing marketplace. This fact alone creates an imperative for flexible, “agile,” structures and methods that can anticipate the subtlest of shifts. Watch the financial segment of any news show and you’ll see reports of shares going up and down by the minute. These fluctuations are very real to business leaders.
Bottom line: in my experience, military officers are most successful when they can assess civilian operations and leadership in their proper context, which is not a military context. Civilian organizations, on the other hand, are most successful when they can: 1) articulate and support standards of leadership and 2) translate them for incoming military hires.