5 Things the Military Taught me About Leadership in Schools

A much younger (and thiner) me on basic officer training

A much younger (and thiner) me on basic officer training

Recently I’ve been reflecting on Simon Sinek’s book “Leaders Eat Last” and the leadership lessons that it reminded me of. Sinek’s title is based on his observation of military leaders and the idea that when the troops get in line to eat, the leader of a unit lets everyone else go first and then joins the line at the end.

Many moons ago, I was a young officer cadet on basic officer training in the military, and this idea of the platoon leader going to the end of the line was indeed something that we were taught and practiced as future leaders. The idea is twofold though, and while Sinek is right that you want to make sure that your followers are well-fed and looked after, he misses the other reason that this is practiced in a military culture where time is critical. By eating last, your followers also know that if their leader is done the task already (i.e., they’ve cleaned their plate), you have no excuse to not also be done yourself; this also serves as an accountability check.

Leadership in a military setting is obviously a bit different from other environments that I’ve found myself in since (particularly schools), but there are many take-aways that do certainly apply, and I’m confident that my leadership experience in the military has helped to guide the way I look at the world. So I thought it only appropriate to share a few of the other leadership strategies that the military aims to instil its leaders.

Under Promise, Over Deliver

On basic officer training, everyone in the platoon rotates through being in charge on a regular basis. I can remember being the platoon commander and being briefed on the expectations for the next day. As part of our daily schedule, our regular barrack inspection would occur at 5:30am. So I returned from my briefing and informed the platoon that we’d have our inspection the next day at 5:15am. When 5:15 rolled around the next morning (we had already been up and out for a run and breakfast beforehand – you don’t get much sleep on basic training) and I announced to the platoon that they had 15 more minutes to continue getting their bunks ready for inspection the initial howls of anger over being told the wrong time were later replaced with appreciation for additional time to complete the task. This is certainly not a tactic that you could employ all the time without degrading your credibility, but I do remember doing very well on our barrack inspection that particular morning.

Own the Decision

Bad decisions, for whatever reason, happen all the time in any environment. As a leader though, you need to own the decisions, even if you are not always the one making them. Passing the blame and critiquing those above you may win you friends in the short term, but over the long run your lack of integrity will mean that others don’t feel that they can trust you. Of course, bad decisions need to be addressed, corrected, and mitigated as much as possible, and you need to be willing to eat humble pie and reverse course if what you thought was a good decision later turns out to be the wrong choice. But first you need to own the decision if you expect others to follow and believe in what it is that you’re hoping to achieve.

In a previous school I can remember being pretty unhappy with some of the decisions that a leader above me was making. I didn’t understand why they were doing what they were doing, and blamed their bad choices on a host of factors. It was only months later that I learned that they were essentially the messenger, and in the background had been working hard to address what they knew were bad choices by the person above them, but had been owning the message in the meantime. My respect for this person and the integrity they showed grew enormously. Conversely, I’m sure you can imagine what happened to my opinion of the person above him making these poor decisions and then dumping it on someone else to sell them.

You are Not an Expert

Okay, maybe you are. But you’re not the only one, and you definitely don’t know everything.

Often in the military we’d be given a complex task to achieve in a set amount of time. Part of the methodical planning process to accomplish this (officers spend a lot of time writing) was to identify subject-matter experts in the group that could help. Admitting that there are gaps in your knowledge-base allows followers to see that not only do you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, but also that you know that the team’s success is more important than your own ego.

Everyone Has to Succeed

There was a guy in my platoon on basic training that was some sort of robotic machine. For nine weeks, I don’t think he slept, and always was first to finish whatever task we were given. When it came time to have our daily barracks inspection though, he would regularly fail or get ‘written up’. The reason? His bunk area was far cleaner than everyone else’s, immaculately so. Our leaders took one look at his bunk and immediately knew that he had worked so hard on it that there was no way that he had helped anyone else with theirs. So they would make up a reason to fail him (he got docked for having a dent in his flooring and for having dirt on the outside of our tenth floor windows that didn’t open) because his bunk area was not at the same standard as the rest of the platoon. He quickly learned that making sure that everyone else around him was successful was just as important as his own achievements; the definition of teamwork.

Do you have a superstar teacher in your school? Fantastic. Do they share and help coach other teachers to become successful with them? If they don’t, how will that really help your school to grow and get better, especially when they choose to move on to somewhere else? As a leader, you need to make opportunities for this kind of sharing and growth to happen.

Management by Walking Around

A former military colleague and friend of mine loves this term. He often finds that he has been sitting at his desk too long (remember, officers have to write a lot), and so makes a conscious effort to regularly get up and walk around to ‘check on the troops’. It is amazing how much leaders can accomplish by simply making themselves present. I’ve read of a high school principal that even goes so far as to move his desk into the hallway on a regular basis. Leadership by sending all staff emails is simply not as effective.

Pay Attention to the Details, but not Too Much

This post actually includes six things, not five.

Many of the tasks that we were given on basic officer training included a great deal of physical effort (sandbags don’t fill themselves). So it would be tempting as the officer in charge to want to lend a hand by getting dirty along with everyone else. Unfortunately though, leaders who too often (in this case literally) have their heads in the sand focusing on minor details can miss out on the larger picture and what the rest of the organization is up to. Our trainers would teach us this lesson by ‘kidnapping’ members of our platoon while we weren’t watching. Some leaders lost 90% of their people because they had their heads down too much, which made the next task (those sandbags don’t empty themselves either) even harder.

While you do need to still make sure that the details are correct, you also need to trust that you have given people the information and tools to do their job correctly, and that they will come to you for clarification and help if they need it. If you want followers to trust you, you need to trust them too.

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