May is National Military Appreciation Month. When re-entering the civilian workforce, former military personnel bring with them many skills, among these is the ability to lead. Leader-member relationships can impact problem solving, motivation, and development in the workplace.
USASMA instructor Sergeant Major Larry Fegans, who is also a faculty member from Excelsior College’s School of Public Service, talks about leadership and explains how certain traits are needed to be a successful leader and manager.
Excelsior Life: If you had to choose a military leader from history and one from more contemporary times that you believe stand out, who would they be and why?
Fegans: While there have been many memorable military leaders throughout our nation’s history, certainly among the first is George Washington.
Although he became our first president, in my opinion his greatness in leadership was shown during the American Revolution. He was persistent and had the ability to inspire others by showing compassion for his soldiers while enforcing standards. Above all, he proved to be a great leader because of his ability to share his vision: a new and free nation.
I believe General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State, is a great example of leadership. Values he learned in his childhood that later resonated throughout his military and civilian careers made him a natural leader with an intuitive sense of strategy for advancement in war and politics. One of the greatest quotes which I remember from General Powell on leadership is “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”
Excelsior Life: What are some of the characteristics of a strong or weak leader?
Fegans: Strong leadership is fluid and capable of adapting to situations based on the needs at hand. Characteristics such as thoughtful decision making are imperative for leading. Also, the ability to fully comprehend situations from a big picture perspective is crucial.
Weak leaders can be categorized as those who only consider themselves and not those around him or her. Historically, these leaders have allowed their egos to drive their decision making. Even General MacArthur, while successful on the battlefield, later in his career was a victim of his self-centered style. “Toxic” leaders such as Hitler and Stalin were pure egoists. This is not to say that initially they didn’t have followers but, ultimately, their drive to achieve personal goals led to their downfall.
Excelsior Life: The military operates in a structured environment yet it is constantly faced with new challenges. How can someone’s military experience benefit the civilian workplace?
Fegans: Structure is critical in organizations that thrive on change. With structure you are able to test new theories and opportunities, and recover if they don’t happen to work out. Innovation without structure seldom leads to positive change. Given the static nature of many civilian workplaces, the ability to change, suggest change, and support change makes you a valuable asset in any organization.
Excelsior Life: What skill sets from the military are applicable to management functions and leadership positions?
Fegans: There are several skill sets that the military prepares you for with regard to leading and managing. Most importantly is the ability to recognize what style to employ given the situation. Additionally, skills such as strategic planning and project management play an integral role in any management situation.
Finally, an ability to rely on your subordinates to self-start, lead and complete tasks based on their training is crucial. It is reflective of the trust you have in both your training plan as well as your team.
Excelsior Life: There are different styles of leaders. Some are authoritarian, some democratic, and some are laissez-faire. Can you explain how they differ?
Fegans: Leadership styles differ in a few ways such as the approach to team members and to what extent leaders rely on others in the decision making process. Some leaders are also more involved in the day to day activities of an organization.
Authoritarian leading comes from a place of authority or title whereas laissez-faire is the laid-back opposite where team members have an autonomy to make decisions. In a democratic style, the leader may seek consensus rather than centralizing or decentralizing decision making. One is not better than the other, but it is important to note that each has its place in leading.
Excelsior Life: What styles of leadership motivate employees the best and why?
Fegans: Democratic and laissez-faire styles tend to allow for more participation within teams. I would argue that servant leadership is one of the more respected styles because the leader works side by side his/her team to accomplish a common goal. Ultimately, a style that combines many facets to address each team member’s best learning style is the most ideal. Ensuring that you are able to motivate your team in several different ways is key to successful leadership. These are fundamental traits that military experience provides.
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