From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: 6 Key Traits for Military and Business Leadership Success

I don’t think that anyone who has served this country in the military would argue that those experiences didn’t impact the rest of their lives in some shape or form, especially during war time where combat is involved.  I served five years as a United States Navy SEAL with combat deployments to Iraq and Northern Africa.  What I gained from that time of service set the tone for my life after the SEAL teams and provided me the tools for success in entrepreneurship and growing businesses.

A Crash Course in Combat Leadership

After graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1999 with a degree in finance I took a job as a financial analyst at a large commercial real estate company in Dallas, TX.  After a year, I decided to quit my job and serve my country with grand aspirations of becoming one of the most elite special operations warriors in the world.  I moved out to San Diego and joined BUD/s Class 235.  My first experience of loss in the military was when our class leader (highest ranking officer in the class) passed away during the notorious BUD/s Hell Week.  We were bluntly told to “get used to it” and that this was part of the sacrifice of being a soldier.  After graduating from BUD/s our class went on to advanced training (SQT – SEAL Qualification Training) for another five months.  Out of the two-hundred and fifty students who started in our class, twenty-three of us earned the coveted Navy SEAL Trident pin and then went to our assigned teams.

Delta Platoon – SEAL Team 5, Iraq 2003

I was assigned to SEAL Team 5 based in Coronado, CA.  We deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2003 as the first SEAL Task Unit in Baghdad running capture or kill missions in conjunction with the CIA and OGA.  During combat tours to Iraq and completing clandestine missions in Northern Africa I noticed 6 key traits that I feel are crucial for success in combat.  I later took these traits and applied them to entrepreneurship and business leadership.  Through many successes and failures in both the military and business, though there are many, I have found these six qualities to remain the critical foundational components of leadership.

The 6 Key Traits for Military and Business Leadership Success

  1.  Leading from the FrontThis one is obvious but I feel rarely followed.  It takes intense focus and consistency for a leader to do this all the time.  For a SEAL officer, it starts with simple things in training such as maintaining a head count for your boat crew amidst chaos and being in better physical condition that the enlisted guys.  In a growing company it is critical for the leaders to lead by example and be as consistent as humanly possible.  This means following the processes and procedures set by the company, not breaking promises, and not asking anything of anyone that you are not willing to do yourself.  In combat as in business, the best leaders lead from the front, get their hands dirty, and show their team that they are willing to do what it takes to accomplish the mission. 
  2. Respect the Chain of Command:  This part is crucial and is just as important from the top down as it is from the bottom up.  This also takes focus and consistency.  In the SEAL teams, each platoon of 15 SEALs has an Officer in Change (OIC), a Second Officer, and then senior enlisted leadership consisting of a Chief and a Leading Petty Officer (LPO).  In my opinion the SEAL teams equate more to an entrepreneurial environment whereas the traditional military is more like corporate America.  That said, even in a dynamic fast paced environment where the lines of hierarchy are sometimes blurred, chain of command is still very important.  The senior leadership in an organization must never undermine the authority of middle managers by going around them.  The result is a complete disintegration of structure and a very confused work force. 
  3. Ability to Take Calculated Risks:  Not surprisingly risk taking behavior is a common trait amongst the ranks of the special operations community.  Being a risk taker is one thing, but having the ability to make decisions on the fly with the available intelligence and take calculated risks is an entirely different skill.  Let’s face it, everything in combat is risky.  We gather as much intelligence as possible then have to develop and execute a plan based on what we have.  That is why strategic planning and contingency planning are imperative.  Running a business is the same way.  The leadership must make decisions based on available information and must take some risks in order to gain market share and grow competitively.
  4. Make a Decision:  The worst thing a leader can do in combat is NOT make a decision.  When bullets are flying and the team is awaiting orders critical to making a dynamic shift in a plan that has most likely gone to hell, a leader must react quickly and calmly under extreme pressure.  Sometimes in an after action review it may be determined that certain decisions were not the right ones, but that is why we have “lessons learned” and constantly evolving tactics.  As many of us know, running a start-up is very similar.  Things are happening, plans are changing, opportunities are arising that must be taken advantage of, etc.  The leaders must make decisions every day under pressure.  The best way to ensure sound decision making is to have a strategic plan with multiple contingency plans to support it.  Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance!  And keep in mind that making the decision not to make a decision on a certain issue at that time is still a decision!
  5. Empowerment and Delegation:  No good leader assumes they know everything and the best ones surround themselves with amazing talent.  The success of any sports team, military unit, or business doesn’t just come from great leadership and management; it comes from excellent team members and a collaborative environment.  I have been blessed with an amazing business partner and unbelievably talented team.  It is important to provide parameters and then allow the team to operate somewhat autonomously within those boundaries which fosters creativity, empowerment, and a sense of ownership when goals are accomplished.  And then of course, acknowledging team members for hard work is very important. 

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

-General Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the SEAL teams, blood, sweat, and tears is a part of the job and recognition for that is not usually given nor expected; but in the “real world” recognition is an important part of good leadership and keeping morale high.

  1. Compassion:  It may surprise some of you that compassion is an important quality for a solider to have.  We must have compassion for our teammates, for the innocent civilians overseas, and even for the enemy.  A good leader understands that compassion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success.  When running a business, the leadership team must be sensitive to the needs and desires of the team.  A happy team will be a hard-working and successful team.  Transparent feedback and 360 degree reviews should be a part of the normal communication flow up and down the chain of command.  When the team knows they have a voice and that management values their input, the bond of the group only grows stronger.

While these are only a few of the important traits for sound leadership in the military and in business, these 6 qualities are, in my opinion, amongst the most important.  My business partner and I have been blessed with the current success of our digital marketing agency.  We just landed at number 185 on the prestigious Inc. 500 list and that success is due to these six traits and our amazing team.  What other factors do you think are important in running a successful organization? 

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Brent Gleeson

Entrepreneur and US Navy SEAL Combat veteran, Brent Gleeson, is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Internet Marketing Inc. (IMI) based in San Diego, CA and one of …

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  1. paul biester

    August 29, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I really like these key points! They are succinct and true! !
    Thanks for them!!
    Thank you for your service to our republic!!

  2. Donna Schwartze

    August 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Love, Brent. Good stuff. #1 and #4. One of my favorite quotes is, “Well done is better than well said.” So many leaders get lost in big picture philosophizing and extreme delegation that they forget the best way to lead is by doing. Yes. Get your hands dirty. And, my favorite boss ever was my favorite because he made decisions in a split second, and he got it right most of the time. I would add that great leaders deflect credit and give it to those around them. d

  3. Kevin

    September 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    My experience as an officer in the merchant marines has taught me the same 6 lessons. Leading is not “pushing” others, it’s creating and imparting a vision to others in such a way that they not only follow, but support you by trying to get there ahead of you. The drunken sailor was asked why he was dragging a length of rope, to which he replied, “have you ever tried to push one of these?” The same applies to leadership, and not asking others to do something you would not do yourself also shows compassion (your #6) because it shows you actually care about their well-being.
    Chain of command is currently being threatened by the notion that an egalitarian organization is more efficient. I do not agree. The chain of command provides clear paths of accountability and responsibility.
    Perhaps one of the most relevant items you brought up is the notion of inherent risk. I have seen leaders and managers frozen by indecision resulting from a “no-risk” position. Better to make a decision knowing there is risk, than delay making a decision and missing an opportunity. The “no-risk” mentality often results from a “zero-defect” culture that punishes those who make mistakes…a culture that fails to realize that mistakes are learning points that prevent future errors and provide insights only obtained by trial and error, or trial and success.
    Reagan once said that a good manager surrounds themselves with talent. Putting together a talented team is only possible if the leader is not threatened by the talent of others. Delegation facilitates the development of leaders through the honing of leadership and management skills. Talent, properly applied, is a force multiplier; knowing your team has the capability to effectively lead without your direct intervention allows multiple, simultaneous projects.
    I could not agree more with your insightful analysis…well done.

  4. Adam

    July 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    As a leader for a large insurance company and veteran of the Marine Corps, I have been asked many times what drives me as a leader. This list sets the example of my daily mantra. Thank you for your service.

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