Leadership Principles Learned in Military: Communicating ‘Why’ is Key

Today’s guest post is by our talented colleague and friend Joe Sanchez. Joe is passionate about making a difference in government, business, and communities. He is focused on strategy, communications, marketing, performance management, and information technology. He loves cycling (I know this as we swap bike stories) and is a sports enthusiast. Joe’s special interests include public education, Special Olympics, and Veterans. You can follow him on Twitter @sanchezjb for more valuable insights.

I consider myself honored to have served with our nation’s finest young men and women in our Armed Forces.  It was an absolutely fantastic learning experience from many perspectives, the most important one being from a leadership perspective.

One of my early lessons was that while there are a number of foundational aspects of leadership often referred to as leadership principles, how these principles are applied and made “real” can and should vary based on environmental and situational factors.

In recognition of this Veteran’s Day, I focused on four leadership principles (among many) that I learned in the military and have tailored and applied in the private sector.  Their application is not limited to commercial enterprises; they are equally applicable to government, non-profits, and other NGOs.

These principles are focused on the relationships between leaders and the people that they are responsible for.  Effectively applied, they can help leaders establish a culture that values communications, leader and talent development, learning, and recognition.  Such a culture in turn should serve as a springboard for achieving organizational goals.

Emphasize the Importance of Communication

Encourage, and perhaps most importantly, respect and acknowledge the value of candid communication within your organization; this is a risk mitigator and an innovation multiplier.

Communicating the “Why” is just as important, if not more so, than the “How.”

When your people are challenged with decision/action points for which there was/is no specific guidance, understanding the “Why” can enable them to take the right action.

Communication is the foundation of innovation – and just about everything else the organization does, therefore, communicate early and often.


Do not underestimate the value of “breaking bread” with people in your organization; find opportunities to do this with people at all levels in the organization.

Above all, communicate confidence in your organization, enthusiasm about what your organization has achieved and is focused on achieving, and a passion for your role, to your employees, customers, and stakeholders. To paraphrase, General Colin Powell, these are force multipliers for success.

Develop Talent and Grow Leaders

Surround yourself with people smarter than you and leverage their experience and knowledge to the nth degree possible.

Challenge up and coming leaders with positions of increased scope and responsibility (“stretch” them as well;” this is another form of recognition) but make sure they have a mentor to assist them.

Advancing and promoting people within your organization should not be based on their past performance but on their demonstrated potential for positions of increased scope and responsibility.

Developing future leaders is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities.

Value Learning

Be a continuous learner and emphasize the importance of this in word and deed to your organization so that it values continuous learning.

Provide opportunities for cross-training your people in functional disciplines within your organization; besides contributing to their professional development, this will enable them to see the bigger picture and understand the “Why.”

Emphasize the importance of collaboration but make sure that people understand “Why” collaboration is important by linking that collaboration to specific goals or outcomes.

Seek diversity, not sameness, in collaboration.

Establish a systemic means of capturing and evaluating insights from your people on the front lines that interact with customers and stakeholders on a daily basis; these insights may present new opportunities and may impact your strategy and goals.

Reinforce success; get your people and teams to discuss and learn “Why” goals were achieved and what can be done to expand on that success.

Likewise, use failure as a learning opportunity.

Recognition Begins with Accountability

Leverage collaborative decision-making but at the end of the day, recognize that you, as the leader, are and will be held accountable for what’s accomplished and/or not accomplished.

Credit your people publicly and privately when goals and objectives are achieved and acknowledge responsibility if they are not.

Authority can be delegated but not responsibility.

Find ways to meaningfully recognize people in front of their peers when they excel.

Don’t just recognize individuals; find ways to recognize teams and organizations as well.

People want to believe and feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves – that they are making a difference; look at how everything you do as a leader will address and support this need.

Challenge your organization with “stretch goals” and most importantly, prepare and enable them to achieve those goals.

Set aside a designated time each month to brief new personnel on where your/their organization has been, where it’s going, and the values that are going to enable it to get there.

Use organizational get-togethers to introduce new personnel to the larger organization.

Use storytelling to recognize people’s accomplishments and reinforce the organizational culture that you, as a leader, want.

If you’re interested in reading more about “Leadership Lessons from the Military,” that happens to be the title for the current issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Lastly and most importantly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in October 2010, the unemployment rate for Veterans was 10.2% vs. the national unemployment rate of 9.6%.   I have again been fortunate to have worked with a good number of Veterans since leaving the military.  I have seen these Veterans successfully apply these leadership principles (and others) to foster organizational success.  Consider hiring a Veteran, they have alot to offer your organization and are driven, as they were in the service of our country, to make a difference.