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What I learned from the U.S. Army about Leadership!

Posted by Dr. Kathy Laster on 09/27/2016
This year, I'm very fortunate to have been selected to participate in an experience called Leadership Oklahoma (LOK). Leadership Oklahoma’s mission is “To create, inspire and support a dynamic network of leaders whose increased awareness and commitment to service will energize Oklahomans to shape Oklahoma’s future.” As LOK begins its 30th year, I am offered the unique opportunity over the next 10 months to take a deeper dive into learning about our state and the problems it faces along-side 47 classmates who are amazing leaders. The idea of LOK was born out of a strong desire on the part of six forward-thinking business leaders to align the efforts of OKC, Tulsa, and other cities across Oklahoma to help solve the State’s economic crisis in the 80’s. LOK has remained true to its mission since that time, graduating over a thousand leaders from its informative, experiential program! Some of you who read our blog have benefitted firsthand from being a part of LOK and I'm sure will relate to everything I'm about to say.  
As a part of the LOK experience, I had a highly impactful experience this past week of being immersed in the army culture at Ft. Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma.  Ft. Still has a long and rich history and one that all Oklahomans and Americans should take pride in.  During our short stint at Ft. Sill, we were exposed to the life cycle of our army soldiers in warp speed over a day and a half, starting with the day they arrive and enter basic training. I didn’t have the privilege of serving in our military.  But, after my recent experience, I wondered if I had missed the boat to not sign up for the military back in my day. By not doing so, I missed this opportunity to develop myself in an extraordinary way. I have a newfound awareness and extra appreciation for the men and women who serve our country through the military!
If you're in the camp of thinking that our youth have gone down the tubes, think again. What I heard in the attitudes and outlooks of these young people was truly inspiring. For example, one young female soldier said, “I joined the Army to feel pride in wearing the uniform and to become a part of something greater than myself.”  Immediately, I felt chill bumps upon hearing the words of this 18-year-old and noticing the attitude and character she already possesses. When I asked two other soldiers, one male and one female, how they felt about being deployed to combat areas, they both said without hesitation and with absolute sincerity that they  hoped to be deployed to a combat area. They made clear they want to do their part to serve their country and that no one in the army is “entitled” to not serve in this way. Their words literally brought me to tears. How fortunate we are in America to have young men and women who are so eager to potentially sacrifice their lives to protect our freedom!  I felt humbled. A young man, who was the high school classmate of my daughter, recently visited my husband and I after being discharged from active duty in the army. We were amazed by the self-confidence he had gained in just three short years, as well as the mature attitude he now possesses, and the proactive plans he has for getting his college education. I am in awe of these young men and women!
During our short day and a half in the Army, we were treated like newly arrived enlistees, complete with intense drill sergeants in our face.  We stayed in bunk quarters and were made to get ready in 20 minutes flat, showering included, with limited facilities.  We participated in marching, physical training, target practice, live fire, and were shown highly sophisticated missile defense systems.  We learned about how the high suicidal rates have driven innovative transition programs for our veterans. We learned about the key role our military plays in our nation and in Oklahoma’s economy. We left feeling more motivated to support our troops and help fight to resolve military issues. And, we left feeling extremely grateful to the U.S. Army for the gift of this impactful experience!
As I reflected on our time at Ft. Sill, I realized there are many leadership lessons the U.S. Army teaches us:
A Servant’s Heart We hear and read often about the effectiveness of a Servant Leader. We need not look any further than a U.S. Army soldier to find the finest example of servant leadership. Talk a few minutes with one and you will feel inspired to serve. How can we, as leaders, behave more like a soldier? How humbled are we to see true servant leadership in action?

Alignment to a Worthy Mission –If every employee in every organization could name and fully embrace its mission and know the role they play in achieving its mission, imagine how engaged they would be and the successful outcomes they would collectively achieve. Every soldier knows the mission of the U.S. Army.  Every soldier knows the important role they play.  Every soldier can name the Warriors Ethos and the U.S. Army Values. Every soldier lives its mission and values each and every day.  There is no confusion, only clarity. When we have a higher cause worthy of our commitment and are clear in our roles, we find we can rise to any challenge.

Fitness –To be their best selves, soldiers must be physically and mentally fit!  They take care of their bodies through exercise, strength building, and eating nutritiously.  Obesity is non-existent.  They maintain good attitudes.  How much better of a leader would you be if you truly made self-care a top priority? Soldiers know fitness is first and foremost. 

Self-Discipline –Everything a soldier does involves self-discipline.  They master this early and well.  If not, they are swiftly taught consequences.  What if we mastered self-discipline to this degree?  How much more productive would we be?  How much better would we be at self-management?  The military sets an excellent example of holding itself and its troops accountable. Do we create a culture of accountability this well?  How much is wasted through allowing normalized deviance?

No One's “Entitled” –Wow! To hear a young person say this debunks the often-heard view of millennials.  Unfortunately, too many people, including leaders of all ages, express attitudes of “entitlement.”  In the U.S. Army, everything is earned.  In my opinion, nothing can derail individual or collective success more than the behavior that comes from an entitlement attitude.  The military grows you up quickly and the enlisted learn that their stripes must be earned.

Having a Plan –Each soldier we spoke to knew their next step.  They each would leave basic training and go to advance individual training (AIT).  Their strengths, interests, and aptitudes were assessed, and they each proudly shared their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty).  One young soldier from California relayed that he would be going into Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Defense. Impressive, to say the least!  As leaders, do we invest in our employees this way? Do we effectively implement Individual Development Plans?  Do we identify career paths and provide mentoring programs? Do we “grow” our people?

Onboarding – We can also learn much about how to effectively onboard new employees, gain their loyalty, inspire their engagement, and contribute to their growth. From the moment the enlistee is recruited to the minute they step off the bus at Ft. Sill's basic training, there is a well-defined, tested program to quickly acclimate them to the U.S. Army culture.  Over the first 12 weeks and throughout the transition of these new soldiers to advanced training, every detail is attended to and each soldier is carefully invested in and treated as the valuable resource they are.  How could we improve our onboarding programs to achieve the same success as the US Army?  Do we make this the priority it needs to be?

Strategic Planning & Adaptability – Everything the Army officials told us they were doing fit into a well-clarified and communicated strategy. They develop plans and then they develop contingency plans. Leaders are taught to quickly adapt as situations arise.  Can we say the same in our organizations?  Do we continuously develop robust, strategic plans that are known and carried out through all levels?  Do we engage in "adaptive" leadership strategies, cultivating good critical thinking skills in our leaders as they define and solve problems?

It’s hard to imagine how anything will top this Leadership Oklahoma outing.  If the purpose of this experience was to motivate us to be better leaders, this close and upfront view of the U.S. Army hit the bull’s eye of the target. There is much to be learned from the U.S. Army when it comes to leadership. And it is certainly inspiring to see these 17 to 24-year-olds who have enlisted in the army and have begun a journey to build character, honor, and answer our nation’s most critical mission, that of maintaining our freedom. They are self-disciplined, they are fit, and they truly have a servant heart and commitment to their mission. As leaders, we can learn from the Army’s example, and work to achieve the same level of loyalty and engagement in the organizations we lead. And we can gratefully acknowledge and honor the dedication, commitment, loyalty, selflessness, and personal courage demonstrated by the men and women who serve in our military forces.

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