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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

10 military leadership traits much needed in the business world

When I look back at my previous career in the military, I realize how much time I have dedicated to nurturing my leadership style. I had grown as a leader since my first year in the Naval Academy when we were all assigned as platoon leaders weekly.


Since that moment, my leadership experience has grown – from that small initial group of peers to ships.


This post is not to brag about my experience. The goal is to highlight the qualities of military leadership that are much needed even in the business world.


The necessary disclaimer is that you don’t need to have been in the military to be a good leader. However, some traits are inherently nurtured in a military context and, therefore, could be qualified as a common characteristic among uniformed personnel – with all the due exceptions, of course.



an image representing the transition from the military to the business world. The image is an headshot of a black woman whose left part is in combat uniform and the right part is in business attire. The person is smiling.
There are qualities of military leadership that are much needed even in the business world.

A fertile ground for leadership

So, what makes the military environment favorable to solid leadership?


Life in the military presents unique perspectives and experiences that can indeed contribute to developing skills and qualities that are significant in any context, not only the military one.


To start, military organizations are structured on a set of strong values: loyalty, obedience, duty, service, sacrifice, and more. Those values are ingrained in the military culture and enforced throughout our entire career and are the fundamental cornerstone everywhere. This is an aspect that is shared worldwide. It doesn’t matter if you are in Italy, the United States, China, South Africa, or Iran. We take an oath to commit to these values. We learn to keep these values in high regard at any moment: it’s our permanent navigation system, and as such, it leaves a profound mark on our souls.


Having these values in mind, we learn to be leaders from day one. As I described in the introduction to this article, military personnel have been used to taking charge almost since they put the uniform on for the first time. From that moment, we continuously keep our leadership “hot,” meaning we progressively occupy many responsibility positions, learning how to be leaders before learning how to be managers. In many countries, military organizations also offer leadership development training and education, allowing personnel to improve and build new essential skills.


The continuous training and experiences as leaders can escalate very fast. As Simon Sinek pointed out in his book “Leaders Eat Last,” we are given significant responsibilities even at the early stages of our careers. I commanded an 80-strong ship when I was 30 years old. The obligations were not only for the personnel or the monetary value of the ship and the whole equipment onboard but also for the potential repercussions of my decisions at a national level.


Furthermore, the proving ground changes quite often since we are used to operating in very diverse environments. In this case, I give a double meaning to the sentence “diverse environments.” On the one hand, it means that we change roles quite often. On average, I have changed jobs every two years, switching from one ship to another to an office. On the other hand, even in the same role, we can find ourselves in very different scenarios: we can deploy in war or crisis areas or spend some time in a less demanding situation.


The military leadership traits that are needed in the business world

How does all of that add up?


There are many research studies on what a military person can bring into the business world beyond technical or professional knowledge.


A friend and former colleague, Christian Mari, Ph.D., interviewed several retired military personnel who successfully transitioned into the civilian world. In his essay "Effectiveness of Former Militaries As Business Leaders" (available to download here), he has pointed out ten main characteristics that are learned during a career in uniform and that are very much appreciated also in the business world:

  • Working in a Team: Military service hones the ability to work collaboratively in diverse groups, emphasizing collective success over individual achievements.

  • Mental Openness and Adaptability: Exposure to varied cultures and situations in the military fosters an open-minded approach crucial for innovative business thinking.

  • Integrity: The military instills a solid moral compass and adherence to ethical principles, foundational for trustworthy leadership in any sector.

  • Courage: Beyond physical bravery, military experience teaches moral courage, including the willingness to take risks and make difficult decisions.

  • Decision-Making Ability: Fast-paced, high-stakes environments cultivate the skill of making quick, effective decisions, which is a valuable asset in business leadership.

  • Effective Communication: Clear, concise communication is essential in the military and translates to effective team management and stakeholder engagement in business.

  • Honesty: A commitment to truthfulness and transparency in the military builds a leadership style based on honesty in business.

  • Resilience: Dealing with challenging and often changing environments, military experience develops a strong ability to bounce back from setbacks.

  • Vision: Military leaders are adept at setting clear goals and a strategic vision, which are crucial for guiding a business to success.

  • Energy: The demanding nature of military life cultivates a high level of physical and mental energy, which translates into dynamic and proactive business leadership.


Of course, not all that shines is gold. Some aspects of military life make it harder for uniformed personnel to adapt to the business world. But this is a subject for another article.


image of a man giving a presentation in a professional setting. He is wearing a business suit. Part of the left side of the suit jacket has a camouflage military pattern, suggesting a merger of the military and corporate worlds. The man stands confidently with his left hand raised slightly as if emphasizing a point. In the background, a large screen displays a bar chart, indicating that the setting is likely a business or educational environment. The audience, seen from the back, comprises individuals with diverse hair colors, suggesting a group of mixed ethnicities, all attentively facing the speaker. The room's modern interior has a wooden panel wall and ambient lighting that casts a soft glow on the scene.
Many leadership traits learned during a career in uniform are also appreciated in the business world.

Case studies of career change

There are several great examples of a successful businessman with a military background.

In my podcast, I have interviewed some of them, like Jean-Pierre Mustier, a former French Army officer and CEO of important European banking institutions. During our conversation, he pointed out how he learned the importance of leading by example and having strong values as a reference system while serving his country in uniform.


Another guest in the podcast is Bill Toti, a former US Navy submariner who wrote a book called "From CO to CEO: A Practical Guide for Transitioning from Military to Industry Leadership." Among many other things, in the podcast episode, Bill highlighted the importance of having a vision and sharing it with the team.


Umberto Rossi, currently SVP in Leonardo and former Italian Air Force pilot, brought to the podcast audience his perspective on the importance of the team, drawing several lessons from his incredible military past.


Conclusion

As we've explored, while transitioning from military to civilian, we can bring a robust heritage from our life in uniform, opening up several new opportunities.


The journey of a military leader into the business world is a testament to the versatility and depth of leadership skills developed in the armed forces.


If this transformation and growth journey inspires you or you want to enhance your leadership skills, let's connect and explore how these principles can elevate your leadership journey.


Join the conversation and share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.



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