There are many subtle differences between leadership in the military and the corporate world.

After spending 28 years in the Australian Army and over six months in a corporate environment, I would like to offer some observations and advice to help you understand and improve leadership within your organisation.

Before diving in and exploring, I would like you to contemplate these questions:

  1. Has your organisation’s resignation rate increased?
  2. Have you noticed a lack of accountability from the people around you?
  3. Have you noticed an increased inability to make decisions?
  4. Is poor communication prevalent within your workplace?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you might have a leadership problem.

Intuitively, we know that competent leaders are good at influencing situations – simply by leading by example and using effective communication. So, how do leaders make the transition from good to great?

If great leaders influence and inspire change for the better – what helps them become a catalyst for change?

Below are what I consider to be the fundamental pillars of leadership.

1. Vulnerability

Up until a few years ago, I viewed vulnerability as a weakness. I mistakenly thought that declaring or admitting that ‘I do not know’ something would undermine my credibility and become an obstacle to others’ belief in me. I believed that acknowledging that I did not have all the answers would diminish my ability to be an effective, strong leader – you would have never in a million years have heard me say, ‘I don’t know’ or, ‘that’s my fault.’

If only I had known back then what I understand now: that embracing the power of vulnerability and being open, honest and authentic are fundamental leadership superpowers. These realisations, even at a later date, have been life-changing.

So, what does vulnerability look like, and what are the benefits of being vulnerable?

Firstly, workplace vulnerability doesn’t make you weak, nor does it make you a pushover: it certainly isn’t kryptonite to your credibility. Regarding leadership and management, vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. Being vulnerable shows your team that you are candid, empathetic, compassionate and authentic. A leader who displays vulnerability finds it easier to be relatable and connected, making any team they lead feel valued, respected and trusted.

Similarly, people feel more comfortable sharing honest insights about the business or workplace and contributing to innovative, creative and often invaluable ideas when they feel respected and valued.

2. Authenticity

Authentic leaders live by their beliefs. There is consistency between their values, ethics, reasoning and actions. They also consciously and actively develop positive traits such as confidence, optimism, hope and resilience, which help them assist others.

As a junior leader, I took up a position at Kapooka as a Recruit Instructor. Until that point, I had had some experience leading small teams; however, if I am truly honest, I was not ready for the leadership role or the responsibilities required to fill such a position.

I am also comfortable admitting that I had confused arrogance with confidence. This, I have realised, is a mistake that is commonly made.

I was, to some extent, attempting to emulate an instructor I had as a recruit; this is unsustainable and inauthentic, as we can never be or replicate someone else.

When new to leadership, it can be easy to fall into one of two categories; those that emulate a leader they know, or those who ‘Google’ what a leader is and forcibly strive to be authoritative, inspirational, confident, the centre of attention, controlling and bossy – all at the same time!

At the end of the day, just be ‘YOU’ – by all means, read books, read articles and upskill, but ALWAYS BE AUTHENTIC. If you are trying to be someone else, it will always come across as being insincere and inauthentic.

When ineffective leaders listen, they listen either to retort or to defend or to express their own opinions. Listening is a difficult skill to learn and master. However, when applied effectively, it can be an awe-inspiring tool for a leader! Listening to understand makes people feel valued and empowered to make a positive difference. Furthermore, listening without always planning how to respond allows you truly to absorb the meaning of the message that the person speaking is conveying.

To harness the combined intellectual knowledge of a group, you must be open-minded enough to want to hear what is being articulated, then zoom out and consider the bigger picture. Just because you are in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean that you will come up with all the best ideas!

Active listening takes practice and a conscious effort to develop. If active listening does not come naturally to you, then focus on your body language, being open-minded and engaged, and remind yourself to listen and listen with the intent to understand rather than to reply.

3. Communication

Communication can be considered from many different angles. How we communicate, sometimes up, down and even sideways, as well as both verbally and in writing, are all different skills.

Whichever way you slice it, it is essential to get it right.

Develop, foster and clearly understand your team and your organisation’s goals, and keep them informed of as many decisions as possible to ensure your positive intentions are well understood.

Leaders often use purposeful, strong vocabulary, which brings confidence to their message, shows the breadth of their subject knowledge, and reflects effective control of tact and tone directed towards influencing outcomes. All contemporary leaders need to demonstrate an ability to improve their communication skills, both written and oral, continuously.

Excellent leaders provide frank and fearless advice based on their experience and knowledge. They contribute to brilliant ideas and act as sounding boards; they are ideally persuasive and insightful.

Leaders do not need to learn how to waffle or write multi-syllabic words to impress people. However, they should learn how to write well to affect decisions positively. A clear, well-written argument that concisely meets its aim will resonate louder than some flowery concoction of words meant to bluff someone into thinking you know what you are talking about. Even if the thought of developing your communication skills may make you anxious and uncomfortable, I can assure you that it will make you a more effective leader. 

Understanding when to push a point is another critical skill for leaders to master. They must be able to approach disagreements and conflict with both consideration and an emotionless articulation of the facts. Even better, basing arguments constructively on experience, knowledge, and policy removes ambiguity and reinforces objectivity. It is essential and healthy for any organisation to have frank, robust, honest and open conversations about matters of importance. Incessantly opposing decisions, either verbally or in writing, ensures you will always only be viewed as unhelpful and as an obstructionist. Learning the right time to raise a topic of dispute will make you more successful at influencing thought and action positively more often!

4. Trust

Trust is fundamentally important to any social network, and you do not have to look much further than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for confirmation. A great leader builds trust by making people feel safe, accepted, valued, recognised, respected and invested in.

Building trust is critical for all high-functioning, high-performing teams. Teams are dependent on team members to complete projects and perform. So, communication is key: say what you mean and mean what you say. Embrace the power of vulnerability; you will discover that being open, honest and authentic is a fundamental leadership superpower!

Building a cohesive and enjoyable workspace requires team members to trust and respect each other. Understanding how to improve trust within your team through following through on promises, good communication, honesty, understanding your people, and vulnerability will help you develop great teams that work together cohesively and feel supported.

So, what are the differences between leadership in the military versus in the corporate world?

The answer is that when it comes to leading people, the principles do not change. What is different is that in the military, there is a clear understanding of the military’s specific, structure-orientated hierarchy. I would say that the direct and forthright language used in the military is not necessarily effective in the corporate sector. Using softer skills and language is the likely order of the day. Embrace the power of vulnerability, and be open, honest and authentic. Most importantly, be YOU.