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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

The Battlefield of Leadership


Elana Duffy

Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, whatever you call it in your country, the idea is the same in many countries that took part in the First World War: honor and remembrance to those who fought for freedoms, and those who laid down their lives to protect their countrymen. It is a day of peace and respect.

Being a veteran, it seemed prudent to address the concept of expanding some timeless leadership techniques from the battlefield to management. Love or loathe the military, as no one loves the concept of war, there is a lot to be learned from military leadership. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is oft-quoted in not only military manuals of every language, but also in business management publications around the world.

Looking back on my experience as a senior leader in the US Army, there are many tips that upon reflection I find I’m still using today. And each of them harken back to Sun Tzu. This is because as you read the book, and as you interact more with the military, you come to understand that there is more to a fighting force than fighting. In fact, the primary concepts of both the book and good military leadership are more about diplomacy and caring for your troops than how to fight the enemy.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” There are no leaders and followers, only decision-makers and idea-generators. While the military uses the word “leadership” consistently, Sun Tzu actually seldom makes direct reference to the term. In the Army my function was to be a part of a team. I treated them as family, and as such could develop trust. The greatest leaders I’ve known were not leaders at all, but mentors and guides who happened to also have the authority to make decisions. In so doing, they empowered us. Sometimes they were harsh, but only when the feedback needed to be and always helped provide a solution. Treat your employees with care and attention, regardless of your leadership and personality style, so they can learn and accomplish more.

“He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” Trust the team. Too many cooks spoil the soup and a million other adages all imply that there is a time to help and a time to step back and let the team work. When my supervisors allowed me to plan missions even as a more junior soldier, I did better because I knew I had their trust. When I led others, it allowed me to expand my mission because I had developing leaders under me to manage aspects and details. Projects will happen based on the people you assigned and the people they pulled on. In order for you to maintain your focus on multiple projects, your teams have to be able to focus on their duties. You can’t be everywhere at once anyway, so it’s better to delegate and remain available than over-attend one item.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Ideas cause chaos by their very nature, because ideas cause change. I worked on teams of various sizes and on each occasion found ways to get the input of even the most junior soldier, even if it was to be ultimately discarded or the situation dictated that we postpone evaluation of the idea, because there might be an opportunity later. What I found important was for the team to feel as though they were heard. Setting up a feedback loop that provides regular, consistent mechanisms for collecting ideas can not only provide an innovative boost to your operations, but also give the employees a sense of contribution and loyalty that increases morale.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” As I learned more strategy during my military years, I learned more and more to only pick battles I could win without firing a shot. Many of these battles were within my own command, which meant special caution was needed to preserve morale and welfare yet still advance new ideas around resistance. Diplomacy is key, whether the perceived combatant is within your ranks or outside the company. A lasting peace will only come from negotiation, from understanding what it is the other project leader, manager, or competitor wants and needs and what you each might be able to sacrifice.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” Planning the next three moves is not just a technique in chess. In the military, it is critical to have a plan even before one is needed, to better train the soldiers and make reactions automatic. It allows the chance to map out the victory. Around a conference table, it can often feel like a battle but one that is winnable if there was proper planning prior. Understand the needs of all parties involved in a project both in times when you agree and when you disagree, and look for ways around the conflict before one even begins.

The military can be many things to many people, and sometimes many things to the same person. I learned a great deal from my time in the Army, and continue to apply those lessons today. Treating people as team members is not a new concept, and it is not exclusive to the military. Respect, honor, and tradition are a part of every good company’s story.

Happy Veteran’s Day.

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a 10 year veteran of the US Army, a masters of engieering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC.

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