Leadership lessons: From combat to corporate success

Quentin Misenheimer
Quentin Misenheimer
Jun 16 2024
7 min read
Leadership lessons: From combat to corporate success

Leadership is a topic I’m deeply passionate about, having been shaped by my experiences at West Point and in the military. I graduated from West Point in 1989, and within 15 months, I found myself leading 41 soldiers into combat during the Gulf War. The lessons I learned there have been invaluable in my professional life, where I’ve spent over 26 years leading HR teams. Every step up in leadership requires a different skill set, much like how athletes must continually adapt and improve to succeed at higher levels. Here’s what I’ve learned about effective leadership, particularly the transition from leading individual contributors to leading leaders.

Building a high-performing team: The core of leadership

The number one responsibility of a leader, regardless of their field, is to build a high-performing team. This might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Many leaders focus solely on delivering results, driving sales, or meeting business objectives. While these are important, they are byproducts of having a high-performing team. If you have a mediocre team, you can expect mediocre results. Companies do not thrive on mediocrity. Throughout my career, I have seen leaders brute force their way to good results with mediocre teams and then get moved into greater roles. Unfortunately, brute force results are not sustainable and many times organizations are left cleaning up issues they did not realize existed because they moved a leader too quickly. In contrast, when a leader builds a high-performing team, results are more sustainable.

Building a high-performing team involves hiring and selecting talented team members, setting clear expectations, holding people accountable, and communicating effectively. Positive feedback is easy, but constructive feedback, given in a supportive and respectful manner, is crucial. Leaders must pour themselves into their team’s success, and genuinely invest in their growth and development. When team members believe their leader is truly invested in them, they are more likely to be engaged and perform at their best.

Leading leaders: A different ball game

As you transition from leading individual contributors to leading leaders, the dynamics change significantly. Leading leaders requires a higher level of strategic thinking and a focus on developing other leaders’ abilities to build high-performing teams. It’s essential to evaluate how your leaders are doing in this regard. Are they hiring the right talent? Are they addressing underperformance effectively? Are they setting and communicating clear expectations?

Leaders of leaders need to balance providing guidance and giving their leaders the space to lead. Micromanaging can stifle a leader’s growth and effectiveness. It’s about striking the right balance between support and autonomy. Encouraging leaders to make decisions and own their responsibilities is crucial for their development and the organization’s success.

The importance of tenure and stability

In the military, key command positions are held for two-year stints, allowing leaders to learn the operating rhythm in the first year and make meaningful changes in the second. This principle applies well in the corporate world. Frequent movement of top talent can disrupt team dynamics and hinder long-term success. Leaders need time to implement their vision and see the results of their decisions.

When leaders are moved too quickly, it can lead to instability and a lack of continuity. Each new leader brings their own style and priorities, which can confuse and frustrate team members. Stability allows leaders to build trust, establish clear goals, and develop a deep understanding of their team’s strengths and weaknesses. Patience and stability lead to more sustainable and impactful leadership, where decisions are thoughtful and changes are effectively integrated.

Furthermore, a longer tenure in leadership positions enables leaders to witness the outcomes of their strategies and make necessary adjustments. This continuous improvement cycle is crucial for achieving long-term objectives and fostering a culture of accountability and growth. Organizations that allow leaders to grow into their roles and provide the time needed to make meaningful changes are more likely to see sustained success.

Communication and respect

Effective communication is the cornerstone of good leadership. Leaders must treat their teams with dignity and respect, even when delivering tough messages. My rule: before speaking, consider if you would want your spouse, child, or parent to be spoken to in that manner. If not, rethink how you approach communicating with others. This perspective helps maintain respect and builds a positive culture.

Respectful communication fosters trust and openness, essential elements for a collaborative and productive work environment. When team members feel respected, they are more likely to share their ideas, provide feedback, and engage in meaningful discussions. This openness leads to better decision-making and innovative solutions.

Public recognition and appreciation also go a long way. People want to feel valued and acknowledged for their contributions. A simple thank you or public acknowledgment can boost morale and engagement significantly. Recognizing and celebrating successes, both big and small, reinforces positive behavior and motivates the team to strive for excellence.

Creating a culture of appreciation involves more than just occasional praise. It requires consistent and genuine efforts to acknowledge the hard work and achievements of team members. Leaders should make it a habit to regularly express gratitude and highlight the contributions of individuals and teams. This practice not only boosts morale but also reinforces the importance of each team member’s role in achieving the organization’s goals.

Lessons from the military

Two key lessons from my military experience have profoundly influenced my leadership style:

  1. Building a High-Performing Team: In the military, I learned the importance of having the right people in the right roles. During my deployment, I had to replace a platoon sergeant who wasn’t effective with someone who could communicate well and lead the team effectively. This change was crucial for our success in combat. Changing out team members isn’t easy, but you must do what’s right to ensure a high-performance team.
  2. Handling Adversity: True character is revealed when someone handles adversity or pressure. In combat, some soldiers excelled while others struggled. Similarly, in the corporate world, how individuals handle adversity is a true test of their capabilities. As leaders, we must observe and support our team members through challenges, using these moments as opportunities for evaluation and coaching if necessary.

Continuous learning and adaptation

Leadership is not static. It requires continuous learning and adaptation. Leaders must be open to feedback and willing to learn from their mistakes. Creating a safe space where team members can learn and grow without fear of retribution is essential. Mistakes are inevitable, but they can be powerful learning opportunities if handled correctly.

In conclusion, effective leadership is about building high-performing teams, communicating with respect, and continuously learning and adapting. Whether in the military or corporate world, these principles hold true. By focusing on these core aspects, leaders can create environments where their teams thrive, leading to sustained success for the organization.  As a leader is entrusted with new levels of responsibility, especially when that leader is leading other leaders, it is critical for that leader to allow his/her leaders to lead.  Effectively coaching leaders becomes a very critical skill.

For HR leaders looking to develop effective mentoring programs or improve their organization’s leadership development strategies, remember that it’s about clarity, communication, and continuous improvement. Invest in your people, and they will drive the success of your organization. Invest in your leaders, because they are responsible for building high-performing teams that will deliver sustainable results and growth for your organization.

This article is part of the Precision Matters series. In the series, HR and L&D leaders share their expert strategies for utilizing Learning & Development tools to craft precise, impactful business outcomes and foster organizational growth.

Quentin Misenheimer
Quentin Misenheimer
Quentin Misenheimer graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in May 1989. He served as a Platoon Leader in the First Cavalry Division during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. After his time in the Army, Quentin worked in sales and operations prior to moving into Human Resources leadership. Quentin has been building and leading high-performing human resources teams for over 26 years. With extensive global experience, he specializes in organizational design, leadership development, change management, benefits and compensation, training, recruiting, succession planning, and employee/labor relations. Quentin focuses on creating positive work environments and high-performance cultures by implementing innovative solutions to enhance efficiency, employee engagement, and financial savings. Notably, Quentin led a national employee engagement survey that earned his company recognition as a Top Workplace USA. As a trusted advisor, culture champion, and change agent, Quentin is committed to supporting businesses and their most valuable asset – their people. He is currently the Chief People Officer for Garlock Flexibles.

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