How to Be a Better Military Leader: My Top 20 Success Tips

Today, I want to talk about how to be a better military leader.

I will share 20 tips you can follow to be a more effective and more respected military leader. Many of these things are common sense, yet people still mess it up.

Leadership is an art. No one is born a leader, and no one develops and masters their leadership skills overnight. It’s a process that requires experience, an open mind, and a lasting commitment.

What is a Military Leader?

Whether you are a young NCO or General Officer, you are a leader. Well, you’re supposed to be!

Personally, I don’t believe a title, rank, or duty position make you a leader (anyone can be a leader), BUT if you have a certain rank, title, or duty position, you BETTER ACT LIKE ONE!

Leadership is about influence. It’s about getting things done through other people, ideally by inspiration, not brute force.

As a service member, if you plan on spending any amount of time in the military, you will assume leadership roles. When you do, you owe it to your followers to be the best leader possible. The purpose of the rest of this article is to teach you how to do that.

How to Be a Better Military Leader

If you want to know how to be a better military leader, following the tips mentioned below will definitely point you in the right direction. The tips are listed in no particular order.

# 1: Put Others First

It’s not about you, even if you think it is. In fact, as a military leader, it’s NEVER about you. It’s about the MISSION & the PEOPLE.

Your job is to serve the people you lead. Instead of acting like they work for you, act like you work for them. 

Be a servant leader. Take care of your followers. Protect them. This means your needs come second. Yes, you must still take care of yourself, and look out for your own self interests, but only after you’ve done so for the unit, the mission, and your followers.

Leaders who put others first want to see them succeed. They understand that an employee’s success doesn’t threaten or diminish their position. Instead, it creates new opportunities for growth. Taking on the role of a coach or mentor may not directly benefit your career, but it can help a new employee improve their skills so they can become a stronger contributor to the team. When you focus on fulfilling employees’ needs, they will be better able to meet their responsibilities toward your customers, putting your brand in a better position to reach its goals. ~

# 2: Recognize & Reward Your Team

The need to feel appreciated is one of the deepest human needs.

Most people do not feel recognized, rewarded, or appreciated at work or at home. They are living a life of quiet desperation.

One of the best things you can do to improve morale and motivation is to recognize your team. How do you do that?

You can start out by giving feedback. In addition, write thank you cards, praise people in public, submit people for awards, give them a personalized gift, and/or look them in the eye and tell them you appreciate them. All of these things make a BIG difference.

You’ll find spending just a little bit more time recognizing employees that the overall feeling of the workplace will be relaxed and there’ll be a sense of calm in the air. Welcome to bliss. Employees feel wanted, they’ll laugh, be productive, and there’ll be comradeship in the workplace. Doing so will result in all the tension in the workplace vanishing! ~

# 3: Provide Feedback

Who doesn’t like feedback? The only thing worse than not hearing from your boss is only hearing from your boss when you mess up. To be a good military leader, you must let your people know where they stand with you at all times.

Every day, every week, and every month, provide feedback. Talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what you would have done differently. Ask them what they learned from the experience and what they would do differently the next time around.

One of the best things you can do is ask questions and then be quiet and listen. Help the person provide their own feedback! That way it’s a true learning experience.

And when you give feedback, be polite and courteous.

# 4: Share Your Vision

Whether you are a Team Leader or a Commanding General you must have a vision for your team.

No, you don’t need to be a visionary like Steve Jobs of Apple®, but you should have some type of goals for your unit or section. You should have some idea of what you want your unit/section to look like in the months and years ahead.

You must share that vision with your followers, and more importantly, you need to show them how they fit into that vision. Show them how their jobs and their contributions affect your vision.

Remember that everyone wants to be a part of something greater than themselves. Everyone wants to make a difference. Show your people how they make that difference by being part of your team.

John Adams leadership quote

# 5: Be Authentic

Great leaders are authentic. They are true to themselves. They have integrity and they are honest. They don’t try to act like someone else.

Here’s a definition I found online about being authentic:

“Being authentic means coming from a real place within. It is when our actions and words are congruent with our beliefs and values. It is being ourselves, not an imitation of what we think we should be or have been told we should be.”

The bottom line is to make sure your actions and your words match up! Keep it real.

# 6: Admit When You Are Wrong

Few military leaders will ever admit when they are wrong. They think they must be overconfident and act like they never make a mistake, if they want to be a successful military leader.

Here’s what I’ve found: when you make a mistake admit it. No one makes the right decision all of the time. Your team members will respect you more if you can admit when you are wrong.

Trust me. When you make the wrong decision, pull your people aside and apologize. Just tell them you messed up and you will do better next time.

They will respect you more for doing that than not doing anything at all, or trying to pass the buck and make excuses.

# 7: Be Passionate & Enthusiastic

Be passionate about what you do. And, be passionate about being a leader. Be passionate about serving your country and getting to wear the uniform every day.

Have some enthusiasm. Be optimistic each day and think about how you can have a fun, challenging, satisfying, and rewarding day. Think about how you can help your subordinates do the same thing.

It’s true, enthusiasm is contagious. A good leader can influence Soldiers to have a good time doing something they don’t normally enjoy!

# 8: Work On Your Attitude

No one wants to work for a sourpuss. I am not telling you that you need to be “Chipper Skipper.” However, don’t be “Negative Nelly” either.

Work on your attitude. Try to see the positive in things. Put a smile on your face. Don’t let the little things bring you down or keep you down.

Remember that your subordinates will “model” your personality and demeanor. They will also look to you for confidence in stressful and life threatening situations.

Be a good role model. Stay positive whenever you can and maintain a good attitude. Keep your emotions in check.

A good leader has the attitude of serving his troops at all times, often at the expense of his own morale or personal needs. A good leader truly cares about the morale of the team, pushes and motivates his team with respect, a relentlessly positive attitude and with a genuine heart! A good leader sets the tone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. ~

# 9: Listen More

You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Please use them in that ratio.

Do more listening than talking. Get good at asking questions and listening to the response. Few people are good at listening.

Most leaders are so busy thinking about how they will respond to what someone is saying that they forget to listen. Don’t make that same mistake.

Work on your listening skills. Your followers will appreciate it. It could also have a big impact in your home life!

# 10: Practice Situational Leadership

There isn’t one leadership style that works with all people or in all situations. Ultimately, you need to practice situational leadership. That means that in different situations you will practice different leadership styles.

It depends upon the mission, available time, what is at stake, resources available, and personnel involved. For example, you might lead your superstar differently than the brand new, inexperienced, or unmotivated person. Does that make sense?

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the book “Situational Leadership and the One Minute Manager” by Dr. Ken Blanchard. That book is a game-changer.

The bottom line is that there is no cookie cutter approach to leadership that works all of the time.

# 11: Be Results Oriented

Effort is overrated. As leaders we get paid to get things done through other people. Results mean everything.

Yes, effort is important. But at the end of the day you are paid by Uncle Sam to produce results. Everything you do as a leader should have some type of expected results. You should evaluate your performance based upon your actual result and what was expected.

You need to let your people know that they should work hard, but ultimately their performance is measured by what they produce.

# 12: Know Your People

As a leader, you should know your people on an individual basis. You need to know how they think, what they think, what they are good at, where they need to improve, what their goals are, what jobs they want, etc. All of this information will help you lead them effectively.

You want to know what makes them tick so you can motivate them. You need to know the best way to recognize and reward each person, in order to get maximum effort. Also, you should know the capabilities of each person, so you can maximize their effectiveness and morale.

# 13: Think Outside the Box

I can’t speak for you, but I don’t like “yes men.” I like people who can think outside of the box and make their own decisions.

As a leader, you will deal with problems and challenges every single day. It’s up to you to find solutions to those problems. In most cases, you can’t just refer to a manual or policy to solve the problem. You must get creative and think outside of the box. Leaders get paid to solve problems and make things happen.

Try to be a “maverick” and encourage your people to be the same way. Get creative and encourage creative thinking.

Leadership comes in many forms and often times I believe that we forget to think outside the box. Everything must be dress right dress and by the book. These are the things that make learning boring. Sometimes as a leader we have to think of unique ways to reach out to our Soldiers, let them know that we are there for them.  ~

# 14: Grow Your Successor

One of the most important things you should focus on is growing your successor. Your job is to teach people your job, in case something happens to you on the battlefield.

If you are doing your job right, and being an effective military leader, you should work yourself out of a job! That’s what you want.

Find creative ways to help grow, nurture, and develop each person on your team. Identify the people with the most potential and help them develop that potential.

Don’t be scared or intimidated by your superstars. They are an asset on your team, not a liability.

# 15: Have Fun

Most people don’t think of the military as fun. I do. I think a good leader can make almost any task fun, or at least pleasant.

Whenever possible, try to incorporate fun activities into your work environment. Put a smile on people’s faces. Reward them for their efforts.

Have a section day, family day, appreciation lunch, or anything else you can think of to have fun at work. A little friendly competition goes a long way as well. When people have fun at work, they typically try harder and they even look forward to coming to work.

General Powell quote about leadership

# 16: Don’t Be Scared to Make Decisions

Leaders get paid to make decisions. PERIOD.

There are few things worse than a leader who can’t make a decision. The only thing worse is someone who changes their mind all the time. Grow a backbone.

Don’t run to your boss every time you must make a decision. You are a leader. Trust your judgment.

Get the facts, ask your team for their input, and decide. Even if it’s the wrong decision, a bad decision today is better than no decision at all.

Your team is looking to you for guidance.

# 17: Get Organized

I’m not the most organized person myself, so I get help when I need it.

As a leader, you must get organized. You need a game plan. You need a filing system. And you need to know where you put stuff. You want your office at least half way organized.

If you aren’t naturally an organized person, have someone on your team help you. There’s a good chance that someone on your team would LOVE to help you get organized, if you just asked them.

I think that possessing a solid system of organization is absolutely fundamental to great leadership. First of all, it keeps you on the right track. It prioritizes what matters and your work and helps you continue to pursue the goals that matter. When you are disorganized, you may deviate from your plan and you might end up going in a direction that is inconsistent with your objectives. ~ National Mortgage Professional

# 18: Issue Fair Punishments

Make sure the punishment matches the crime. Don’t have one set of punishment for your officers, another set for your NCOs, and yet another set for your young Soldiers.

If your standard is that everyone will be at formation, make sure everyone is at formation. If your standard is that anyone who fails the APFT will be FLAGGED, make sure you FLAG everyone who fails the APFT.

Once you start playing favorites you will lose your credibility and effectiveness as a military leader.

# 19: Don’t Forget Where You Came From

It’s easy to see a young Soldier do something stupid and want to throw the book at them.

However, before you issue punishment, take a moment and think back to when you were young and inexperienced. Did you ever make a mistake? Were you crucified for it?

I’m not telling you to let people get away with bloody murder. Just make sure the punishment matches the crime.

Some things are honest mistakes and are forgivable. You can turn some mistakes into good learning lessons without crucifying the Soldier in the process.

Just be humble and remember what it was like to be young and inexperienced. I call this perspective!

# 20: Deal With Issues Immediately

One of the worst things you can do as a military leader is be a pushover and be scared to handle issues as they arise. Even if you don’t like confrontation, it’s your job to deal with it.

When you see something wrong, address it immediately. Yes, be tactful and professional, but don’t let the issue go unresolved.

Soldiers know that it’s your job to enforce the standards and they expect you to do it. There are few things worse than a pushover leader who lets everything slide.

colin powell leadership quote about soldiers problems

Bonus Tip: Lead by Example

This could have easily been the first leadership tip on my list.

Your goal as a military leader is to always lead by example. Set a good example for others to follow. Always lead from the front.

Don’t hold your team members to one standard, but fail to meet that standard yourself. Don’t expect anything from your team that you aren’t willing to do yourself. Set a good example and others will follow your lead.

Leaders must lead with their actions as well as their words. Leaders can effectively translate intention into reality by acting on the concepts and messages they teach and the things they say to those around them. Leadership is the act of setting the right example for those who follow. Leadership is about actively demonstrating your belief, not just talking about it. People who say one thing but do another eventually lose credibility.

Best Advice I’ve Received on Military Leadership

I’ll close out this article by sharing the best advice I’ve ever received on how to be a better military leader.

One of my mentors taught me this lesson when I was a young Lieutenant. In a nutshell, he told me that there were two things I had to do to be an effective military leader. He told me my # 1 responsibility as an Army leader was the mission. No matter what, the mission always comes first. If you accomplished the mission, and are mission focused, you will be successful. Ultimately, that’s what the Army pays you to do. If you become known for being productive, reliable, and dependable (being the go-to-leader), you will go far in the Army and be known as a great leader.

Finally, he told me that “taking care of my Soldiers” was my # 2 responsibility. If I took care of my Soldiers, in return, they would take care of me and make sure the mission gets accomplished. Basically, if I could take of my followers they would take care of me.

Maintaining a healthy balance of mission accomplishment and taking care of your Soldiers will take you far as an Army leader! 

Final Thoughts

In summary, these are 20 tips on how to be a better military leader.

These are by no means the “only good ideas” for being a great military leader, but I do think it is a great starting point.

Having heart, pride, compassion, self-discipline, and commitment are the foundation of success for great military leadership. Combine that with the Army values and you have a winning combination.

Do you have any questions? Maybe you have some tips you can offer. Just comment below to share your thoughts. Thank you.

Here are a few leadership books I suggest you check out on Amazon.

  1. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
  2. The One Minute Manager
  3. How to Develop the Leader Within You
chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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5 thoughts on “How to Be a Better Military Leader: My Top 20 Success Tips”

  1. I'll just pick out a few of my favorites to comment on:
    19: Don't forget where you came from- This can be a big one. Sometimes officers, and some NCO's, start to feel entitled about their positions. They act like you work for them and them alone instead of for the command and the United States. This can lead back to #1 Don't be a dictator. You are the leader, you are the boss. Act like it. Being a bully won't earn anyone's respect or get the mission done.
    5 & 6: Admit when you're wrong and be authentic. You are not perfect. At some point you will make a mistake and the best thing to do is own it. Big or small, just admit it and move on. If you do that it will be quickly forgotten. If you lie and weasel or don't address it the issue will fester and it could become a morale and discipline issue down the line.

  2. This was a great post and sounds like one of the best military leadership books ever written.

    As Rick pointed out, everything here could, and should be used in the civilian world as well.

    So often leaders wonder why their subordinates do not listen to them; #1 is the main reason. If a leader won’t listen, the soldiers are just following his/her example and not listening too.

    #5 is also great! If we ask for something to be done, we treat the individual like they are part of a team. If we tell them to do something, we are treating them like a slave.

    Great post!

  3. Great post. Everyone can improve their leadership skills! The best leaders are always looking for ways to improve and get better! Following the advice on this page is a good starting point.

  4. These rules totally apply to the civilian world as well. When I was in the corporate world, all of these things applied in one way or another. I particularly like #3 on this list. While is hard to lose a star person from your team, there is something very fulfilling about knowing they are moving on to a bigger and better job that will better serve the overall organization. Leadership can be a humbling experience at times.

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