How to Develop Your Military Leadership Skills: 13 Ways to Do It

In this post, we’re going to discuss how to develop your own military leadership skills.  I’m going to share 13 tips that I’ve used during my military career to grow as a leader.  These are all tips I have learned through trial and error, from books and from mentors.  They are listed in no particular order.

Tip # 1: Be Open Minded

Everyone stresses the importance of being open-minded.  I believe that it is much easier said than done.  All of us have our own paradigms and set of beliefs about how things should be.

I see a lot of leaders get left behind because they can’t adapt.  They’re still stuck on how things were done five, ten or even twenty years ago.  They can only think of things from their own perspective.

One of the best ways to be open-minded is to admit that you don’t know it all.  You must admit that there are many ways to do something.  You must realize that if you ask 100 people to do something, those 100 people will each do the task differently.  That doesn’t make them right or wrong, either.

Don’t be one of those “my way or the highway” type of leaders.  Admire and respect the creativeness and ingenuity of your team members.

Tip # 2: Surround Yourself with Talented People

Some leaders are intimidated by talented people.  I think that is foolish and stupid.  One of the best things you can do to excel your military career, to be successful, and develop your own skills is to surround yourself with talented people.

You don’t want “yes men” working for you.  What you want are independent thinkers who are damn good at what they do.  You want people with strengths and talents that are different than yours, so when you work together as a team you can accomplish great things.

One of my former leaders told me that he himself wasn’t the most talented guy, but one of his greatest strengths was that he could put together a winning team!  I think that pretty much summaries a smart leader.

Tip # 3: Try to Learn from Every Experience

Everything you do in life should be a learning experience.  Your successes and failures are both learning experiences.  The people you admire and the people you can’t stand are both learning experiences.

Make it a point every day to evaluate your day.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What would you have done differently?  What could you have done better?

Spending time to evaluate every event and learn from each experience will definitely help you grow as a person and as a leader.

Tip # 4: Read Every Day

Reading is what has helped me develop my leadership ability the most.  Early on in life, I hated to read.  It wasn’t until I was about 25 years old that I started to read on a regular basis.

If I was only going to credit one thing with developing me the most, it is my passion for reading.  It’s true, leaders are readers and readers are leaders.

What I love most about reading is that you can study a successful person’s life in just a few short hours.  What took them a life-time to figure out you learn in a few hours!  Chew on that.

Also, if you have a problem or challenge you are going through, there is probably a book on the subject.  If you are trying to learn something new, there is a book on the subject.

Make it a point from this day forward to read at least 20 minutes every day.  You take time every day to feed your body, why not feed your brain?  Feeding your brain will pay you a lot more than feeding your body.

Read books on leadership, communication, conflict resolution, personal finances, relationship building, people skills, management, and a variety of other subjects. Even if you don’t enjoy reading, do it anyway!  That’s what leaders do.

Tip # 5: Find a Mentor

Another great way to develop your leadership skills is to find a mentor!  Find someone who has attained what you what to achieve in your career and see if they will be your personal mentor.

A mentor is simply a trusted advisor who helps you work through your challenges and learn new skills.  They are a sounding board for your ideas and they can also share their life and work experiences with you.

I highly suggest you find a mentor outside of your military unit.  That way you can speak freely and there is no conflict of interest.

A good mentor is someone who has been there and done that.  Try to find someone with real world experience.  For example, if you want to be a Battalion Commander, find a mentor who has already spent time as a Battalion Commander.

When you get together for mentoring, ask a few questions and then stop talking and start listening.  Respect them enough to do more listening than talking.  Eat some humble pie and at least consider their advice.  Otherwise, you are wasting your time and theirs.

Tip # 6: Keep a Journal

Keeping a journal is a smart move.  Very few people do it, but it’s one of the fastest ways to develop your leadership skills.  Every night, spend 15 minutes before you go to sleep and think about the day.  Write down what went well, what went wrong and what you learned.   What were you thinking?  What challenges did you have to deal with?

Do this every day and never stop.

What you will quickly discover is that your journal will help you work through your own problems.  It will help you think clearly.

More importantly, as you look back through your prior journals you can see how much you have grown as a leader.  Your journal might even become your memoirs one day when you decide to write your own book.

Tip # 7: Ask for Feedback

Get feedback whenever possible, even if you don’t like what you hear.  Try to get feedback from your boss, your peers and your subordinates.  Find out what people think about what you do right and what you can improve upon.

Eat a bit of humble pie and don’t take everything personally.  Look at the feedback as a way for you to identify your shortcomings.  No one is perfect.  We all have lots of areas we can improve upon.

If you don’t feel comfortable getting feedback face-to-face, ask people to fill out a simple, but anonymous form.

Tip # 8: Take a Personality Test

There are lots of different personality tests you can take online.  I think every military leader should do this.  Learn more about how you are wired and what makes you tick.  Find out your natural strengths and weaknesses.

Use this information to your advantage.  It will also help you work better with your peers, boss and subordinates. 

Tip # 9: Work on Your People Skills

Like it or not, the Army is a people business.  It always has been and always will be.  One of the smartest moves you can make is to improve your people skills.

There is a book I recommend to everyone.  This book changed my life.  It’s called “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and it’s by Dale Carnegie.

Before I read the book, I was ignorant.  I only thought of things from my own perspective, I had a bad attitude, and I just couldn’t get along with people very well.

This book changed the way I think about my relationships with others.  I learned “how to get along with people” and “how to see things from other people’s perspective.”

You have to realize that talent will only take you so far.  At the end of the day, you have to learn how to get along with others if you want to move up, get promoted, or get ahead.

Tip # 10: Associate with Successful People

As parents we understand the power of association.  We don’t want our kids to hang around bad influences.  We know that one bad apple can ruin a barrel full of good apples.

As adults, things shouldn’t be different.  Who we spend most of our time with has a big impact on who we become and what we accomplish.

Later in this book we will talk about the power of a Mastermind Team.  That chapter is very powerful.  What I want you to do starting today is to find three to ten people you like, admire and trust and form an inner circle or mastermind group with them.

The purpose of your group is to help each other and share ideas with each other.  It can be a combination of retirees, civilians, officers and NCOs.  That doesn’t matter. Ultimately, you probably want to find people outside of your unit.

You simply want to spend some time with folks who know who they are and where they are headed.  These are the movers and shakers who get things done.  These folks are also a good springboard to bounce ideas off.

I tell everyone, “Be careful who you spend time with and listen to because you might end up just like them!”

Tip # 11: Attend Workshops and Seminars

As a military leader, you should attend workshops and seminars every year.  Yes, you should attend your military leadership training.  In addition, you should also find events, workshops and seminars in your local area that will teach you about leadership, influence, motivation, people skills, etc.

You shake make it a point to attend at least one or two workshops or seminars every year.  This will teach you new skills, help you meet other influential people, and make you a better leader at the same time.

Most of these seminars are fairly priced.  Some are even free.  In either case, it’s hard to lose money when you invest in yourself.

Tip # 12: Spend Time to Reflect

I love to schedule time to reflect.  What this means to me is that you make the time to spend fifteen to twenty minutes “thinking” about an experience and evaluating what went right, what went wrong and what could have been better.

I like to think of it as an internal AAR.  It’s when you analyze your own thoughts, actions and performance and find a constructive ways to improve.

I try to set aside an hour each week to reflect on the previous week.  I spend time analyzing the prior week to identify key mistakes, lessons learned, and key accomplishments.

I typically do this every Sunday night and I always look forward to it.  Great leaders and great thinkers take the time to reflect on their experiences.

Tip # 13: Be a Student of Your Profession

Study any successful person in any industry and you will quickly discover that they are a student of their business and/or profession.  You should do the same thing.

Learn everything you can about your chosen career: the military. Subscribe to publications, find mentors, attend events, attend training and become a master of your craft.

Don’t think of the military as your job.  Think of it as your career.  And learn everything you can about it.

Final Thoughts

In summary, these are 13 ways to develop your own military leadership skills, so you can be a better military leader.  None of these tips are one time things.  Instead, these are things you should do on an ongoing basis throughout your military career.

I truly believe that if you make a conscious decision to improve, you would be amazed at how much of a better military leader you will become.

9 thoughts on “How to Develop Your Military Leadership Skills: 13 Ways to Do It”

  1. You put together some great Military Leadership Skill Attaining ways here Chuck. I am primarily caught on the first 3. Being open minded is a lot easier said than done. We do get set in our ways and when someone tries to change that, many of us come unglued.

    Surrounding yourself with talented people will create a system where you learn things you don’t know.

    And try to learn something from all experiences speaks for itself.

    All of these fit into what I am going to say next: just because someone has a lower rank than you does not mean you cannot learn from them. A lower rank does not mean they are less intelligent. Actually, at some point, that person may outrank you. No matter your position, you can always learn something new.

  2. Theresa Williams

    I love this list. It is so important to have concrete ways of developing your leadership skills. I love the idea of writing in a journal every night. I do a version of this where, to begin, I think through or write down everything good that happened that day, and then I write down everything I did wrong or that went wrong. Then I reflect on these things and see what the take away is and develop a course of action to either further develop the good things or to make recompense for the bad things. Being self-aware is key to development in every way. Going along with that is taking a personality test. The more you know, the better because it gives a better foundation to build from.

  3. This is a really cool list because it shows that great military leaders possess both strong interpersonal skills AND intrapersonal skills. Every good leader should have a powerful outward presence but also strong internal stability. In terms of intrapersonal (internal) development, you can attend workshops, keep a journal, read daily, and spend time at the end of each day to self-reflect. In terms of interpersonal (external) development, you can find a mentor, work on your social/communicative skills, and surround yourself with talented, successful people. A great military leader is strong inside and out.

  4. One of the hardest but most useful ways to determine whether your people skills are giving you the right military leadership qualities is to ask. You have to be sure and ask someone you trust to tell you the truth and not just snow you because they are afraid. Direct input, though, can be one of the most valuable ways to find out how you are doing. As a Commander, you can even have your unit complete an anonymous survey with a few brief questions such as, “Do you feel comfortable approaching your Commander with problems?” Make sure they are aware that the survey is totally anonymous. Otherwise you’re just wasting time and paper.

  5. All of these tips above are critical to developing genuine, wholesome leadership skills that are crucial to success in the military. Furthermore, don’t overlook reading! I know a lot of people that don’t read – and that’s a mistake. There are tons and tons and tons of good leadership books/videos/websites (some of which are outlined on this site) that are excellent for promoting leadership.

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