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

In this post, we’re going to discuss how to develop your military leadership skills. I’m going to share 13 tips that I’ve used successfully 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.

How to Develop Your Military Leadership Skills

Tip # 1: Be Open Minded

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

I see many military leaders get left behind because they can’t adapt and change with the times. 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 accept that you don’t know it all. None of us do. You must admit that there are many ways to do something. You must admit you don’t have all the answers. And guess what? Sometimes you’re wrong!

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. Seek input from the people that work with you and advise you. They are a wealth of information.

Also, be a sponge. Make it a goal to learn something new every day. Be intentional about doing this.

Being open leads to developing strength; I know, who knew! As you open to new ideas, you learn and grow. The new ideas you discover then build on your current view of the world which now broadens.

Everything you experience can add up, strengthening who you are and what you believe in, which then leads onto building your confidence muscle and your own belief in yourself too.  ~ Julia Carter, via LinkedIn

how to develop your military leadership skills

Tip # 2: Take the Tough Assignments

Take the toughest jobs you can find in the military. Seek out the jobs no one else wants. Seek out the jobs that challenge you and force you out of your comfort zone. This is when and where the real growth happens.

Take jobs in deployable, go-to-war units. Get as much troop time as you can! These experiences will develop your military leadership skills. Spend as much time as you can at the battalion level and lower, especially your first 10-15 years in the military. This advice applies to both officers and NCOs.

You won’t learn much about military leadership sitting behind a desk or in a staff position. But you will learn a lot about military leadership as a Team Leader, Squad Leader, Platoon Leader, or Company Commander.

Tip # 3: 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? Conduct your own daily internal AAR about your performance, attitude, work ethic, and skills.

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

Tip # 4: Read Daily

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 could only credit one thing with developing me the most, it is my passion for reading. It’s true, leaders are readers.

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 four to ten 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 per day. You take time every day to feed your body, so why not feed your brain? Feeding your brain will pay you a lot more than feeding your body. Feeding your brain will help you level up your military leadership skills.

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

Build up your leader’s library. Start building your collection of 100-500 personal development books.

And here’s one more thing. If you read just one book per month for an entire 20-year military career, that would be 240 books. Think about how much personal development, wisdom, and knowledge you would gain from those books.

Reading makes you a better thinker. As a leader, you’ll need a lot of general information to maintain perspective and seize opportunities. Reading is the most efficient way to acquire information and stay updated on the topics that are relevant to your work. It helps you become more analytical, aiding your judgement and problem-solving skills. ~

Tip # 5: Find a Mentor

Another great way to develop your military leadership skills is to find a mentor! Find someone who has attained what you what to achieve in your military 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 meet up 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.

As you learn and grow, don’t forget to mentor others. Pay it forward. Take your new knowledge and wisdom and share it with the next generation of military leaders.

Tip # 6: Keep a Journal

Keeping a journal is a smart move to develop your military leadership skills. Very few people do it, but it’s one of the fastest ways to level up your leadership ability. 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 experience? Do this every day and never stop.

In step # 3 we discussed doing a daily AAR of your performance. If you are wise, you will document these AARs in your journal so you can refer to them in the months and years to come. Think of this information as your personal memoirs.

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.

Another key benefit of keeping a leadership journal is to manage stress. Workplace stress has a significant impact on our overall well-being. Journaling about stressful events can help you process them, release the negative emotions, and ultimately enable learning. ~ Forbes

major dick winters quote

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.

Be humble 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 your personality, mindset, 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. I highly recommend the book Personality Plus by Florence Littauer.

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 to level up your military leadership skills 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 must realize that talent will only take you so far in the military. 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.

In most kinds of professions and job roles, you need to have a good level of people skills, but when you become a leader it’s important you reflect on those skills that you’ve learnt previously and develop them so you can become the best version of yourself. Bad people skills can result in poor communication, conflicts growing in the workplace and the potential of losing valuable employees. ~

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 any different. Who we spend most of our time with has a big impact on who we become and what we accomplish.

Spend time with positive, supportive, uplifting people. You can’t control who you work with in the military. I get it. But, you can control who you spend time with when you’re not at work.

One of the best things you can do is develop your own mastermind group. This is a group of people working together toward a common cause. The people in the group share ideas, help each other solve problems, and encourage each other.

Consider forming your own military mastermind group. Find a few “squared away” service members at different ranks (ideally outside of your chain of command) and meet up once a month or once every 90 days. You can have your meetings on Zoom or Facetime or face to face.

Tip # 11: Attend Workshops & 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 should 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: 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. They seek knowledge. They want to learn everything they can to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. You should do the same thing as a military leader.

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

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

Tip # 13: Take the Focus Off of You

If you want to develop your military leadership skills, I saved the best tip for last. Here it is. Be a servant leader. Take the focus off of you and instead focus on the mission, your unit, your boss, and your subordinates. The Army is a team sport. Be a team player. Help anyone and everyone.

Leaders serve others. They work for the people they lead, not the other way around. Read that again so it sinks in.

The best leader puts the needs of the people they serve above those of their own. If this is the only piece of advice you implement from this training, I know you will be a better military leader.

When a servant leader is guiding the employees, they typically work as a collective that strives to provide the best to everyone. The rate of employee satisfaction improves because most of their needs get met. On the contrary, when a leader uses a democratic leadership style, there’s always one person who loses out. But, when a servant leader includes everyone in the decision-making process, he/she guarantees that everyone’s opinions get heard. ~ Matt Cecil

no man is a leader until

Final Thoughts

In summary, these are 13 ways to develop your 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 believe anyone can become a great leader. No one is born a leader. If you DECIDE that you want to be a great military leader and develop world class military leadership skills, I know you can do it. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s possible, if you follow a plan and are intentional about your personal development.

What are your thoughts about how to develop your military leadership skills? Leave a comment below to let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you.

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chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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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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