Leadership Lessons from My Military Career

I was quite perhaps the worst 2nd Lieutenant in the history of the U.S. Army.

I’m not proud to admit that.

But, it is a fact.

I had a bad attitude.

I thought I knew it all.

The new “power” often went to my head.

I was a nice guy at times, but I was a horrible leader.

After spending about 9 months in my first unit, we got a new Battalion Commander.

I didn’t like the guy at first.

He was a disciplinarian.

He set extremely high standards for everyone in his command.

He held people accountable.

If there was an issue, he would confront it immediately.

Over a period of months, things began to change in our unit.

Morale improved.

We improved our technical and tactical skills.

Also, we became “warrior focused.”

We developed a strong sense of pride for our unit.

We went from a poor performing unit to a world-class unit.

For some bizarre reason, my Battalion Commander saw some potential in me.

Even though my performance was “average” at best, he assigned me as the Battalion S4 (Logistics Officer).

This was a huge decision, because I was a young 1st Lieutenant, and he chose me for the job over several experienced Captains.

My Battalion Commander told me that he believed in me, and he also said “welcome to the varsity squad.”

I excelled in the new job, if for no other reason, I didn’t want to let the guy down.

I have to admit that getting selected for that position was a turning point in my adult life and military career.

Something happened inside of me and I “came out of my shell.”

Looking back, that Battalion Commander helped me become the man I am today.

He taught me leadership.

He taught me how to be a man.

He taught me discipline.

He taught me to “be the best at what you do, regardless of what you do.”

He taught me to be a doer.

He is hands down the single best leader I have ever met in my life.

I won’t say his name here, because I don’t want to single him out.

But, I will tell you that he is currently a Major General in the Active Duty Army, and there is no doubt in my mind he will become a 4-star general one day.

I credit my entire leadership philosophy to the leadership lessons I learned from my him.

After speaking with several other people who served with him in different units, they all tell me they think he is the best leader they ever served with too.

There are some helpful lessons from this story I’d like to share with you.

Lesson #1: Everyone has the potential to succeed and do great things in the military and in life.

Some people naturally excel at what they do and some people need some mentorship before they truly succeed.

I truly believe that everyone can be great at what they do.

Sometimes it takes a dynamic leader to “crack the shell” and get the person to believe in themselves.

Not everyone will become great, but everyone has the potential to do so.

Lesson # 2: An organization is a reflection of its leader.

If you lead an organization, and it sucks, it’s because you are a bad leader.

All units take the personality and style of their leader.

The speed of the leader is the speed of the team.

A good leader can turn a bunch of “misfits” into superstars.

A bad leader can ruin a good unit.

If you want to improve your subordinates, you should start out by improving yourself.

Lead by example and others will follow your lead.

Lesson # 3: Sometimes you just need to give people a chance to be great.

Sometimes you need to give an “average performer” the chance to be on the varsity squad.

Although there is no guarantee they will perform well, they might.

I’ve found that people typically rise to the level of expectations that you place on them.

You would be amazed at the output you can get from people if you tell them they care capable of doing great things and you give them a chance to do it.

Lesson # 4: Good people ALWAYS rise to the top.

I truly believe that success does not happen by chance.

I’ve never met a General who became a General by accident.

When you look at successful NCOs and officers, you will see that they were star performers most of their career, and others noticed.

That’s why they got promoted, got the tough jobs, and moved through the ranks quickly.

You will rarely find a dirt bag at the top of any high level organization.

It does happen sometimes, but not very often.

It’s hard to keep a winner from winning.

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Lesson # 5: Where you finish is more important than where you start.

I look at my life as a marathon, not a sprint.

The same holds true with my military career (now finished).

You don’t have to be a “top block” NCO or officer right now to one day get to the top.

You just have to get a little bit better each day.

Focus on small, continuous improvements and that will add up to significant improvements over time.

Several successful 4-star generals graduated at the bottom (or near the bottom) of their West Point class.

If you can get just 1/10th of 1 percent better every day, you will be 100% better in less than three years.

Think about that for a moment!

Do that over the course of a 20 year military career and you will be more than 600% better!

Lesson # 6: You never know who you will impact.

You never know who you have positively impacted in your career.

I get former Soldiers of mine who call me from time to time, of contact me on Facebook.

They tell me wonderful things about how I helped them.

The satisfaction I get from this is better than any award someone could pin on my chest.

I also know that there are others I helped who will never contact me.

That’s okay.

I’m not saying any of this to brag.

I just want you to know that I truly believe that all military leaders have the obligation to serve and develop the people that they lead.

Your job is to develop leaders, to bring out the best in people, and position them for future success.

You probably impact more people than you realize.

Final Thoughts

These are just six valuable leadership lessons that I learned during my military career.

It’s exciting to look back from the time I was commissioned in 2000, until now, some 15 years later.

I’ve matured, learned new skills and don’t even resemble the person that I used to be.

It’s exciting to think about where I will be in another 15 years.

How about you?

What are some of the most valuable leadership lessons you learned during your military career?

Leave a comment below to let me know what you think.

We enjoy hearing your stories.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)
Publisher, Part-Time-Commander.com
Email: mrchuckholmes@gmail.com

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3 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from My Military Career”

  1. I also had what I consider a "dirtbag" section of my career. It was shortly after my switch to the Reserves. I fell behind on my military school and was floundering. My supervisor wasn't much help. Then I got a new supervisor who was having none of my malaise. After an honest conversation and some soul searching I turned it around and returned to my active duty mindset. It just takes one person sometimes to point you in the right direction.

  2. Everything I know about leadership I learned in the military. During my career, I supervised up to 300 troops and dealt with just about every situation you can imagine. When it comes to leadership you really need good people skills. You need to know what makes people tick and how to connect with them. There is definitely no cookie cutter approach that you can use on everyone. You must lead people differently and treat them differently, even though you are told otherwise. My best leadership tips are to (1) lead by example, (2) know your people on a personal level and (3) enforce the standards equally to everyone. If you can do that you will be an effective leader.

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