Skills for Military Leaders: Techniques in Handling People

Guest Post by Justin Long

Whether you are a newly promoted NCO, a brand new Platoon Leader or a Battalion Commander, the one thing we all have in common as leaders is the fact that at some point, we were new to our positions.  With that comes the increased difficulty in winning over our subordinates.  Anyone who has spent a day in the military realizes the reality that the majority of subordinates you will work for are very critical of their leadership and often times very reluctant to follow you until you have proven yourself.

Our subordinates have to do what we say because we outrank them, right? But what happens when our backs are turned?  How can we instill in our Soldiers the desire and want to do what we ask of them?  Look no further than Mr. Dale Carnegie and his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Let’s examine three (3) core principles of his techniques and reveal how they are applicable to military leadership.

Principle #1: Don’t Criticize, Condemn or Complain: This one seems very difficult to apply in the military.  We are a culture of continuous criticism, condemnation and complaining.  However, we have to remember that by criticizing our subordinates, we are often not making any lasting changes to the problem and in turn are creating resentment.  Think about the last time someone higher in your Chain of Command openly criticized you.  Chances are, rather than thinking about how you were going to correct your actions, you were justifying yourself (most likely in your head) and feeling resentment towards your superior.  Rather than creating the same resentment among our subordinates, let’s remember this key principle.

Tip: Try to correct behaviors by walking a mile in our subordinate’s shoes.  I am by no means saying to accept excuses, but if we take the time to understand why a Soldier did or did not do something, we are better prepared to correct the true cause of their undesired actions.  Additionally, try to not make a criticism seem, well…like a criticism.  Start by discussing things that they are doing right, lightly mention their deficiency and then close with a positive statement regarding your confidence in their abilities.  Lastly, do not ever complain, whether it be about your superiors, peers or others in front of your Soldiers…ever.

Principle #2: Give Honest and Sincere Appreciation: Dale Carnegie mentions in his book that the deepest urge in human nature is “the desire to be important”.  Look at what motivates you as a leader/Soldier and you will soon realize that he is right.  Your Soldiers and subordinates are no different.  We as leaders have the ability to instill in our Soldiers an enthusiasm and willingness to do what we ask of them simply by showing them that their contribution is important and by rewarding their efforts.

Tip: Give your Soldiers a clear task and purpose.  Explain to them how their actions and efforts are contributing to a larger good.  Give your Soldiers responsibilities and tasks above their current skills and grade.  Not only will you be training your Soldiers, but you will make them feel important.  Lastly, as much as you should loath to give criticism you should be as enthusiastic to give praise and appreciation.  Always praise your Soldiers, especially in front of their peers and other leaders.  Put them in for awards and make an effort to always say, “thank you”.

Principle #3: Arouse in the Other Person an Eager Want: Next time you task a Soldier to do something, stop and ask yourself, “How can I make this Soldier WANT to do it?” Understanding that the military follows a long history of, “do it because I said so”, I am not saying that the Soldier really has an option.  However, understanding what motivates your Soldiers will pay exponential dividends when you are trying to get them to do something.  Additionally, most people do not like to be told what to do, especially by someone who is younger than them yet out ranks them.  Creating a situation where the Soldier genuinely wants to do something is far more easier than trying to get them to do something they are reluctant to do.

Tip: Get to know your Soldiers.  Get out there in the motor pool or sit with them cleaning weapons.  Not only will you earn their respect, but you will learn a lot about them and what motivates them.  Try to use these motivations to get them to accomplish tasks.  For example, a particular Soldier of mine seems to only do things that he thinks are a good idea.  Understanding this, I often try to make a point of creating a situation where the Soldier can regard the idea as his own.  Once he is convinced the idea is his own, he is very eager to step up and ensure whatever the task is gets completed.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  Without entirely reading How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I strongly urge you read completely!) there can be much gained by following these 3 simple principles laid out by Dale Carnegie.  Always remember that our Soldiers are also human, which means that they will resist all forms of criticism, long to feel important and appreciated and really only want to do what they want to do. Stop and think, “how can I make this Soldier WANT to do this?”


About the Author:

Justin Long is an MGS Platoon Leader in the 56th SBCT PAARNG.  He has served both as an enlisted Soldier and Commissioned Officer for the last 7 ½ years.  He is from rural Pennsylvania and is currently a resident of the DC Metropolitan area where he works as a consulting structural engineer.  He is a graduate of Penn State University and Saint Francis University with degrees in Civil and Structural Engineering.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “Skills for Military Leaders: Techniques in Handling People”

  1. This is a great post and I can identify with it. I was never in any sort of real leadership role in the military. I got out after 3 years as an E-4 and that was it. Sure I was a squad leader but in reality there’s no huge amount of leadership going on there. I was always led by someone else. This of course is the nature of the military as you’re always going to have someone telling you what to do. However, when we had leaders who would put their foot down and have us do something for seemingly no reason at all, it would cause tension within the ranks. That’s not to say we didn’t do it. Of course we did. It is the military after all. The problem is that if a leader doesn’t communicate the goals of what we’re doing, it’s assumed that there are no set goals in place. This leads to distrust of leadership. Distrust of the men and women who are supposed to lead you into battle is poison.

  2. This is not your daddy’s Army, nor is it even the Army I first joined in 1989. There are certainly things I don’t think are necessarily the best ideas (berets with the Class C uniform and the ACU pattern, anyone? –but at least both have gone or are going away). The bottom line, though, is that times and people have changed. The “because I said so” culture doesn’t work particularly well any longer, certainly not in the corporate world but even to an extent in the military. My philosophy is that my Soldiers should understand that when I am able to give them the whys and wherefores, I will, but that they have to trust that sometimes things have to be done right now, without a detailed explanation of the reason. This takes us back to good communication. If you’re open and up front with people, you can usually get buy-in as well as obedience, and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on those occasions when you can’t communicate as fully as you’d like.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. When possible, give a task and purpose. But in some rare cases it might be “because I told you so.” The situation will dictate how we communicate.


  3. Justin,

    Great post here. I can honestly tell you and every other reader on my website that “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was one of the most powerful and influential books I ever read. It taught me how to think from the other person’s perspective and to constantly develop my people skills.

    My copy of the book has so many highlighted and underlined passages that I might need to get a new copy before I read it again. I wish this book was mandatory reading for every new Army Officer and NCO. We could use a few more leaders with good “people skills.” After all, as leaders we are in the people business.

    Great post.

    Chuck Holmes

    1. Amy Skalicky

      This is, indeed a worthwhile book to read, Chuck, not only for the reason you mentioned, but also for the other many principles Dale Carnegie discusses. Creating understanding so that the person sees the value in what they are being asked to do, as well has some grasp of the bigger picture, is helpful too. And, not to mention, your second point above, expressing sincere appreciation. People want to be valued, and to bring value to a situation, so when they do, acknowledge.

      1. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” changed my life. It helped me a better leader, husband and entrepreneur. It should be a must read book in every high school in America.

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