5 enduring leadership lessons that will move you up the ranks

When most people think of military leadership, they picture a burly-looking guy with a crew cut screaming at new recruits. This is understandable given that we often see this type of dramatic scene in Hollywood movies. However, it’s a far cry from the true state of modern military leadership.

You might think that military leadership strategy is a closely guarded secret, but the Australian Defence Force (ADF) makes its tactics freely available on the internet. It’s a complex and enlightening document that sources the latest in leadership thinking, and a number of the principles that emerge are just as relevant in the workplace as they are in the military.

1. Leadership is about influence, not power

Anyone with a badge, a gun or a position of authority can demand that others do what they tell them to, but it works only until people resist or defy them. Leadership, according to the ADF, is the ability to influence people in such a way that they willingly follow a person towards the achievement of a mutually beneficial goal. There is no leader without willing followers, no matter how much authority or what position you have. Leadership is an exchange of mutual commitment. So how do we gain this trust and influence that brings followers on board?

2. Leadership is a values-based vision

Values are essentially those things that an individual gives value to. Fortunately, most of us share the basic ones of survival, fairness, honesty, reward for effort, giving power to those who will use it responsibly and admiration for excellence. Engaging people in your vision means showing them how it meets your common values and benefits the group as a whole. In Australia, and in the spirit of the Anzac tradition, we call this a “fair go” – that all people can have the opportunity to benefit from their own work.

3. Leadership involves ethics

Good leadership requires personal (character-driven) and organisational (cultural) adherence to a code of ethics that supports a safe and respectful environment for everyone. Leaders who misuse their authority over others or fail to follow a positive set of moral principles kill morale, put others in uncomfortable or compromising positions and fail to generate followers.

4. Leadership requires competence

To engender trust, leaders must be competent at what they do. This involves a range of skills, including emotional intelligence, cognitive ability, aptitude with forward planning, adaptability, the knack for remaining calm under pressure, confidence, communication skills, dedication to the team’s welfare, specific job-related competencies and the ability to make decisions. Followers need to know that they can get on with their jobs and trust that the directives coming down the line are likely to be the right ones.

5. Leadership calls for motivation

Not everyone is a leader, and not everyone wants to be one. The ADF makes the distinction between managers, who look after the organisation, and leaders, who look after the people. The best leaders are both, or have the wisdom to know how to employ good managers. Leadership must be built on the desire to take the reins for the benefit of the group rather than for the sole benefit of the leader. They also need to be willing to take responsibility and possess the hardiness to be accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

Leadership is a contract of mutual benefit between leaders and those who follow them. Leaders who are unwilling to be down in the trenches with their people won’t gain much respect – and won’t be very good leaders.

For much more on what does make a great leader, watch these TED Talks to improve your leadership skills.

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