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How do you truly measure the quality of a leader? History books, as well as the official doctrine of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, would say that a leader is measured by their rank, number of command assignments, combat deployments, awards, and qualification badges. Implicit in this idea is that more of any one automatically equates to a better leader. More rank, more deployments, more awards, and more skill badges and you have a greater leader in front of you. Initially, when I came into the Army, I believed all of this. Today, I believe none of it.
I spent my fair share of time in the Army on deployments in Bosnia and Iraq and forward stationed in Korea. I was recently contacted by a former soldier who is now doing amazing things in the Special Operations community. I assumed that I had inspired him to a successful career in Special Operations with my small array of badges, my physical fitness, or other martial qualities.
As it turned out, I was dead wrong about my small role in shaping the direction of his career. Instead of a Special Forces tab as inspiration, he wanted to talk to me about carrying boxes late one night. Come again? Late one night or early one morning, when he was a brand new private and I was on my third deployment as a captain, I had helped him carry a bunch of heavy boxes or equipment into a building. Later, when we were moving another Special Forces unit into a new location, he found me sweat-soaked in a building while being laughed at by some junior enlisted men as I tried to carry some equipment that was too heavy for me. What had impressed him, and what he remembered, was that I treated everyone I met with respect and as equals.
If you truly treat others well, then you are constantly seeking opportunities where you can help them succeed and learn. My last military unit was with a headquarters unit where we had loads of senior military officers, a few sergeants, and many more enlisted, first-term soldiers. When we went to the rifle and pistol qualification range, many senior officers would shoot first, then depart. I always chose to stay and help the first-term soldiers qualify and then shoot better. The U.S. Army was deep into the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and every soldier in every unit needed to see themselves as a combat soldier who was effective with multiple weapons. If you are only nice, that is superficial and not developmental. You must seek ways to help others become what they need and want to become.
In one of my first roles outside the military, I was put in charge of a call center operation that was there to help customers make reservations for my company’s services. The reservation technology was not working well, there was incredible customer demand, and the company’s culture did not place listening to customers high on its priorities. I thought we needed more technology. To confirm my views, I assembled my entire team together off the call center floor to do a military-inspired After Action Review. This is when a team talks about problems and agrees on solutions and the leader sits quietly and listens. Instead of my solution, the team invented a new one driven by their ideas and what customers wanted, and they created a better plan than I had. In the end, I told the team they had a better plan and together we set about turning around the reservation center. Six months later, customers and management loved us.
If we read business literature and military history, we might mistakenly believe that business and the military needs more visionary, hyper-critical, and aloof leaders that talk freely about humanistic values but under-deliver in the treatment of others. Treating others well, being a co-equal teacher, listening to others, and enabling yourself and others to live by fair and equal standards, creates a work environment where everyone can and wants to succeed. People want to come to an environment where there are clear and equal standards, the opportunity to be heard, and they can contribute their own thoughts and actions. They do not want easy; they truly want to be valued, included, appreciated, and to contribute their actions to something great, with the potential to achieve even more.
My experiences in the military, business leadership, and college teaching have taught me that very, very few people will be or are impressed by your resume qualifications beyond your first meeting. What people always remember is how well you treat, respect, and build others into even better people.
Chad Storlie is a Marketing Director and a Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management. He is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and an Iraq combat veteran.