Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.

– James E. Hunton

The military prepares you for a lot of things in life. It gives you confidence to be able to handle yourself. It crafts a belief in your own abilities and gives you the opportunity to discover your limits. It also develops within you leadership. Either vicariously through observing good (and bad) leaders in the field, or through specific training, Defence members gain leadership skills, ability and insight that many civilians will never have the opportunity to develop. Thus, when we transition out of the military, we are ready to be great leaders on Civvie St. Right?

Unfortunately its not that simple.

Let me share my story. I left the Defence Force after five and a half years of service. At that stage I was a patrol commander, leading teams of five to ten men in the field. By no means was I the best at my job, but I was competent and my team had performed well over the previous year. I enjoyed the challenge of leadership, the opportunity to develop others and drive them towards achieving a common goal. Thus it was not long before I found myself in a civilian leadership position.

It was heading up a new team of volunteers, running events for people in our own age group in order to build community. Working with my up-line we pulled together a dozen really good people to form the team; individuals with great abilities who were good with people. A student of leadership in my personal time, I knew what I had to do. I had prepared a vision statement, set goals, outlined expectations and developed a plan for the first few months. I’d done the work; I was ready. How hard could this be? Besides I was trained to lead men in combat. Leading a bunch of civvies couldn’t be that hard. I was about to learn a very difficult lesson.

While launch night didn’t go a smoothly as I planned I still came away feeling like it was a success. However a month later, I hung up the phone after having the final remaining member saying they no longer wanted to be part of the team. It had taken me about four weeks to lose an entire team of 15 people. I felt dejected and alone. I had failed my first attempt at leadership outside the military.

There is a common saying found in management literature – “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” This is just as applicable to leaders as it is to managers. I had just found out the hard way.

Looking back however there are a number of key lessons I learned that apply not only for those transitioning from military to civilian leadership, but to any leader stepping into a new role with a new team.

Build Relationship

While I knew each of the individuals I invited on the team, I had not worked with any of them. I had only been involved with the organisation for around six months, so the level of relationship was not there for me to go hard and fast with them towards my goals. Ultimately, I didn’t know my people; what their strengths were, what their values were, what motivated them. Nor did they know me. This lack of relationship and a lack of shared experience meant there was a lack of trust between my team and I. So when I started to ask of them, it was like opening a bank account and trying to make a withdrawal without first depositing money into it. I may as well have been putting an empty magazine on a rifle and trying to fire it. It was never going to work.

Communication Matters

I remember being taught how to communicate in the military using the acronym CLAP – Clearly, Loudly, As an order, With pauses. As a commander, when you give direction you do so confidently and expect it to be followed without question. While I realised that my communication style would have to be
tempered in civilian team, I still came across too direct. I didn’t know it at the time, but I even caused tears. I now know there is a time and place for direct communication, but in most environments outside the military it cannot be the norm and requires your team to trust that you have their best interests at heart.

Fire Bullets Before Cannonballs

Jim Collins coined this phrase in his now famous book, Good to Great. In it he describes how organisations should experiment on a small scale before investing large amounts of resources into projects. This same principle can be applied when stepping into a new leadership role. Start by making small requests of your team and engage in small scale initiatives. This gets quick wins under your belt. Quick wins build your credibility as a leader, allow you to understand the culture and climate of the team and creates momentum that propels your forward. Importantly, quick wins also allow you to successfully work alongside your team members, to build relationship with them and establish shared experience from which they will begin to trust you and your leadership.

Volunteers vs Employees

This was one of the biggest lessons for me. Volunteers give of their time freely to the cause. They are not paid and therefore under no compulsion to continue to show up. As a result, if they don’t perceive your leadership to have their best interests at heart – if they don’t trust you to do the right thing by them and their cause – they will leave. This is what happened to me. In my opinion, being a great leader of volunteers is much harder than leading paid employees.

You may have noticed theres a common theme that underlies each of these four lessons. That is the failure to gain the trust of my team. When people trust you, it will amaze you how much they are willing to forgive and overlook. Without trust, people will give you little. If you are transitioning into a new leadership role with a new team, don’t make the same mistakes I did. Especially if you are transitioning from the military into civilian leadership. You have the potential to achieve amazing things with the team around you.

Go slow, build relationship, speak softly and establish trust. Do this and you will give yourself the best chance to succeed.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt by stepping into a new leadership position? Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear your story.