Three Leadership Lessons Learned From Being In The Military


Ted Dhillon is the CEO and founder of FigBytes, an ESG insight platform.

Picture this: You’ve just carried a gun 10,000 feet up the rocky terrain of the Himalayan mountains. It’s windy and cold with temperatures reaching well below freezing at night. Through the cracks of your mud and pine-tree shelter, you can see enemy soldiers on the other side of the line.

That was my experience when I started in the Indian military, where I spent 10 years as an officer. As with any professional army, it was no easy experience. Ultimately, though, it was well worth it, as my time trained me for my role as a CEO today.

When I initially made the leap into business, I feared I wasn’t prepared. But it turned out that my military mindset was ideal for the C-suite. I’ve found that former military members are common fixtures in boardrooms. This makes sense to me: The army trains people to be great leaders, to be disciplined and to work as a team, among so many other transferable skills that apply to the business world.

Here are three lessons I took with me when I transitioned from the battlefield to the boardroom that I believe all leaders can use:

1. Get yourself into shape before you start making demands of your troops.

I became an officer at 20 years old. Leading a platoon at such a young age had quite the learning curve attached to it, not to mention the intense pressure of knowing I was responsible for people’s lives. I struggled to get my troops to take me seriously since I was so young. I soon realized that you don’t demand respect; you earn it. And respect is earned by doing the work required of you and leading by example. I began demonstrating the behavior I wanted to see, and that made all the difference.

When my co-founder, who’s incidentally also a veteran, and I first started our business, we did everything ourselves. Typical founders, we were always the first in the office and the last to leave. It wasn’t uncommon for us to work 16-hour days. As we began to make hires, new recruits worked alongside me and learned my processes. They saw firsthand how I researched clients thoroughly before sales calls; listened more than I talked in meetings; and how I planned out detailed steps to make our company goals actionable. I showed the team the quality of work I needed from them.

Now, in the throes of the Great Resignation, a big reason people quit their jobs is due to bad management. Good managers lead by example, pull their weight and put in just as much work as anyone else. If you’re true to that ethos, your team will see your dedication and feed off it. They’ll see your willingness to get into the trenches with them. If you’re struggling with leadership, get on your team’s level and model the behavior you want.

2. Be quick under fire when facing a problem.

You have to think fast on your feet in the military. Decisions and reactions can’t be hummed and hawed over; lives are at stake. Both in the military and in business, you’ll never have all the information you’d like to have before making an important decision. But the worst mistake you can make is staying put. 

For example, my business started out as a consultancy, but we wanted to branch into developing a software platform. But similar to many young companies, we were short on cash, and developing our new software platform was going to use up the last of our money. We had a few months of runway left before we’d be forced to give up. Despite the pressure and time crunch, we decided to design the new platform anyway. We’d done our market research and could see our product was going to offer an innovative solution, and it worked out. The new platform helped us grow our business and get ahead of our competitors because we were able to make a decision quickly.

If you believe in an idea, stay the course. You never know where it can lead without giving it a shot.

3. An army of one can make the difference.

Sometimes in the military, you have to deal with soldiers who are aggressive, angry and difficult to manage. At the wrong spot at the wrong time, someone like that could be a risk. But by managing them well, I learned I could gain very dedicated soldiers. I had to take that energy and put them on time-consuming and difficult tasks. Showing that I trusted them swapped the rebels’ aggression with dedication. They returned that trust and respect and never flinched even in tough times.

Leaders don’t like the unknown, be it in the military or business. Sometimes the right person can be just what you need in a time of crisis, though. You need someone who is capable of taking a risk or approaching the problem from a different angle. One of the best things you can do is take your wild card individual and put them in the right role. By showing that you trust them, I’ve found those outliers can be the best return on investment; they’re the kind of people who can deliver miracles.

What I learned long ago in the military still holds true today in business: Strong leadership and making the most of your team can help you take the high ground faster.


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