3 Lessons in Teamwork from the Military

Enemy gunfire has never sounded in my ears. The anxiety of an unseen enemy has never entered my body. The life and death sacrifice has never been a choice for me to consider. These realities are a result of the freedoms I have as an American citizen. I am grateful for all who have accepted the work to defend my country.

Despite my intellectual understanding of the realities of war, I can extrapolate lessons of teamwork that are needed to go into battle. Through stories passed down and shared with me from veterans in my family and amongst my friends, lessons in teamwork from the military can be plucked and examined for understanding and applied to our actions – no matter where we live or what our relation is to the military.

Camaraderie through the team

The fight to live must be a shared outcome and is fueled by the camaraderie amongst soldiers. Imagine a palpable connection between you and your team mates. Imagine going to bat for them in their time of need. Imagine them standing in for you when you need someone. Imagine a single team identity that is upheld by the beliefs and actions of every person on the team.

Camaraderie is the lifeblood of a team. It is what fuels results. Without it, fractured relationships slow down a team. The team is more readily blindsided by surprises and may not withstand the impact. Without camaraderie individuals fight for recognition tearing apart that palpable connection.

Camaraderie is a prime directive of a manager.

Respect for contribution

What each soldier brings to his team is a set of skills and strengths coordinated for maximum results. It’s like an orchestra. Remove one instrument and the sound is off. Remove a soldier and the team is crippled by the absence of her contribution.

In our teams we must know and understand what and how each person contributes his skills and strengths. This is how we build respect for our team members.

Sacrifice personal preferences for the good of the team

No one person is more important than the team. Therefore, personal preferences may not be appropriate if it doesn’t help the team be more effective and cohesive. Not only does a leader understand this, but she expects each team member to evaluate this when decisions are made and counsel is sought – a great display of humility and respect for people and the team as a whole.

Today in America we honor the fallen military men and women who defended our country. This Memorial Day let us not only honor them for their bravery, but for what they can teach us to be stronger leaders, or better still, better human beings.

Copyright: orhancam / 123RF Stock Photo

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Mark Babbitt

    Thank you for this Shawn. When someone takes a moment to put these thoughts to paper, it means a lot to us veterans.

  • Ned

    I’ve been in the military and, 20 years later, I still miss the sense of community and teamwork. There are a couple of “speed bumps” in the road to getting it back in civilian society. First, it has disappeared due to the attrition of the WWII generation, in which everyone was either in the military or supporting the military for some length of time.
    It will be difficult to get team orientation back because current society is so individual oriented. Even professional teams are promoted using the successes of individual players, who may be swapped out to another team any given year. In addition, civilians are constantly competing with each other in the workplace. No news there, our self-centered society is well documented. A more insidious factor is the attitude of corporate management. Again, with the WWII generation, management understood the value of team work and continuity of team members. Now, with workers being devalued to the level expendable resources, there’s little continuity, and as a result, limited bonding between workers. Also, corporations fear employees banding together, and discourage bonding and team spirit. In addition, workers and middle managers who are willing to sacrifice for the common good are taken advantage of, and are then expected to make unnecessary sacrifices, for the good of the corporation (read, stock holders and executives), while receiving little acknowledgement for their efforts and sacrifices. Without fundamental change at the top levels, I would not push for “good team players” at the production and middle levels.
    Another very effective military concept that could be adopted by the civilian sector is mission orientation rather than strictly hourly or production orientation. Under a mission oriented system, teams are given achievable goals, and are paid for successfully “completing the mission”, as opposed to being paid to be somewhere for X number of hours. Each mission is given a challenging but *realistic* window for execution (a real challenge for managers who have distanced themselves from the process or are given unrealistic demands from higher up). If the team functions effectively and completes the mission early, management must be willing to suck it up and reward good teams by giving them a choice between having the rest of the mission window off, or picking up a new mission (and additional, mission oriented, pay) as a reward. The reward for the company is faster turn around on their production demands. Obviously, if teams are constantly completing their missions ridiculously quickly, incremental adjustments need to be made to find optimal mission parameters. Likewise, if teams are consistently failing to complete missions within the mission window; teams may need to be rearranged to find the most effective combinations of team members, and / or mission goals are ridiculous and unattainable (executives, removed from both processes and teams, will find that to be a constant temptation). If the reward is never obtained, morale and production will suffer – that’s the penalty for poor management and greed. Mission orientation solidifies team orientation. Everyone on the team is working toward the same goal, and no one is more important than anyone else on the team. There is less time wasted competing and more effort spent on completing. Every team must have a team leader. Effective leaders engender loyalty and (perhaps) admiration, so, beyond the physical rewards of effective mission execution, team members will work harder simply to please their team leader. If a team is consistently failing missions, in addition to mission parameters, the team leader needs to be re-evaluated. Is the leader a bully, attempting to lead by force? Replace or retrain that person; having only a hammer in your toolbox is ineffective and inexcusable. The company needs to be sure its team leaders have an effective array of tools available, either through training or other support.
    Okay… I’m putting down my keyboard and stepping away from the computer – I hope I’ve successfully accomplished my mission here.

  • Chuck Becker

    I am a Vietnam Veteran (US Navy, 1971-77), back in college now that I am retired from the merchant marine. I have encountered the dreaded “team project” in academia, and have experienced frustration upon frustration with my classmates’ and professors’ ideas of how team projects should work. The first mistake I see is the professors’ concept that teamwork will somehow just “happen” and that the team will mysteriously learn to work effectively without training, supervised practise, and feedback from evaluation. Multiple other faults folow, but I find the lack of responsible leadership and supervision to be the “original sin.” Any thoughts on how college campuses and classrooms should approach team projects?

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