Blog Banner

Pathway to a Career—Leadership in the Military

Pathway to a Career—Leadership in the Military

High-level military leader selections impact thousands of individuals and processes that make up our military, which means the leaders need to be effective and resilient and rise above leadership military challenges.

How do military leaders learn the lessons of leadership? Traditionally classroom leader development and battlefield experience are perhaps the key places where officers learn about leadership, but is there a broader set of experiences that have an important developmental impact?

What lessons do military leaders actually learn that they come to see as most valuable? And how can we draw upon their experiences to avoid future mistakes and build on past successes?

Going directly to senior military officers and asking these questions about leadership military challenges and experiences are difficult and rarely answered.


Understanding the types of events that lead to these vital lessons can provide current and future military officers a greater ability to guide subordinates, provide opportunities to learn, and identify situations that can deliver important leadership lessons. These key events also assist when creating training and processes to enhance leadership development and address leadership military challenges.

In addition, leader development practitioners can better create tools and processes to assist these military leaders in not only charting the best course for their own development but also reflecting on what has been learned from the opportunities they’ve had.

Developmental Experiences To Address Leadership Military Challenges

Key developmental experiences that led to a lasting change in the way they lead or manage. These developmental experiences include, but go well beyond, traditional classroom work and battlefield experience as sources of leader development.

  • Positive Role Models
  • Negative Role Models
  • Failures and Mistakes
  • Leader in High-Risk Situations
  • Increase in Scope
  • Coursework
  • Personal Trauma
  • Mentors
  • Values Playing Out
  • Lateral Moves

NHDoD Interactive Course Schedule - Click Here to Download  >>

The top 3 events (Positive Role Models, Negative Role Models, and Failures and Mistakes) provide a greater understanding of the types of experiences that lead to leadership lessons and improved leadership behaviors in the military. Military officers clearly perceive role models as the most influential development experience in their careers.

Failures and Mistakes were reported as key developmental events and offered the second-highest level of opportunity to learn lessons of leadership. In high-stakes situations, while in the spotlight of powerful audiences, and during day-to-day operations, these Failures and Mistakes events were vital experiences that impacted top officers’ approaches to leadership.

Managing Subordinates: A Common Lesson Throughout Key Developmental Experiences

Across all the developmental experiences listed, “Managing Subordinates” was a lesson that ran through most frequently. Leading through crisis, building teamwork, and preparing others for high-stress combat situations and leadership military challenges seemed to be the greatest lesson that top military leaders learned from every event they experienced, except Personal Trauma and Values Playing Out. Additionally, 86% of all leaders reported they learned something about Managing Subordinates from positive and negative role model events.

Managing Subordinates lessons can be highlighted as an area for reflection and learning during future coaching and mentoring while providing valuable pathways for the next generation of leaders.

Military leaders are expected to value, protect, develop, and manage performance problems in their subordinates. And when managing people, it’s important to keep in mind that subordinates are watching the type of leadership officers’ model and how they handle and learn from their Failures and Mistakes.

Implications For Leadership In The Military

Insight into leadership military challenges and the lessons successful military officers learned from specific leadership development experiences. As such, it can inform the personnel policy decisions that are intended to produce senior leaders with particular leadership competencies by providing them with the experiences that develop those competencies.

What stands out is that individuals gained the most from experiences with Positive and Negative Role Models, and the greatest lessons they learned were about Managing Subordinates.

Officers learn from role models how they should and should not lead others. Regardless of the insight, they have into the rationale behind their superiors’ decisions, they are witnesses to superiors’ behaviors and how those behaviors impact others.

Role models also shape officers’ impressions of who they might become as a leader. A positive role model can inspire a commitment to a career during and after military service, while a negative role model can cause an officer to change careers. Self-aware leaders with high levels of empathy replicate themselves by their example and through mentoring relationships with promising subordinates.

Transitioning Military Leadership To Civilian Life

As you transition from the military to the civilian sector know that you are one step ahead - you have already started cultivating one skill set that will determine your professional success: your leadership skills. However, developing strong leadership skills is a journey, not a destination. In order to achieve the success you seek within the civilian working world, you need to create a personally unique and specific leadership development plan that ensures future growth.

Self-assessment is the first step toward creating your personal leadership development plan. Have an integrity-based internal dialogue about yourself. Then write down what you perceive to be your strengths and your weaknesses. In doing so, focus on past situations within your military career, in which you have led successfully and in which you have failed.

Once you have conducted an honest self-assessment, you must also seek outside information as to your current leadership abilities. Ask people you have served with to honestly evaluate your strengths and weakness. If practical, have these individuals offer examples of your past failures and suggestions for improvement.

Now that you are aware of the current level of your leadership skills, you can begin to roadmap your future development plan. First off, applaud yourself on the areas that you’ve identified as strengths. Your commitment to leadership within your military career has allowed you to have these successes. Then focus on the areas you have identified as weaknesses. These are the greatest opportunities where you can grow personally and professionally in the new professional roles you seek to fill. Improve upon your weaknesses through actions that can be a part of your leadership development plan as you transition.

Seek out opportunities for professional development

Once you understand what your personal weaknesses are, you can seek specific training to address your problem areas – especially if your areas of weakness directly impact your success within your new civilian career. Professional development training is a great tool that you can use to strengthen any area of weakness that you have identified.

find a mentor

The instruction and feedback from a mentor can be an invaluable resource on your path to developing your leadership skills.

Once you have established your list of weaknesses, ask yourself, “Who possesses and effectively demonstrates those skills upon which I need to improve?” A mentor can be a professional contact, either within or outside of your workplace, or a personal contact. You can even select several mentors, each of who possess a different skill upon which you desire to improve.

remain flexible

It is important to remain flexible enough to adjust your leadership plan as your progress on the path to becoming a better leader – especially since you are now seeking to lead civilians, not the fellow Marines, Soldiers, Sailors or Airmen that you are used to. Along your journey, you are going to improve on your current weaknesses and likely discover new ones. When new weaknesses are discovered, it is important to revise your plan to account for this change. And don’t get discouraged. Leadership development takes time.

practice your skills daily

Leadership skills are perishable skills. If you do not practice leadership skills daily then you will lose them. Seek out daily opportunities to improve upon the personal weaknesses you have identified.

Congratulations on your career transition and your continued efforts to improve your leadership skills. Create your personal development plan today and continue your journey.

10% Off NHDoD Courses

William Jordan

William Jordan

Other posts by William Jordan

Contact author

Related articles

Contact author


Subscribe for Future Blog Notifications