Military Training Makes Civilian Workplaces More Productive Environments

Military Training Makes Civilian Workplaces More Productive Environments


By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.

Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Human nature, motivation and avenues to fulfillment have not changed much since our prehistoric ancestors fashioned spear points in caves. Because the military is one of the oldest professions in the world, there is a vast body of literature dedicated to leadership and management in the military environment.

Examples of great leadership can be found from Achilles in Homer’s Iliad to modern examples, such as Sergeant Alvin York in World War 1 and General George S. Patton in World War II.

While the Army today has its stated core values, my core values which, while associated with those of the Army, are based on my 20 years of experience that spans enlisted, non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer assignments. These core values are:

  • The shield wall
  • Watch my six
  • Situational awareness
  • Courage under fire
  • Delegating authority rather than authority
  • Training subordinates to lead

The ‘Shield Wall’ Concept in 21st-Century Business

For people who are unfamiliar with the term, a shield wall is a formation of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with their shields in front of them. This combat tactic was used in ancient warfare as protection against enemy weapons.

An early version of the shield wall used by the Greeks was called the phalanx. It took great discipline to form a shield wall and even more courage and discipline to maintain it under the imminent threat of death or injury in the face of a determined adversary.

While many armies across the centuries employed a shield wall, its purpose always remained the same – to provide a cohesive defensive front. How can we relate the concept of the shield wall and its importance in the 21st-century workplace?

The shield wall provided protection from physical attack. In the modern workplace, the concept of the shield wall translates into protection of the organization from both internal and external threats.

The shield wall becomes a mindset. The leaders and managers of an organization epitomize that mindset, particularly the senior leadership, which must set the example for others in the company.

In the original shield wall, soldiers relied for protection on the men to their left and right all of whom were under great stress. Is that not also true today?

Reliance on one another and the knowledge that everyone is on the same team in a competitive market is essential to mission success. The adversaries today are other firms or organizations in a competitive market. In the public sector, those adversaries include competing interests from abroad, such as rival or hostile nation-states.

‘Watch My Six’ Also Applies in The Workforce

“Watch my six” might seem like an odd phrase to the uninitiated. During a military patrol, we envision movement as an analog watch face with our unit at the center of the dial. Straight ahead is twelve o’clock and directly to our rear is six o’clock.

The term “watch my six” simply means to ensure someone on the patrol is covering the rear of our formation to prevent an attack from behind. The original meaning has been exported into the civilian workforce to mean always watching out for each other in the physical and literal sense.

In the civilian workplace, this term translates into developing a sense of team spirit and continuity of purpose. For example, if a team member is tasked with creating a PowerPoint presentation for senior management, other team members ensure that the presenter is well prepared to complete the assignment and do an outstanding job. In essence, the success of the individual becomes the success of all group members.

‘Situational Awareness’ Means Being Alert in the Work Environment

We are probably all familiar with the term “situational awareness.” It means to be actively aware of what is going on around us on a daily basis.

In the military, situational awareness can mean something simple, such as knowing what a squad or platoon is doing. It can also mean something potentially deadly, such as moving in a convoy through a hostile war zone.

Active situational awareness is equally important in the civilian workplace. In a modern workplace, situational awareness is related to awareness of cultural or generational differences and how they affect the work environment.

For example, the first people to notice a fellow employee is in some sort of crisis are his or her immediate work colleagues. They are well-placed to gauge what that individual’s normal workplace behavior is and what it is not.

Situational awareness can also save lives during an incident of workplace violence. Situation awareness is epitomized in the advice Run, Hide, Fight, a phrase often used to train workers how to survive an active shooter incident at work. Failure to practice active situational awareness can result in serious bodily harm or death when a violent incident occurs at work.

‘Courage Under Fire’ Carries into the Workplace

We have all seen or heard of military personnel who were recognized for their courage under fire by being awarded the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star or other awards for bravery. It takes great courage to conduct oneself courageously, despite the possibility of imminent death or harm. Does the concept of courage under fire have a civilian component? It certainly does.

There will be times in the workplace when doing the right thing could result in job loss or perhaps the loss of a promotion. Speaking out for what is right under difficult circumstances is the civilian equivalent of courage under fire. This concept is shown in cases involving whistleblowers, who often suffer because of their courageous actions, despite federal protection laws.

Also, there are going to be times when you realize that your boss is making a mistake and you can justify your stand against his or her decision. Depending on the boss’s character, standing up to support an ethical position takes great courage.

Standing up and being counted is not easy, but it can be very rewarding. After all, we all must look at ourselves in the mirror every day. We also should set an example for our fellow employees, our families and others.

You Can Delegate Authority But Not Responsibility

In the military, we often say you can delegate authority but not responsibility. For instance, as a leader or supervisor, you can delegate a required task to a subordinate.

But the responsibility for the success of the task remains with the supervisor or leader. As a company commander, I delegated authority to my lieutenants, who then delegated that authority to their platoon sergeants and then to privates. But if a mission failed, it was I who was ultimately to blame because the responsibility to complete the mission rested with me, the company commander.

The concept of delegation of authority is well known in the civilian workplace as well. For example, airport operators are responsible for the proper security of the airport. The airport operator delegates that authority to one or more Airport Security Coordinators (ASCs), who are airport employees with specialized aviation security training. If the airport fails a security inspection or if there is a hostile incident, the airport operator is ultimately at fault.

Train Subordinates to Lead

One of the great strengths of the U.S. Armed Forces is that they train subordinates to step in and take charge if need be – even in combat. If a senior sergeant or officer is killed in combat, the mission continues with junior subordinates and so on right down to the privates. This transfer happens because all service members are trained to show initiative, improvise and overcome obstacles.

Training subordinates to lead is essential to the long-term vitality of any organization, whether or not its members wear camouflage or three-piece suits. Subordinates should receive mentoring and training to prepare them to assume at a minimum responsibilities at the next higher level in their profession.

Mentoring can be time-consuming, but it pays big dividends over time. Senior managers must learn to impart their short- and long-term corporate vision to their subordinates. Ensuring that subordinates are trained to step in and take over is a key to mission success and the longevity of an organization.

While certain aspects of the military working environment are unique, there are many aspects of military leadership and management style that translate to the civilian workplace. Synthesizing the best of the military and civilian worlds can result in the creation of a great workplace.

Combining the best lessons learned from leading and managing military personnel with corporate best practices improves not only the bottom line of an organization. It makes the workplace a much more engaging and exciting place to be.

About the Author

 Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.