What did being an Army Green Beret teach me about leadership?

This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, with advice, key interviews and tips for living a life of influence, growth, and continuous learning.

For more than 31 years, I served our country as a soldier – my first decade as a military policeman and the rest of the US Army Special Forces. During my time there, I worked in every enlisted leadership position, from front line supervisor to sergeant major. In all those positions, I learned something from the people I led and I followed. While the lessons are numerous and hard to overcome, there are five principles that have stayed with me. They pay dividends no matter what sector you are in.

  1. leadership matters
  2. culture matters
  3. people matter
  4. teams matter
  5. development matters

1. Leadership Matters

There are many definitions, but I want to share what the military has taught me about leadership through ADP 6-22 (Army Doctrine Reference Publication).

“The activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”

I first remembered it in 1993, when I studied for my sergeant’s oral board, which was part of the promotion requirements to become a leader in the military. These words have shaped who I have become and who I want others to know. Leadership is influence, purpose, motivation, direction, achievement and improvement. Hopefully, the days of “because I said so” are gone or at least getting less. Employees want to know two basic things: Why me and why? It is easy to think why in terms of profits, but profits are not so important to the individual.

A good leader should explain why an organization is moving in one direction by telling its people about the bigger picture. Increased sales means bigger markets, bigger markets means a bigger workforce, and that means growth opportunities for existing employees. As leaders are developing their employees, they should always look at how they want to grow in their careers and how you can develop them to achieve their goals. People don’t just leave jobs, they leave bosses who don’t provide leadership.

2. Culture Matters

Why do soldiers re-enlist knowing what their last assignment is? During my time in the military, I’ve been to some of the most dangerous places on earth, yet I’ve continued to enlist for more than three decades. I stayed because I was immersed in a culture that promoted personal development to meet unit needs, not the other way around. As Green Berets, we knew that every ounce of time and money spent developing our troops meant a higher chance of success on the battlefield. The reform of the organization was more than a slogan; This was our culture. How many companies publish their culture but fail to promote it? You won’t be able to maintain an organization that confuses profit for culture.

3. People matter

No amount of automation can replace your most basic and important asset: human capital. Your people sell, produce and ship your product. Your product is the result of your people, not their reason for being. Early in my career I learned that my people worked hard for me only when I worked hard for them. I had responsibilities in the chain of command, but my people were always my priority. Mission achievement is far easier with a motivated and therefore dedicated, workforce. Know your people, find out what they want from life, then help them get there. Use your mission as a development tool for your team and they’ll be more willing to go the extra mile.

4. Teams Matter

A Special Forces team is designed to be able to operate independently of a centralized command structure. While assets and support are given from top to bottom, often the mission is accomplished from bottom to top. Those Green Berets know what is happening on the ground and know how to best address it. They also know that their lower-level missions are rooted in the commander’s intent. The commander and his staff are there to prioritize, allocate assets, and support the teams that will ultimately accomplish the overall objectives of the command.
It was easy to think that my missions were the most important. When I was not given priority to get the property I wanted, I started to get annoyed. A good commander sat me down and explained that while I knew my area of ‚Äč‚Äčoperations best, he and his crew had the bigger picture in mind and could see when and where my mission made the biggest impact. I quickly learned to communicate both vertically and horizontally, to see how I could give and receive mutual support for the overall purpose.

5. Growth Matters

On average, a Special Forces Team Sergeant holds that position for two years. He is then promoted to manage an ever-increasing number of teams. There’s nothing worse than watching your former team elevate you and making them your biggest problem because you’ve failed to grow into someone to replace you. You just created your headache. Change is constant and you are responsible for managing it. Developing your people to take on bigger roles and responsibilities should always be your first priority. Eventually, they’ll move on and if they fail, it’s partly because they didn’t have a mentor to help them develop.

Leaders improve the organization by developing the leaders of tomorrow today. Leaders who focus only on profits at the expense of their people fail to understand what leadership really is. Provide purpose, be motivator, give direction and you’ll see that mission achievement is easier than you think, and your organization will continue to improve.

SGM (Retd) Joshua Johnson is a 32-year veteran of the US Army Special Forces and now serves as Senior Vice President of Leadership Development. talent battle group,

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