What We Learned: CEOs Share Lessons From The U.S. Military

Nick Pinchuk, chairman and CEO, Snap-on Tools.

Remaining cool under fire. Dealing with ambiguity. Taking on life-or-death responsibility at an early age. Learning how to give orders—and follow them. Ask a veteran what they learned about leadership from their time in uniform, and you hear all this, and more. After all, whether it was George Washington at Trenton, Ulysses Grant at Vicksburg or Dwight Eisenhower at Normandy, the U.S. military has produced some of the greatest leaders in world history—at war—and peace. It’s definitely doing something right.

Which begs the question: What do you learn about leadership in the U.S. military that’s different than anywhere else? And how do those lessons carry over to running a company? For Veteran’s Day, Chief Executive asked five CEOs to discuss lessons from their time in the service. They were in different branches, doing very different jobs, for a couple of years or for decades, and they now run businesses of very different sizes. But all of them share a sense of respect and responsibility for those that they lead—as well as a well-honed set of tools for keeping them focused and motivated. What follows are excerpts from those conversations, edited for length and clarity:

‘Establish Clear and Compelling Rules’

Nick Pinchuk, chairman and CEO, Snap-on Incorporated: An executive at the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based maker of high-end tools and equipment for transportation-industry technicians, Pinchuk served the U.S. Army as a Signal Corps engineer during the Vietnam War, from 1971 to 1972. He became CEO of Snap-on in 2007 and chairman in 2009.

The Army is a tremendous template for leadership in all walks of life. When I was in graduate school, I also was a high-school football coach, and over the years I’ve found similarities from sports teams, to corporations, to military commands. They are all collective social organisms in which people enlist to create a value or achieve a goal that they couldn’t accomplish individually.

A few lessons stand out from the Army. The first is that it’s very powerful to establish clear and compelling rules and to continually reinforce those causes. That seems obvious in the military. But in your company, clear and compelling goals can also create powerful effects. Employees enlist in that goal and enforce in each other expected behaviors so that,  individually, they’re contributing to the team goal.

So whatever company or organization you’re in, you want to spend time establishing goals and making them clear and compelling. At Snap-on, we see ourselves as people who enable the professionals who accomplish tasks that are critical, where the penalty for failure is high. We move the world forward by easing those critical tasks and giving people the means to shape lives of pride and dignity. That mission has worked well for us for almost a century.

Another lesson that I learned from the Army is that you need to focus on enlisting and energizing the middle. It’s easy to get effort from the high performers. And the low and sub-par players are also relatively easy to deal with, because people know if they’re underperforming, in the military or in a corporation. So you can get their attention in getting them up to the level of their colleagues; no one wants to fail.

But the challenge is people who are in the middle. Telling someone they’re average is neither motivating nor electrifying. You need to motivate them by convincing them that the goals are worthy of their energy—raising their performance by capturing their imagination. They’re the group that makes the difference in an organization; they deliver you from evil.

Another military lesson is how soldiers come from all over, and people are there for different reasons. In any collective organization you have that diversity and need to tailor things for each group. In a company, some are there for the compensation and some to be recognized, and that’s where their loyalty and energy come from. Others are there because they like the idea of shaping lives and creating opportunities for pride and dignity. Others are trying to build a career and are there for the experience.

So you have got to create appeal for these varying groups in different ways, and you can’t be deluded by the idea that one size fits all. I learned how to do this as a lieutenant watching senior officers in the Army.

Finally, it’s absolutely important for a business leader to express confidence in his or her own strategy and tactics. I saw this in Vietnam: When the proverbial debris hits the fan, people in an organization worry, question and wonder—and they look to their leaders to express the confidence that the path they’ve chosen is correct.

Do what you say you’re going to do. “Walk the talk” but also “talk the walk”—express confidence. Otherwise your people will lose faith.