What Being an Army Green Beret Taught Me About Leadership

U.S. Army Special Forces uniform
SGM (Ret) Joshua Johnson, veteran of the U.S. Army Special ForcesCourtesy Image

This article is an installment of The Everyday Warrior series, featuring advice, key interviews, and tips to live a life of impact, growth, and continual learning.

For over 31 years, I served our nation as a soldier—my first decade as a military policeman and the rest in the U.S. Army Special Forces. During my time, I served in every enlisted leadership position from front line supervisor to sergeant major. In every one of those positions, I learned something from those I led and those I followed. While the lessons are innumerable and hard to distill, there are five principles that have stayed with me. They pay dividends no matter what field you’re in.

  1. Leadership matters
  2. Culture matters
  3. People matter
  4. Teams matter
  5. Growth matters

1. Leadership Matters

There are several definitions, but I would like to share what the Army taught me about leadership via the 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 memorized this in 1993 while I studied for my Sergeant’s oral board, part of the promotion requirements to become a leader in the Army. These words have shaped who I’ve become and are the foundation of what I want others to know. Leadership is influence, purpose, motivation, direction, accomplishment, and improvement. Hopefully, the days of, “Because I said so” leadership are gone or at least subsiding. Employees want to know two basic things: why and why me? It’s easy to think of the why in terms of profits, but to the individual, profits are not that important.

A good leader should be explaining why an organization is moving in a direction by informing their people of the bigger picture. Increased sales mean bigger markets, bigger markets mean a larger workforce, and that means growth opportunities for existing staff. As leaders are developing their employees, they should always be looking at how they want to grow in their careers and how you can develop them to achieve their goals. People don’t just quit jobs, they quit bosses who don’t provide leadership.

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2. Culture Matters

Why do soldiers re-enlist knowing what their ultimate job is? During my time in the Army, I’ve been to some of the most dangerous places on Earth, yet I’ve continued to re-enlist for over three decades. I stayed because I was immersed in a culture that promoted individual development to meet unit requirements, not the other way around. As Green Berets, we knew that every ounce of time and money spent developing our soldiers meant a higher chance of success on the battlefield. Improvement of the organization was more than a slogan; it was our culture. How many companies publish their culture but fail to promote it? You will never be able to sustain 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 the reason for having them. Early in my career I learned my people worked harder for me only when I worked harder for them. I had responsibilities up the chain of command, but my people were always my priority. Mission accomplishment is far easier with a motivated and therefore, dedicated, workforce. Get to know your people, find out what they want out of life, then help them get there. Use your mission as a development tool for your team and they’ll be far more willing to go the extra mile.

4. Teams Matter

A Special Forces team is designed to be able to operate independent of centralized command structure. While assets and support are given from the top down, most often the mission is accomplished from the bottom up. Those Green Berets know what’s happening on the ground and know how to best address it. They also know their bottom-up missions are nested within the commander’s intent. Commanders and their staff are there to prioritize, allocate assets, and support the teams who are ultimately the ones who will meet the overall objectives of the command.
It was easy to think my missions were the most important. When I was not prioritized to receive the assets I wanted, I started becoming resentful. A good commander sat me down and explained that while I knew my area of operations best, he and his staff 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 objective.

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5. Growth Matters

On average, a Special Forces Team sergeant holds that position for two years. They are then promoted to manage multiple teams in ever-growing numbers. There’s nothing worse than overseeing your former team from a higher position and having them become your biggest problem because you failed to develop someone to replace you. You just created your own headache. Change is constant and you are responsible to manage it. Developing your people to assume bigger roles and responsibilities should always be your number one priority. Eventually, they will move on and if they are unsuccessful, it’s partly because they didn’t have a mentor to help develop them.

Leaders Improve the organization by developing tomorrow’s leaders today. Leaders who focus solely on profits, at the expense of their people, fail to understand what leadership truly is. Provide purpose, be a motivator, give direction and you will see that mission accomplishment is far easier than you thought, and your organization will continue to improve.

SGM (Ret) Joshua Johnson is a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and now serves as the Sr. VP of Leadership Development for Talent War Group.

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