What the Military Can Teach Us About Communicating Clearly and Well

Those with a military background can teach us a lot when it comes to clear and concise communication. Directors of MBA programs I’ve interviewed comment on the high executive presence in this audience and the ability to deal quickly (and well) with change. In my coaching work and business communication classes, I find many other wonderful leadership qualities emerge when working with military, too. This blog outlines some helpful tips and takeaways from the experts.

Be Decisive

Military have learned to become decisive—the safety and well being of their unit depended on it. However, retired lieutenant colonels like John Phillips, author of the Amazon best-selling Boots to Loafers, find this vital quality of committing to a plan/action quickly often lacking in the corporate sector. (He’s worked in multiple roles including finance director for the Coca-Cola Company.) Phillips found in many meetings, by the time the session concluded, no one knew exactly what had happened, what was covered, and nobody decided a thing. If a leader did commit to a plan, “two to three back doors existed for the “leader” to escape if something went wrong.”

Phillips adds his service taught him: when in charge, take charge. And this leadership quality translates so well in the corporate sector, too. Phillips finds when he encourages corporate teammates to take charge of something and lead (within the parameters he offered), the approach helped develop his people into leaders. “It gave them a sense of responsibility. I held them accountable for their efforts and awarded them accordingly when they did an exceptional job.”

Defer to Others

Experts often note the power of deference among the military—the ability to show respect to (and recognize) others as something other business communicators can learn from. Lida Citroen, reputation management consultant and author of Your Next Mission, finds the military promotes “service before self.” And this quality shows up as respect, passing credit to others vs. claiming accolades individually, she says.

“Service members learn to accept responsibility and accountability while also building others up with praise and gratitude. As business communicators, we often focus on being first to the message and taking credit, and we can forget to raise others up in the process.” She adds, while deference feels challenging, we can learn a lot from the generous and (sometimes) self-less ways veterans promote others. “More of us could model this behavior, to the benefit of all.”

Be Direct and Keep the Bottom Line Up

Others feel we can learn a lot from the clear, confident (and direct) way military learn to communicate.  Kirk Lawrence is a retired Colonel with the US Army and now program director at UNC Chapel Hill Executive Development at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Lawrence says those with a military background generally get to the main problem statement (or concept) very quickly and don’t waste time. This group of communicators also comes with an agenda/schedule then sticks to it. “Concise, clear and direct delivery ensures the main problems get identified up front, therefore leaving time for executive level discussion.”

Lawrence also sees the best presenters follow the 3 B’s in presenting concepts or ideas: “Be brief, be blunt, and be gone.” This approach correlates well to the BLUF rule—Bottom Line Up. Front.  Get your stated problem and overall objectives out at the beginning of all communications, present your options for a solution clearly and allow time for input/discussion/thought leadership from the senior exec team. “These habits are usually ingrained in the military and can serve as valuable tools for private sector executives in being most efficient with their time,” he says.



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