What Two Years in the Israeli Army Taught Me About Leadership
Why would an American college kid volunteer to spend two and a half years in one of Israel’s toughest military units? It wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind until I read A Purity of Arms. I was drawn to the seemingly impossible challenges the book described.
Before I knew it, I found myself inspired to join the army and push my personal growth by becoming a part of a small, elite group. This is the path that led me to become a sergeant in the paratroopers, serving as a sniper for the battalion.
The lessons I learned during my time in Israel have shaped the person I am today, and influenced the leadership approach I take with the teams I manage. These are the five key lessons I learned as a result of that incredible opportunity:
1. You have to earn it.
I entered the Israeli military with nothing other than the clothes on my back. Like my fellow soldiers, I had to put in a lot of hard work to earn each piece of equipment by completing a series of physical challenges, culminating in an 80-mile march to earn the unit’s beret.
Each task seemed almost insurmountable at first. Although there were some days when I thought that I might not be able to finish, I completed each task -- even if I needed a fellow soldier to physically push or pull me the last mile.
The lesson I took away from this is that you can and should push your boundaries to overcome difficult challenges.
2. Team up to “take that hill.”
Our leaders would tell us “what hill to take,” but they didn’t tell us how to get there -- determining that strategy was always up to us. They encouraged us to work as a team to make collaborative decisions on how to best accomplish our goal.
As a group, we were taught the importance of studying our mistakes so we could all take away clear insight into what happened, how we could do things differently in the future, and what to do to avoid making the same mistakes again.
I quickly learned the importance of providing my teams with simple, strategic goals and giving them the confidence to trust their abilities, and then getting out of their way to give them the space they needed to succeed on their own.
3. Effective leaders are generalists, not specialists.
An effective leader is a generalist who understands the functions their teams need to execute well enough to manage them, but also understands the importance of hiring the right specialists. Nobody can be an expert in everything.
To apply this to a business setting, it’s important for leaders to have a well-rounded understanding of more than just one part of the organization. For example, if you’re a marketer who aspires to be a business leader, don’t spend your entire career working in the marketing department. Train and take lateral moves to spend time working in other departments, then move back into the marketing group.
This sort of expanded experience within your company will give you a much wider, richer view of all aspects of the business, which in turn will allow you to approach your job from a broader perspective.
4. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
No one considered a job to be beneath them. Everyone pitched in to do whatever the team needed. All the leaders, including commanders, were getting dirty, sleeping in tents, leading marches and enduring cold, sleepless nights with the rest of us. That built instant and enduring respect with the teams and instilled in me the belief that you don’t ask someone on your team to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.
More often than not, doing something together as a team has much stronger results and helps cement a strong team dynamic.
5. When you get knocked down five times, get back up six.
If I had to single out the biggest takeaway from this experience, it would have to be that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. If a door is slammed in your face, you can figure out how to solve the problem to get through it.
In the military, we knew we would have to march 80 miles to earn our green beret. Initially, everyone on the team thought it was an impossible task. But as we went through our training, our leaders’ support of us helped build the confidence that it could be done. This taught us the importance of staying focused to persevere.
In a business setting, we often see colleagues hit a wall and give up on a project or goal. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With some encouragement and guidance, an effective leader can help team members gain the confidence they need to try again and succeed. Leaders need to encourage their teams to learn from failure and get back in there and work to overcome it.
So much more can be accomplished as a leader when you acknowledge and recognize the support of the team around you. Without your team, you are nothing.
I’d love to hear about your experiences implementing these and similar ideas either by email or in the comments section below.