In 1779, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Army, published a book of drill instructions entitled, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” This publication served as the Army’s drill manual until the War of 1812, and is considered to be the forerunner of the current United States Army’s current Drill and Ceremonies manual.
Von Steuben’s book is interesting to me, both for the historical significance of it and for the practical wisdom contained within it. As a young Noncommissioned Officer, I read and took to heart one particular portion of the manual: Instructions for Sergeants and Corporals. As I look back now on my service, I realize that the qualities of leadership that I learned in the military, and as identified by a Revolutionary War General nearly 250 years ago, are applicable today.
Some excerpts from von Stuben’s manual:
It being on the non-commissioned officers that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, by treating them with mildness, and at the same time obliging every one to do his duty.
The culture of the organization is a reflection of it’s leaders, and how well (or poorly) an organization performs depends a great deal on how the leader conducts themselves. A leader should be direct, and not too harsh, but make sure what needs to get done is being done.
Each sergeant and corporal will be in a particular manner answerable for the squad committed to his care.
Leaders have a responsibility both to and for the people they lead. Truman’s famous plaque on his desk, The Buck Stops Here, is indicative of the responsibility of a leader for what happens in their organization. The idea that those who join our team are “committed to our care” is a significant one. In the military, we were entrusted with the lives of our men and women. In the civilian sector, those who choose to work for us, or are selected to work for us, are entrusted to our care in the same way.
When a man of his squad is warned for duty, he must examine him before he carries him to the parade, obliging him to take all his effects with him, unless when specially ordered to the contrary.
You can’t expect what you don’t inspect. One of the things that burned me up the most when I was in the military was delegation without verification. The First Sergeant would tell the Platoon Sergeant, “Make sure Private Jones gets to Building 827 by 1400 today.” The Platoon Sergeant would tell the Section
Sergeant, the Section Sergeant would tell the Squad Leader, on down to the Team Leader, and at 1400 you have two Privates running around post looking for building 827. How different is that from our current organizations? By giving someone vague guidance, such as “be ready for the conference call at 2,” and then exploding because they didn’t do everything you wanted them to do, we create a toxic environment where nobody knows what’s going on. Of course, the Platoon Sergeant can’t take the Private everywhere, and the CEO can’t do everything; check and doublecheck, train and trust.
In teaching recruits, they must exercise all their patience, by no means abusing them, but treating them with mildness, and not expect too much precision in the first lessons, punishing those only who are willfully negligent.
Speaking of training: I especially like the guidance not to expect things to be done exactly right when someone is first learning how to do a task. By expecting perfection from our subordinates immediately,we are establishing a zero-defect mentality that breeds a risk-adverse mindset. Leaders must be patient. Not abusive. Once the lesson is learned, however, the willfully negligent must be held accountable for their actions.
They should teach the soldiers of their squads how to dress with soldier-like air, how to clean their arms, accouterments, etc, and how to mount and dismount their firelocks; for which purpose each non-commissioned officer should always be provided a turnscrew, and suffer no soldier to take his arms to pieces without his permission
As leaders, we have an obligation to train and mentor those who are entrusted to our care. We need to make sure to let them know clearly what is expected of them, how we want to get it done, and ensure that we have the proper resources to do so.
We could go on for days with examples of leadership that we learned in the military. This is where veterans provide value to organizations after leaving the service; we learn responsibility. We have discipline to accomplish a given task. We are planners, executors, doers. That’s hard to describe in a resume, and challenging to get across in an interview with someone who doesn’t have a military background.
Take some time today to think about what you learned about leadership in the military, and how it applies to where you are right now. You might be surprised to find that old Baron von Steuben is more applicable than you think.