Correlation between military service and corporate leadership?

Recently CNN Money featured a piece on veterans who held the CEO title at ten Fortune 500 companies; the highest ranking CEO served at the #4 company on the list (ConocoPhillips) and the lowest ranking CEO served at the #473 company on the list (Casey’s General Stores). 9 of the 10 are public companies with a combined market cap of $711 billion. A link to the story is here:

Several of those mentioned had quotes which resonated with me and based on conversations I have with companies every day should also resonate with them if the dots are connected. Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, is a graduate of West Point and spent six years in the Army. Interestingly, his comments spoke to his challenges in transitioning out of the military and into the private sector. He came from a position of respect and leadership in the military, responsible for the lives of more than 125 soldiers. He had to get used to starting all over again at the bottom and working his way up as quickly as he could. As he put it, “Right away, you think, ‘I’m going to jump out there and apply my captain skills.’ I had to get used to rejection.” I agree in part with his sentiment but the statement can be a bit discouraging. The challenge lies not in the skills the veteran does not possess but rather in moving from one very distinct culture to one which is typically less rigid and with clearly defined boundaries like we are used to in the military. Clearly though, his leadership skills quickly came into play and he did not stay at the bottom for long.

Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin, says the most important leadership decision he ever made was enlisting in the Marine Corps at 18 years old. He went on to discuss leadership lessons he learned in school versus what he learned in the military. Stevens said “I did not learn about leadership in business school. I learned about leadership when I was 18 years-old and first introduced to the United States Marine Corps, where leadership is not taught by a favored professor in a three-credit hour course, it is taught by every officer and every NCO in every minute and every hour of every day, in every action, every word, every deed, and every circumstance.” Lockheed is well respected for hiring veterans as nearly 25% of their workforce is veterans. They don’t do it because their CEO is a veteran, they do it because it makes good business sense. Stevens adds “They have courage, integrity, honor and character. And they understand service and sacrifice in the interests of others. All that makes them good for our company and good for our business.” It is these core values which are common in the military which the private sector desperately needs to see on display in all employees and not just displayed proudly on the mission, vision & values page on the company website. Veterans come pre-packaged with these values not only instilled but often battle tested.

Fred Smith, CEO and Founder of FedEx, credits his service in the Marine Corps giving him the skills to build FedEx. During his time in the Corps, he served two tours in Vietnam which clearly defined the value of leadership skills. Smith states “Leadership is simply the ability of an individual to coalesce the efforts of other individuals toward achieving common goals. It boils down to looking after your people and ensuring that, from top to bottom, everyone feels part of the team. Like in the Marine Corps, FedEx is a team effort and it takes all 300,000 of us working every day to satisfy our customers.” He clearly understands how effective leadership impacts morale in any organization and in turn impacts the customers they serve. Just as in military service, the power of the team either makes you or breaks you and is the difference between the richest success and the most dashing defeats.
Dennis Davis, Chief Translation Officer

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