What are the Differences Between Military and Business Leadership?

By Kinexus on 25 October 2018

What Are The Differences Between Military And Business Leadership

Being a leader in the business world vastly differs from being a leader in the military.

After I left the Navy, I built a career in leadership. I have led multiple sales teams to success and received numerous leadership awards.

My career as a leader wasn’t always successful though. In the beginning, my approach was to take a military tactic with my team, and this didn’t turn out the way I expected.

Luckily, I had a good mentor, who coached me on how to be an effective leader in the business world.

Let me share some of my learnings on some of the key differences.


In a military operation, there is no consideration for an individual’s motivations or goals. Everyone is working together to achieve a common objective. The attitude is that ‘there is no I in TEAM’ and a leader doesn’t need to consider each subordinate’s motivators. Everyone does their bit to get the job done. For example, in April 2000, after months of preparation, Fleet Command spent 70 hours on board our ship, the HMAS Brisbane, to assess her wartime readiness. It was gruelling, it was stressful, and we hardly slept. But 330 sailors worked together with one goal in mind – to pass the assessment. And thanks to a strong sense of discipline among the crew, and a great leadership team, we passed.

In the business world, everyone has individual goals, both business and personal. Many roles carry individual KPIs. The sales reps I’ve led have had individual revenue targets.

As their leader I couldn’t just say “I order you to achieve your target” – it isn’t that simple.

Instead, I worked with my people, relying on coaching tools such as SMART goal setting, call calibrations, role plays, side-by-side coaching and sales conversation guides to drive and develop my team to achieve their targets.

But before I could get their buy-in, I had to build trust and relationships with my team so they could accept me as their coach. I had to understand what their personal goals are; what motivates them to come to work each day and achieve their KPIs? Is it career progression? A new car? Holiday? Recognition amongst their peers?

To be an effective leader, it’s crucial to understand what motivates your people.


I spent the majority of my first year in the Navy in training. Some roles require two or more years of initial training. And once training has been completed, we would practice, practice, practice what we learnt until it was etched into our brain.

Soldiers can strip weapons with their eyes closed.  Training is a vital part of the military, and it enables us to perform our duties without thinking. The military has the resources to invest a lot of time in developing its people. A military leader can delegate a complicated task without having to consider skill-gaps because the leader knows and trusts in the level of training the subordinate has received. Everyone in the military is a subject matter expert in their respective roles. Additionally, everything in the military is standardised, from processes to reporting, to training.

It’s not always like this in the business world, and not all companies invest in training their people. Training staff requires a lot of resources, which can interfere with deadlines, customer requirements and KPIs. Not everyone is an SME. And two different businesses in the same industry may have a completely different way of doing things.

A leader understands that the business world isn’t a perfect world scenario with unlimited training resources. Mistakes are okay, and it provides the leader with the opportunity to put on their coaching hat and teach their people the right way.


In the military, every lawful order given by a senior ranking officer must be followed immediately and without question – otherwise, you could get charged by the military police. Military leaders aren’t encouraged to use manners, and their tone can be direct. I’ve seen military leaders yell orders at sailors. They aren’t asking, they are telling.

It’s a bit different in the business world. Business leaders don’t give ‘orders’. They set goals and objectives with their team and discuss the best way to achieve them. They encourage input from their team, and the team feels valued with the collaborative approach. Good leaders tailor their communication style to their recipient, and numerous factors such as age, gender, culture, ethnicity, experience and relationship need to be considered.

Yes, directives need to be given from time to time, but it’s generally accepted for an employee to question the purpose of the order, and how it will benefit the employee.

Of course, the impacts of not obeying a military order can include loss of life and mission failure – something businesses don’t have to worry about!


As you transition your career from military to civilian leadership, it’s important to consider these differences. This will enable you to be as effective as a leader out of uniform as you were in uniform.

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