What Sales Managers Can Learn from The Military

20 Apr 16

The Armed Forces Officer is one of the best books on military leadership in the 20th century. Here are five lessons sales managers can learn from it.

A few years ago, I had a long conversation with a newly promoted sales manager (let’s call him John) who was insecure about his leadership skills. John was concerned that his team wasn’t open to being led by someone as inexperienced as him. Or, as John put it, “last month I was a salesperson – their co-worker – and now I got promoted to be their manager. Why will they listen to me?”

I tried to boost his confidence as best I could, but leadership is a fuzzy concept. It is intangible, hard to measure and difficult to describe. I thought of John recently after reading a brilliant book on the subject of leadership: the 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer. The 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer was written by journalist-historian S. L. A. Marshall at the behest of General George C. Marshal and with the support of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This straightforward, no-nonsense manual is the official leadership development guide prepared for use by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. It provides a wealth of timeless advice on leadership, duty, conduct, and standards for American commissioned officers.

The Marshall authored 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer is commonly considered one of the best books on military leadership written in the 20th century. While we typically associate great military leadership with charismatic generals (e.g., General George Patton), The Armed Forces Officer is clear in its view that leadership is not necessarily charisma based, rather that leadership can be taught and it can be acquired.

If only I had a copy of The Armed Forces Officer available to give to John, it would have alleviated many of his concerns about his leadership skills. Not only does The Armed Forces Officer do a great job explaining the foundations of leadership (i.e., why people will follow you), it also includes practical insights on how to become a better leader.

The following are some representative highlights from The Armed Forces Officer on how you can improve your leadership abilities:

#1 Do Your Job Well

According to The Armed Forces Officer, one of the primary standards for measuring leadership capacity in people is the ability to excel in assigned work. The idea is that when you do a great job, you’ll then command the respect, and in turn, the service of other people.

This intuitive concept – i.e., that people naturally follow others who’re good at their job – is revisited numerous times in The Armed Forces Officer. For managers the message is simple: strive for excellence in all aspects of your job and you’ll organically increase your leadership abilities.

#2 Lead by Example

The Armed Forces Officer is clear in its belief that officers need to lead by example: “The stronger [the officer’s] example of diligence, the more earnestly will it be followed by the ablest of his subordinates.”

In the realm of sales management think about the sales manager who, for example, wants his or her team to start work early in order to reach customers in other time zones. It’s one thing to ask your team get to the office at 7:00 AM, but it’s another to be first one in the office and greet your team with coffee and donuts. Or, if you want all meetings to start on time, be sure to always start your own meetings on time.

#3 Improve Your Communication Skills

One overlooked skill relating to leadership is the ability to clearly communicate, both written and oral. According to The Armed Forces Officer, “Battles are won through the ability of men to express concrete ideas in clear and unmistakable language.”

And how should you communicate?  Not surprisingly, The Armed Forces Officer puts a premium on simplicity, “The more simply a thing is said the more powerfully it influences those who read.”

For a sales manager excellent communication skills are necessary for a plethora of critical tasks such as setting performance expectations, providing sales people with feedback, and making sales forecasts. Although we live in an era where informal modes of communication such as email and texting now dominate, it’s still critical that sales managers clearly and succinctly express them.

#4 Train Your Team

Given the importance of ongoing training in the military, it’s not surprising that The Armed Forces Officer describes training as “just about the begin-all and end-all of every military officer’s job.”  The Armed Forces Officer also makes the insightful point that a leader who’s an excellent instructor “will not only teach his troops but will increase his prestige in the act.”  In other words, your team understands the value of great training and you’ll command more respect from your team by providing it.

For a sales manager this means regularly taking advantage of coaching and training opportunities as often as possible, such as scheduling regular coaching calls with each member of your sales team, or incorporating role play practice opportunities during weekly team meetings.

#5 Don’t Become Buddies with Your Team

One common leadership trap that some managers fall into (particularly those who were recently promoted from the field) is becoming too friendly with their subordinates. Here, The Armed Forces Officer is unambiguous: “There is no room for familiarity, since as in any other sphere, it breeds contempt. When it occurs, respect flies out the window…”  The problem is that too much familiarity between superior and subordinate is not possible without the vice of favoritism entering. And the chief damage comes from the effect upon others on the team.

The pay-off for great leadership can be significant. According to a well-known general cited in The Armed Forces Officer, “Ordinarily, and on their own initiative, people run at 35% capacity. The success of a leader comes of tapping the other 65%.”  While some of the leadership concepts outlined in The Armed Forces Officer have subsequently been updated since its original publication, much of it is still relevant today and will help you tap you team’s full potential.


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