Military leadership prepares us to embrace change we did not expect

One of the most overused business expressions is “Embrace the change!” Usually these changes are the ones as leaders we want to happen for our own personal benefit. This style of “leadership” is really careerism masquerading, poorly, as an attempt to appear to be a strategist.

True change leadership is when we stand up, help others become successful and truly lead when we embrace and confront the change we do not want or did not expect. This type of change leadership is especially common in the military, when seemingly great plans fail in an instant and leaders emerge … to confront adversity head on.

During the First Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, then-Maj. Rhonda Cornum, a U.S. Army flight surgeon, was shot down by Iraqi forces. Cornum endured confinement, abuse, severe injuries and incredible mistreatment by her Iraqi captors. Yet, she maintained her dignity and professionalism as a military officer and continued on to become a brigadier general.

• Your plans for the future may never happen, but you can still be successful. At the end of 1950, U.S. Marines in Korea were nearing the end of a long fight up the Korean Peninsula. … The Marines were attacked from all sides and had to retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines did not run. Instead, the Marines recognized the situation had dramatically changed and they needed to “attack to the rear” instead of attacking the other direction. True leaders and organizations lead, react, replan and care for their teams when the completely unexpected occurs.

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• Voice your opinion when times are bad. During the beginning stages of the Iraq War in 2007 … Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote a scathing article on the lack of quality general officers leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking up to have open, critical and honest conversation during times of unexpected change is critical to finding and implementing successful solutions to critical problems.

• People before plans. The military is a planning organization. Yet, before any planning happens, the military believes in its people: soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. The very first thing to show the appreciation of military personnel is to send everyone to difficult and complex training with standards of performance that must be met before … [joining] a deployable military formation. Strong, confident and well-trained people are the foundation of any successful plan.

• Create strong plans that allow for individual initiative. During the twilight hours on June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy, American and other Allied airborne forces parachuted and rode gliders into the French countryside. … In the first few hours, all was chaos and confusion. Units were parachuted into the wrong areas; critical leaders were killed, and some critical equipment was lost in the darkness. Yet, hours after a confusing night, the Allied airborne forces were attacking Nazi German reinforcements, holding critical bridges and helping the seaborne landing force get ashore. … Soldiers at all levels were trained to act with initiative, confidence and resolve to get the plan back on track.

• Humility, honesty, decency and generosity are key leadership traits. … Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin, one of the youngest Army generals and the commander of the famed 82nd Airborne Division during World War II – “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin to his soldiers because … he always jumped like a regular soldier with pack, rifle and grenades – was incredibly successful, yet he was humble, honest, decent and led by example in all things.

Military leadership consistently demonstrates true leadership during times of chaotic, unknowing and challenging change. A leader is one who quickly recognizes and reacts to unexpected events, allows open and honest communication … [and] creates strong plans that encourage initiative.

Chad Storlie is an adjunct professor of marketing at Creighton University, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and an Iraq combat veteran.