War-Forged Leadership Lessons

Five war-forged leadership lessons from active-duty military for aspiring and current leaders from the battlefield to the boardroom.

By Hugo Britt | July 11, 2024

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If an Airborne Division officer was able to convince 40 people to follow him when he leaped out of an airplane into a night that would drop as low as -50 degrees with high winds, then that person has some serious credibility when it comes to leadership coaching.

For episode 160 of The Sourcing Hero podcast, our host Kelly Barner interviewed Tom Williams. Tom enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2013 as an Airborne Intelligence Analyst and has served in locations from the Middle East to the Arctic, where he has formed his own unique philosophy on leadership.

As of 2024, Tom has spent 11 years in the army. “I’ve done everything from the 10th Special Forces Group, the 82nd Airborne Division (where I am trying to go back to), and currently I’m up here with the 11th Airborne Division in the Arctic. I was deployed in 2016, 2017, when we won the Battle of Mosul. We defeated ISIS over there! And today, I’m a father of five.”

War-forged leadership lessons for everyone

Below, we share five leadership lessons from Tom Williams for aspiring and current leaders from the battlefield to the boardroom.

1. Be proactive

Tom shared two stories about how he advanced his career in the military by being proactive. When he was in a junior role, he went above and beyond in assisting an officer who was doing “collection management,” which is essentially trying to get the assets to the right places at the right timeline on a spreadsheet.

“I wasn’t married at the time. I had no kids, [so I was able to] spend all weekend working on this problem. When I went to work on Monday, I said, ‘Here is the solution to what I think your problem is.’ The officer was like, ‘Boom! Hired. You are going to be my guy for this deployment.’ If you really want to get to the PhD-level stuff, figure out what your boss’ problems are, and you solve them without them even having to ask you to do it.” 

The other story Tom shared was about a Colonel he admired. “I remember how I used to look at that guy and was like, ‘Man, I want to be him.’ I wasn’t listed at the time. He offered me the opportunity to write to him if I ever need anything. I asked, ‘Would you support me in becoming an officer?’ And he wrote back: ‘Absolutely.’ The next day, I got a letter of recommendation, and that is how I am an officer today. It was because I wanted to be like him, and I was trying to emulate the things that I thought were cool.”

Current and aspiring leaders can take valuable lessons from the military and deploy them within the business landscape.

2. Be a leader, not just a boss

“Here’s my philosophy,” said Tom. “Anybody can be a boss. But you can also make the decision to be a leader, no matter what level you are at.

The characteristics that really line up based on what makes you leader versus a boss are pretty simple. Do you actually care about the people that work underneath you? That’s probably the biggest identifier that I see. In my years in the army, and just the military in general, you can tell that this guy right here is more of a boss, but this guy over here is a leader, and I would follow that guy to hell and back any day.

You can smell the leadership capabilities of somebody in the way they treat you. Do they know your name? Do they know about your family? Do they care about your time? I will tell you that, if there’s a leader who knows it’s my wife and my anniversary and gives me the day off, I’m going to work ten times harder for that person.”

3. Ask, don't order

“When you don’t have enough leadership experience under your belt, you tend to make very black-and-white calls,” said Tom. “‘This is yes, and this is no, and you are going to do it regardless of what I say.’ But the truth is people don’t like to be told what to do.

“Today, I ask for favors. As an officer, they have to do whatever I say, but if I say, ‘Hey, Sergeant. Do you mind doing me a favor?’ They’re like, ‘Yes, sir!’ I’m still telling them to do it, but it’s in a much more passive way which gives them the opportunity to fulfill the task and feel they are being their own leader. It gets done faster because they want to do it.”

4. Be skeptical of first reports

“Beware of first reports,” advises Tom, “because the first time you get a report, it’s often really bad. Normally, the first information you receive is that the world is on fire, then you come to find out after a couple of hours that something bad did happen, but it’s not as bad as we thought.

As a leader, I don’t want to be the one that is shocked [by a first report] and then turn around and rage on my people. That doesn’t do anything; it just adds confusion. As the leader, you really have to be the person that is confident and calm – even when the worst things are happening. That is not something you can develop overnight.”

5. Real heroes are vulnerable

“I had this piece of advice many years ago from a lieutenant colonel in a class I was in,” said Tom. “It was probably the best advice that I ever got: make yourself vulnerable as a leader. This applies to both business and the military. If you are able to sit there and actually be human with somebody, they are going to work immensely harder for you. But opening up does take heroism.” 

Interested in learning more from Tom Williams? Check out his book, War Forged Leadership, and listen to the full podcast episode here.

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