5 Military Leadership Principles That Can Solve Today’s Small Business Problems

military leadership traits


“Marines have done so much, with so little, for so long, that now we can do anything, with nothing, forever.” ~Custom inscription from the cigarette lighter of a Marine serving in Vietnam – Detroit Free Press – 1971~

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, and how it seems to prove itself true, time and time again, not just for the Marines, but for the military in general. Having served as an infantryman in the Army, and having run a successful small business for over five years, I can definitely relate to this quote.

When I was in the military, there were always challenges, especially when we were in combat. It was more than once that our team felt like we didn’t have enough time or resources, and didn’t have enough guidance, to get the job done. But we always did.

The heart of SEO is all about solving problems – link building, on-page optimization, and technical SEO are just the tactics we use to help solve those problems. While there’s no magic formula you can use to instantly create solutions, and having certain tools and resources is essential for conducting SEO, we can all benefit from learning how to think better.

There are plenty of challenges that small businesses have to address in the modern age, but no matter what new problems we face, I believe that the skills and traits the military has developed, while working in some very harsh conditions, can provide the answers that businesses are struggling to find.

Why Do We Win? The Hallmarks of Military Success

For military service members and veterans in the private sector, victory is everything. It’s not because we are driven by ego or money, but rather the reality that we have operated in environments where defeat can cost lives.

One thing the military does well, perhaps better than any other large organization, is to identify and quantify what enables people to win, then train each service member in those essential skills. Some of the most critical and ingrained traits that nearly every veteran possesses include:


For leaders at all levels in the military, the ability to make a decision, and stick to it, is ingrained early on.

There are essentially three reactions that a person can have when they encounter a problem or obstacle: fight, flight, or freeze. This holds true whether we’re talking about encountering an ambush on the battlefield, or analyzing our quarterly earning statements to find that we’re well under our goals.

For military leaders, this literally means that we will either tackle the problem head-on (fight), or withdraw to attack later from a position of advantage (flight). The one thing we can’t, and don’t do, is freeze.

To a veteran, the worst decision you can make isn’t a bad decision – those can create opportunities for learning and growth, and can be fixed later. It’s making no decision at all.

For example, if you have a current product, but you feel it could be used to solve a new problem, or to solve a problem for a new market, the only way you would know for sure is by marketing it to, and getting feedback from, the new audience. You could spend $50,000 on research and theory or the same amount promoting it to the potential audience, but only one of those scenarios would give you verified insights.

Remember the Super Bowl “Dilly Dilly” commercials?

In testing it performed poorly, but once they ran it, it was an overnight sensation. Bud Light made a decision, stuck with it despite a poor initial reception, and it became a phenomenal success.

Problem Solving

Before you can make a decision, you have to understand the problem you’re dealing with, and the factors that led to it being a problem in the first place.

Every veteran understands that problems are inevitable – it’s why the military is in business. War is a collection of problems, at scales both gargantuan and microscopic, that need to be solved.

Military leaders don’t just apply quick fixes that will temporarily ease issues when things go wrong. Instead, veterans learn how to address the most pressing issues that will impede immediate success, while identifying the underlying issues that made things go array in the first place. They then take steps to resolve, or at least mitigate, those issues.

If I have a few soldiers who are struggling to carry the minimum weight in their packs, and can’t keep up with the team during a march, I’m going to redistribute their items across the team to solve the immediate problem, but I’m also going to do more training with strength and endurance to resolve the root issue.

Establishing a Vision and Developing a Plan

There are plenty of great ideas in the world. Veterans understand that while fresh ideas are essential to growth, they’re all but worthless without a clear vision of where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there.

In the military, we refer to our vision as our endstate – how we want things to look for it to be considered a success once the work is done. Once we have an endstate in mind, we conduct backwards planning – starting with our endstate and then working back through the steps and factors we’ll need to address to get there.

The reason military leaders start at the end and work backwards is to avoid the branching path mentality – the fact that there are so many paths you could take in the beginning that you have difficulty choosing just one, while focusing on a common objective.

Veterans also understand that just talking about an issue, and researching ideas and methods indefinitely, won’t do any good unless you actually take action.

There is a time ratio that military leaders use called the “One-third/Two-thirds Rule” when planning. It means that leaders shouldn’t spend more than one-third of their available time for researching and making a plan so they can allow two-thirds of the time for their teams to begin preparing and taking initial action.

You can always adjust your plan as you progress, but without taking those initial steps, you’ll never achieve anything. Veterans understand this, and act on it.

Teamwork and Task Delegation

Michael Jordan once said that “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships,” and there is nowhere that is more applicable than the military.

The military is unique from most private organizations in that it spends nearly as much time developing the individual as it does the team. Every service member receives some form of entry level training that teaches the basic fundamentals of military service, and they will continue to receive mandatory training and education as they progress in rank. They emphasize the individual service member, not just for their benefit exclusively, but so the team will be strengthened.

We live by that ancient proverb, “The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Veterans also understand that no one person can do everything alone, no matter how talented. If you try, you’ll be overwhelmed, and your focus won’t be on leading your team and looking to the future. In short: you will fail.

Military leaders understand that they have to trust their subordinates, and delegate a majority of their essential tasks to them. It not only keeps us from being overwhelmed, it allows us the time and mental energy we need to look to the future, identify where we’re going next, and start planning to get there.

Adaptability and Perseverance

Nothing can impede progress like hesitation and fear. It’s natural for people to feel anxious when they approach something new. You don’t know for sure that a plan will work, if a new service will be worth the cost, or if that new hire will live up to what their resume claims. But veterans don’t shirk away from situations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

They adapt, and they overcome.

Whether it’s a new process, a new piece of technology, or a new idea, veterans begin by researching it, studying the in’s and out’s as much as they can, thinking about ways they can apply it to themselves, and then they get to work. We don’t wait for someone to tell us how to do our jobs – we figure it out ourselves, and keep going.

The key that allows veterans to operate this way is resiliency; we don’t get discouraged when things go wrong, and we don’t ever quit. Instead, we figure out what went wrong and why, fix it, and change the way we operate so it doesn’t happen again.

The Winning Solutions for Business Dilemmas

This is all well and good, but what can we glean from these military traits, that were fostered to fight battles and win wars, that will help us to grow our small businesses?

We need to understand what the most challenging issues are that small business are facing in 2018, and will continue to deal with in the future. Only then can we understand how a military mindset can make giant strides in a boardroom setting:

A Lack of Vision for Growth

When you start your small business, you may have a great idea or a great product that you want to base your business on, but if you don’t have a vision for where your want your business to be in one, five, and ten years, you’re doomed to fail before you even start. Too often, first time (and even repeat) entrepreneurs think it’s enough to take their product to market, open an online shop with a professionally designed logo, and wait for their customers to come to them.

But the statistics don’t lie: 20% of small businesses will close within their first year, 50% within five years, and 80% before they make it to ten.

In large part, this is because businesses don’t establish where they want to go, what they need to do to get there, and don’t make a plan to achieve it, right from the get go.

When I consult potential clients about Stellar SEO and what we can do for them, I don’t start by asking what their problems are or how much they have to spend. I ask them what they want to achieve.

Before we can design a digital marketing plan that will work for them, I need to know what their goals are, in terms of ranking, conversion, and ROI. I create a clear endstate for their marketing efforts, then we work backwards to formulate a plan that addresses their problems and concerns, while considering the likelihood of generating a solid return on their investment in the process.

By using the concepts of endstate and backwards planning I learned in the military, I ensure we’re all united by a common vision for success, and no matter what decisions we have to make, what problems we’ll face, or how we’ll need to adapt to meet our goal, what we need to achieve is clear, and we can focus on it as a team.

Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

One of the biggest challenges for any business, large or small, is finding the right people to do the job, and keep them for years on end. The Baby Boomers are retiring, and Gen-X’ers are nearing retirement age. When they’re gone, who’s going to fill their shoes?

I’ve seen countless job ads on LinkedIn and Indeed saying, “3 to 5 Years Industry Experience Required.” I’m here to tell you – you’re not going to find it anymore. Millenials, and the emerging Gen-Z’ers, don’t have it. The retirees took it with them when they left.

I spoke about how military members are extremely adaptable, and how we strengthen the individual to benefit the team. This is the same approach you should have when you scout your talent.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you can’t require a college degree in marketing for your marketing or sales positions, or say that you’d preferred those 3 to 5 years experience if you can get it. What I am saying is that you should focus more on finding  adaptive, strong-willed individuals, who aren’t afraid to solve problems and make decisions, to fill those roles.

They’ll work hard, figure out what they don’t know that they need to, and teach themselves. That will benefit you far more than a 10-year industry professional who quits at the first hint of adversity or that you have to babysit when things change.

Once you’ve got them, keeping talented people can pose an even greater challenge. Whether it’s for a higher salary, upward career mobility, or flexibility to spend more time with family, there are a host of reasons for people to quit.

The way the military keeps it’s best and brightest is two-fold: it continually invests in them, through mentorship and education, and it rewards their success with promotions and increased pay. Many people in the military don’t make a great deal of money, especially not the amount some think they should, given all that they do. Nevertheless we stayed in the military because we believed in something greater than ourselves, were part of a team that was closer than family, and did a job that we loved.

If you can provide a higher purpose for what you’re doing (beyond making money or getting a greater market share), bring together individuals who adapt and strive together, invest in your employees’ development, and show that you care about them as human beings, you’ll find that you’ll have a quality team who exceeds your expectations, and sticks around for many years to come.

Fatigue and a Lack of Delegation

When you’re a small business owner, especially with few employees, you wear a lot of different hats, and play many different roles in your company. I have done, and continue to do, the same thing, but sooner or later, we’ll burn ourselves out if we’re not careful.

Aside from issues like bankruptcy, many small businesses close down because they find it’s just too much to manage. There’s no getting around the fact that you’ll have to work hard and put in very long hours, especially starting out. But for your business to flourish, you’re going to have to invest a little trust, and push some of your business tasks to someone else.

We discussed how military leaders aren’t afraid to delegate their tasks, and take some risks, while allowing their subordinates to learn, grow, and yes, even fail. It’s the only way that you’re going to grow your team to a level that will allow them to operate without you.

As Ralph Nader once said, “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”

In the military, we know not only our own role, but the roles of the person directly beneath us and the person above us. That way, we can lead, coach and mentor our subordinates, and step up if our bosses go on vacation or, God forbid, get hurt.

To prevent burnout in your own business, allow your employees to develop, and free up time to focus on the big picture, you need to learn to delegate. You don’t ever abandon your employees, and you need to make yourself available if they have questions or need help, but give them your endstate and let them figure out the way forward.

You’ll be surprised out how awesome their results are.

Adapting to Emerging Technologies

Though the Internet alone represented a huge shift in how businesses operate, the prominence of search engines like Google and Bing completely changed the way that businesses market and advertise to customers. Even within the broad spectrum of search engines, smaller innovations, like local search results, have had a profound impact.

Many small businesses don’t fully utilize the marketing capabilities that search engines, can provide to connect them with their ideal customers; even worse, some businesses reject them outright. I don’t think the issue is so much a lack of knowledge as it is of fear – fear that you don’t know what these platforms do, or how to use them, or that you’ll have to spend months figuring them out.

If you want your business to thrive,  you can’t let that fear hold you back. Just as veterans do, you need to analyze the issue, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the platform you’re working on, find ways you can apply it to your trade, make a plan to do so, then start working. You may fail initially, but you’ll learn from your mistakes.

Just like with any other technological development, SEO will only be effective if you understand what your weaknesses are in your online presence, and how SEO can improve those areas. Just as veterans analyze the root of a problem, before deciding how to proceed, I start with my new clients by conducting an SEO Audit to determine exactly where they are starting from, what issues are present, and what obstacles may arise during a campaign.

Some potential clients who come to me about SEO have very vague notions about what SEO is, or what it can do for them. Often, they don’t have hard numbers to give me, either their goals for revenue growth or how they want to draw new customers to their business.

Others come to me with a clear cut vision about how they want to grow their business, the role that SEO and digital marketing will play in their strategy, and the numbers they want to see over a certain amount of time. I prefer it when folks come to me with this information upfront, and I’m sure you do too, but no matter what type of client reaches out, I always start by establishing an endstate with them, and then assessing their current situation.

I do this because if I don’t have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and where I need to cater my services, I can’t hope to help them.

Whether you’re looking to increase your online visibility with SEO, or trying to figure out how to attract more customers within your community through local searches, when it comes to new technology and new ideas, start at the root of the issue. Determine your own strengths and weaknesses, and that of new technology; couple that knowledge with your clear vision of where you want to go; make your plan to tie these new platforms into your endstate, and go.

A Lack of Decisive Action

Great ideas, great plans and all the resources you could dream of won’t achieve anything if you don’t take action. Believe me – I wish that just reading about “10 Effective Ways to Lose Your Beer Gut” on the Internet was enough to make it so, but you and I both know it won’t.

I honestly think that what prevents decisions from being made, and further action from being taken, for many businesses, is fear. It could be that a business is afraid that they’ll buy something that won’t work for them, or that it will be a big hassle, or that they may be perceived as bad at their job because they need to work with an outside agency. The reality is that these are all common fears, and perfectly understandable, but to be effective, you need to understand your weakness and develop solutions, and we’re here to help you do that.

Regardless of the reason, it’s never okay to just acknowledge an issue without taking action to improve it. This isn’t true for just SEO, but for any aspect of business.

Aside from resulting in a lack of progress, a lack of decision-making will cause your employees to run for the hills. No one wants to work for a boss that isn’t willing to commit to a course of action, and take responsibility for their successes and failures. If your team is constantly having to make decisions for you, or operating without clear guidance, while you continue to make a manager’s salary, you can bet they won’t be around long.

You don’t have to pretend you have all the answers – I know I don’t, and it’s encouraging because I love to learn new things. Like most veterans I’ve known, I’m quick to admit the areas I’m lacking in, and ask for help and feedback about what I’m doing. My employees appreciate it, and I’m amazed at their ability to come up with new, innovative ideas to solve our problems. It shows them that I value their input and take it seriously, but at the same time, I’m fully prepared to make the final decision, and accept what comes of it.

I get that it’s terrifying at times to make a decision when your businesses, and the professional lives of your employees, are on the line, but you’ve got to make the hard choices sooner or later. It’s the only way for your business to grow, for you to learn, and for your employees to reach their full potential.

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