The U.S. military operates on the principle that leaders are made not born. There is a lot more to being a leader than having charisma. Leaders must practice specific behaviors and internalize specific beliefs. The U.S. military begins instilling these beliefs in the first moments of a recruit’s basic training. The first lesson of military leadership is that team success is far more important than the success of any individual, including the leader.
When I arrived for Basic Training at the U.S. Air Force Academy in June of 1984, I found every member of my squadron was a hometown hero. Eagle Scouts, valedictorians, team captains. Most of us were brimming with confidence, recently attending awards programs and graduation ceremonies glorifying individual accomplishments. Boy, did we have a lot to learn! The firstest and mostest lesson was that individual success was meaningless without team success. During early morning PT runs, running the fastest and “coming in first” was not the goal; instead, the team finished together with the slowest Basic Cadet. Having a gleaming floor polished for inspection was actually a discredit unless every other squadron member’s floor was also up to standard. If an individual’s uniform item was out of order, such as wearing the incorrect socks, it was more the teammate’s fault for failing to back up the offending individual. Of course marching in formation is a team sport: unless every member’s uniform is just right, and everyone is in perfect step, the formation looks ridiculous. A teammate seeking individual praise and not contributing to the team quickly found themselves neither esteemed nor trusted. We all did pushups together if one individual failed.
The expectation of leaders to prioritize the team first are less for civilian organizations and businesses. Indeed, individual success is glorified above all else in American culture. But for team effectiveness and company success, leaders must put the team first. Members of the team, be they employees or sports teammates, will immediately detect if the appointed leader is only concerned with their own individual success; they will gauge their own commitment to the group accordingly. Effective leaders are first concerned with their teammates and the goals of the group.