On day 1 in the military, we’re told that being an individual is wrong and we’re all leaders. When it comes time for basic training instructors to choose trainee leadership, it’s pitched as this coveted prize and even a possible indicator of your future as a leader once you’re operational.
Not too long after we arrive at our units, we may be pressured to start thinking about ranking up. Some people take this head on because they have true aspirations to be a senior NCO. Some even have plans to switch over to being a warrant or commissioned officer. Leadership is just one of those unavoidable tenets of military service. But here’s a factual statement about that tenet: Some people just don’t want to lead.
Surface Pressure to be a Leader
Continuing with the scenario above, the new troop starts preparing to meet requirements so they can move up in the ranks. Troop serves the required time in service to make NCO but starts to resent the demands placed on them as an NCO. Nevertheless, they continue on the ladder to senior NCO because regulations require troops to move up or move out.
On the surface, this NCO may do well (or not), but deep down they just want to do the job without the responsibility of being a leader. I’m sure some officers also deal with this scenario that plays out, time after time, across the services.
Scope of Influence
Some of us have been subjected to evaluations in the military where success and even promotions are defined by the ever-increasing number of people, money and resources under our purview. The reality is that being responsible for X amount troops, X amount of money and X amount of equipment as a military leader does not equate to an automatic invitation to the C suite after leaving service. This isn’t to say that military leaders can’t transition to high positions of leadership as a civilian because it’s very possible and does happen often. But the scope of influence in the military does not always transfer to the corporate world.
The good news is that to be successful as a civilian, scope of influence is not necessary.
Individual Contributions Matter
There is a myth that being in a leadership role in the corporate world is the only way to make more money or have more success. Coming from the military where leadership is pushed heavily makes this myth more believable because it’s all some of us have known. To put it plainly, we’re told that leaders are successful and followers are not.
The truth is that individual contributors, or employees without management responsibilities, can have just as much impact on a team, or even an entire organization. Think of those junior enlisted troops that are technically and tactically proficient. While not yet leaders, those individuals undoubtedly make a unit better by carrying out the mission and some of them have no desire to rank up. The same thing happens in the corporate world in that some people make the team and organization better based solely on their performance as an individual.
Let’s Get Personal
For a long time, I thought that I wanted to be the “guy in charge.” I had cyber executive leadership in my sights within the next five to 10 years. I thought being on the management track as a civilian was the only way to increase my earning potential and claim success, but I’ve learned that this is simply not true. I also held on to the military tenet of leadership, even though I’ve been out of the military for years.
Only after being in a management role did I figure out that I’m fully capable of leading and enjoy certain aspects of being a manager, but I miss being a “doer” and prefer not to be in a management role at this stage in my life. So, I’m moving back to a senior level individual contributor role where I still have strategic influence and can offer mentorship to younger cyber professionals without the extra demands of being a manager. Believe it or not, managers and executives do this all the time in the corporate world and it doesn’t always mean it’s a step down.
Mindset Change is Required
There is a certain level of mindset changing that may occur for some to realize that they don’t have to be a leader, and it may take some time. It took me years to embrace this. For those who know they want to lead in and out of uniform, go for it without hesitation. Unfortunately, there is not much opportunity for troops to refuse to rank up in the military, but when it’s time to take the uniform off, you can be that “doer” and progress your career as an individual.
Over time, you may be invited to move into management, especially if you do well as an individual contributor, but you won’t be forced up or out because there is nothing wrong with being an individual in the corporate world.