Why Military Success Can Lead to Business Success: 5 Traits Veterans Share with Business Leaders

Jul 17, 2014

Researchers are increasingly studying veterans in the workplace. Photo credit: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

There’s no consensus answer to the existential question, “What does it take to succeed in business?” There are, however, certain attributes that can make the path to success a little less difficult. It’s no coincidence that people like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, who are tough, determined leaders, were able to rise to the pinnacle of the business world.  Yet these sorts of characteristics don’t merely belong to entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Indeed, veterans possess many of the traits employers say they look for in job candidates, a recent study conducted by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families concluded. Their report, “The Business Case for Hiring a Veteran,” identified specific characteristics many veterans display that help them excel in the workplace. Among other conclusions, the researchers determined that veterans “exhibit high levels of resiliency, advanced team building skills, and strong organizational commitment.”   

This isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. Former soldiers and military personnel have long had successful careers following their return to civilian life. Many of these men and women have left an indelible mark on America, rising to the upper echelons of U.S. government—presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were veterans—and the corporate world, where veterans are represented by the likes of Alex Gorsky, the chief executive and chairman of Johnson & Johnson, and Bob McDonald, who guided Procter & Gamble to growth while serving as its chairman, president, and chief executive, from 2009 to 2013.

Still, recognizing intangible characteristics within oneself is not always simple. In truth, for many—both veterans and civilians alike—it can be a daunting task, especially when the path ahead is riddled with obstacles and challenges. Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help veterans start and grow their own businesses and better market their skills and talents to prospective employers.

If you’re looking for a little inspiration, we’ve compiled a list of traits many veterans possess that research suggests can serve them well in their post-military careers. While it’s true that no two people are created the same, veterans might have more in common with these luminaries than they may think.

1. Tenacity: A characteristic that’s perhaps best personified in the business world by Steve Jobs, who legendarily relied on his own brand of toughness to steer Apple toward unprecedented growth, tenacity is also a defining attribute of veterans such as Harry S. Truman, who was known for his grit. After succeeding one of the most beloved presidents in U.S. history, the World War I vet helped end the Second World War and presided over one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history. All the while, he contended with mounting tensions with the Soviet Union.

2. Discipline: Former Marine Frederick W. Smith, who serves as chief executive and chairman of FedEx, has credited the sense of discipline he developed while in the military for his success. “The secret is to be disciplined, study, and manage change,” Smith said while accepting the John Wooden Global Leadership Award. “Without self-discipline, you won't be able to sustain [success]."

3. Clear-Headedness: Clear-headedness helped McDonald guide P&G during his tenure at the consumer products giant. It’s also one of the reasons that McDonald was recently tapped by President Obama to run the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, a similarly sprawling organization that’ll require the same kind of precision thinking. 

4. Leadership: Though not every person comes out of the military a leader, people like Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell are two of the many veterans who are admired for the leadership skills they honed while serving. 

5. Organization: One veteran recognized for his organizational prowess is Lowell C. McAdam, the chief executive and chairman of Verizon Communications. This skill proved instrumental in McAdam’s climbing to the highest position at the telecommunications giant, explains Larry Babbio, Verizon’s former president. “Lowell was able to create a vision for the entire company, and then he was able to execute in every element of the business,” Babbio said in an interview.

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