Learning from the veterans in our workplace

veterans in the workplace DXC Blogs

Over the past 20 years, I have met and worked with some wonderful leaders who come from an armed forces background.

On ANZAC day 2017 – an Australian/New Zealand holiday that honours  our soldiers and veterans – I was speaking with a colleague about how these leaders shape  our careers and leadership styles.

These humble individuals often don’t bring up their military service, or talk much about their former life – at least, not without prompting. But this should change, as they have so many insights to share and lessons to teach us all.

One soldier very near to my heart taught me the most important life lesson in the toughest way possible.

In 2004, my friend was killed on active service. He was blown up by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Many of our friends were injured in the same incident. Before his untimely death, the young man had the courage to get up and dance when everyone was looking; he had a smile that could dazzle a room and a wicked sense of humour. I have a very fond memory of Jive dancing with him many years ago and I will remember him for paying the ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country.

His loss was felt around the world  by those who knew him, and the uncertainty that was created in the moment of his death made us all very aware that we only have one life to live.

As his friends processed his loss, we realized we must try harder to make a difference, to leave a legacy and to do something that helps change the world for the better. I realized I had no time to waste and no time to lose. Time was scarce and time could be taken away quickly. Time is precious.

In that situation  and in years since, I  have experienced the camaraderie that the armed forces creates, the trust, empowerment, inspiration and teamwork that come from those organizations. My experiences have left me with a positive view of the leadership styles  military service inspires, and an idea of how I can apply them in my civilian life and career.

One positive influence was a manager of mine for about two years. Let’s call him Tom. Tom was my client at the time, and a retired nuclear  submarine commander. Sadly, Tom died of a heart attack during the time I worked with him, but he made a huge impression on my leadership style and how to lead those around me.

He taught me many lessons – about the value of information, the value of thoughtfulness, how to put my ideas across concisely, how to strategise, how to consider all the options available. He shared with us the value of competition, the value of a good story, the value of clear communication and, finally, the value of empowering and inspiring others. There are still numerous occasions when I think, “What would Tom do? How would he get the job done?” He was an unacknowledged mentor!

Of all the things Tom taught me, the one that stands out the most is his value of continuous, critical and balanced feedback. To open one of my review sessions, Tom said to me, “Sarah you know what you are good at doing. Therefore we are not going to waste time on the good. We are going to focus on everything you do wrong!”

Tom then spent two hours going through all of my flaws. At the time, it was like being hit by a 2-tonne bus. But what Tom said resonated with me and within 24 hours, I was back with a plan to fix all of the identified flaws. I presented my plan to Tom, and thanked him for teaching me a very valuable lesson: to never give someone bad feedback without positive reinforcement.

If I look back now, I realize this was Tom’s objective. The meeting was a “light bulb moment” for me, when I learned to listen and accept criticism, to not to be afraid of feedback or learning and to embrace change. Tom knew his lesson would stay with me forever.

To sum up my experience with Tom, I’ll share two quotes that resonate with his teachings:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

“I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but by how high he bounces when he hits bottom.” The Kohima Epitaph

Another leader, a veteran – I’ll call him Jeremy – is a very strong and fair leader that has taught me how to negotiate, to stick to the rules and to remove emotion from any situation. Jeremy is a very forthright communicator and very strict with the rules. I’ve watched him apply the same rules across the board, no matter the status, gender, religion or economic background of the individual. He is a fair and balanced leader and someone I greatly admire.

There was never one thing that stood out about Jeremy, but over time, I realized his quiet but strict manner instilled in his team a sense of purpose and a sense of doing the right thing. You knew he was there to help, no matter what time of the day or night. His door was always open.

The leadership style I saw in Jeremey can be summed up by the quotes below:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams

“When you become a leader, you give up the right to think about yourself.” Gerald Brooks

Another inspiring leader I’ve worked with did not volunteer for the military but was conscripted. We will call her Sandy. Sandy taught me the value of silence, the value of letting someone else talk about the work the team has undertaken. She showed me the value of working with two in a box, working together as good cop or bad cop and how it is ok to be the second-in-command — the 2 IC .

In fact, it’s this role I now love. The 2 IC is there to support, to research, to feed ideas, to plan, to strategise, to help at any occasion and to lead when the leader cannot. This silent but present leader helps to make people feel secure, safe and supported. A team needs someone like this to offer softer skills to the group or project.

Some quotes that come to mind here are:

“Who you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Nearly all mean can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

Another veteran who now works at DXC has influenced me tremendously over the last year by giving me the confidence to lead. He is a typical former serviceman, someone who does not fully know his worth, is humble and would sacrifice his own self for someone else.

He showed me that a friend is someone you can have at work, and that having a team full of friends is extremely valuable when you go into battle. Those friends are there to help and to work with you to change the world and leave a legacy. He has helped me learn that the wisest of us will write our own legacy in our own unique way.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Winston Churchill

Has your career or personal life been influenced by someone with a military background? What have you learned from them? How have they inspired you?

* Thank you to all of those who inspired this post and helped me shape it.

Sarah James was ANZ lead for Authentic Leadership in DXC and an advocate for DXC’s Women in Leadership and STEM. Prior to leaving DXC in September 2017, Sarah founded the Empowering Future Leaders blog and was its primary author. With over 15 years of experience in the world of IT, Sarah’s specialty is spatial information and includes integration on projects as diverse as mapping volcanoes in Hawaii to delivering high-tech police vehicles.


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  1. Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. – Jack Welch

  2. Aleks Kostadinovic says:

    ANZAC day commemorates sacrifices and mateship that has inspired individual and team endeavours throughout history and beyond conflicts. It is often in the quiet moments in life when we reflect on our purpose and journey that the enormity of others actions on our behalf humbles and inspires us.
    Lest we forget.


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