PPC – Marketing leadership: 4 lessons learned from military service

PPC - Marketing leadership: 4 lessons learned from military service

About 10 years ago, I was interviewing for a job that included leadership responsibilities. After the first round of interviews, I received an email from the recruiter explaining they didn’t find me to be a good fit.

Why? Because I didn’t have any leadership experience.

I replied to the email pointing out that I had over a decade of experience leading teams ranging from two to 20 people as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the Army. It was on my resume and we discussed that during the phone conversation. 

The recruiter replied that “military” leadership didn’t count because it was not “business” leadership.

Many people think that military leadership is like R. Lee Ermey’s role as the drill instructor in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” While some leaders in the military emulate that kind of behavior, I found a lot of the leadership principles I learned during my time in the Army directly apply to people leadership.

Lesson 1: Leadership and management are two different things

In the U.S., in particular, leaders are usually managers and above. But management and leadership are two different things.

You manage things, like projects and budgets.

You lead people. 

The skills needed to be a good manager are different from those required to be a good leader. People require more than just orders. They have needs that transcend being a cog in a machine. They need a sense of belonging and destiny; they need to know how they fit into an organization and where they and the rest of the organization are going.

If people are not invested in what’s going on, they will quit. When you treat people like replaceable items, you will quickly find the “Great Resignation” at your doorstep.

Learn the skills needed to lead people, not push them around.

Lesson 2: To lead, you must learn to serve

“Servant leadership” may seem like an oxymoron, but it is truly an effective way to lead. The main idea is to equip the people on your team with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. If you don’t set your people up for success, you are likely setting them up to fail. 

If you want to be a great leader, check your ego at the door. For example: If the toilets need cleaning, the servant leader is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get it done so the rest of the team is free to do productive work.

There isn’t time to sit behind your desk in your corner office and kick your feet up. You need to help your team succeed, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty or doing some “fingers to keys” work to help get stuff done.

Great leaders are also not afraid to hire people smarter than themselves, let them do what they do best and give them the tools they need and the right amount of time to do it. 

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Lesson 3: Leaders must deliberately communicate

Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with made a habit of regularly communicating with their team members. That’s not to say that some excellent leaders were less communicative, but by and large, the ones that stand out in my mind dedicated time to talk with me.

Deliberate communication is vital for remote working environments that are more common today than in the past.

Leaders need to share things like

  • Vision and direction.
  • How the other person fits into the big picture.
  • The “whys” of the person’s role.
  • Regular and consistent feedback on the person’s performance.

Part of being deliberate is to put these meetings on the calendar and reschedule them only when necessary. We are all swamped, but prioritizing regular talks with team members is critical.

I have adopted a rule that I make time to talk with my direct reports at least weekly for 30 minutes. Of course, your schedule may only allow for bi-weekly or monthly talks. I recommend meeting as often as possible for maximum effectiveness.

My only rule regarding the discussion is that it is the other person’s meeting, not mine. I let them talk about whatever they want, whether directly work-related or not. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • People are more than who they are at work – sometimes outside life crosses that invisible line into work, and it’s good to know when that happens so I can do what I’m able to support them.
  • Sometimes things aren’t going well, and there’s no way to know if you don’t build rapport and a relationship with the people on your team, so they grow comfortable enough to share the bad as well as the good.

Communication is a two-way street. I strive to be as open and transparent as possible with those around me. I’ll tell them if I cannot say something regarding the topic. People have told me that I’m too transparent. Perhaps that’s true at times, but I’d rather err on the side of TMI because that vulnerability helps build trust.

A note about hiring intelligent people and getting out of their way: Getting out of people’s way doesn’t mean abandoning them. Deliberate communication isn’t about micro-management; it’s about communicating.

I am not a fan of annual reviews. They can sometimes foster laziness in communication. If your team members don’t know where they stand in relation to their role and expected performance, the fault lies with you. Even if your company does annual or semi-annual reviews, don’t wait until the end of the year to write up how your team members are doing. Give them constant feedback – otherwise, you do them a great disservice. 

Communication up the org chart is also important. Hopefully, your people leader is also working to communicate with you deliberately. Don’t miss out on opportunities to brag about the accomplishments of individual members of your team. When it’s time for raises and promotions, there should be no question about who’s earned the opportunities for either or both.

Lesson 4: Know yourself and seek self-improvement

This is a lesson straight out of U.S. Army NCO training. It applies to everyone, including those in leadership positions. 

Leaders, though, must especially continue their education. In addition to just keeping up with work knowledge, they also must understand additional areas in which they are weak and seek to cover information gaps to handle work needed for team success. Sometimes, knowing yourself is essential to identify those areas in which you know you are not suited so you can work to find someone to fill that gap.  


Not everyone is suited for leadership. That’s one of those things that may be outside someone’s strengths.

Everyone can learn what makes great leaders, though. The key is to have empathy and care about the people you are leading. 

I leave you with a quote from one great leader I had the privilege to work for: “If you cannot or will not take care of [people], then you have no business being a leader.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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About The Author

Elmer Boutin is VP of Operations at WrightIMC, a Dallas-based full-service digital marketing agency. Following a career in the US Army as a translator and intelligence analyst, he has worked in digital marketing for over 25 years doing everything from coding and optimizing websites to managing online reputation management efforts as an independent contractor, corporate webmaster, and in agency settings. He has vast experience and expertise working for businesses of all sizes, from SMBs to Fortune 5-sized corporations, including Wilsonart, Banfield Pet Hospital, Corner Bakery Cafe, Ford Motor Company, Kroger, Mars Corporation, and Valvoline; optimizing websites focusing on local, e-commerce, informational, educational and international.

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