Leadership is universal: The skills common among business, civic and military leadership show us why

Joseph Kopser
7 min readFeb 24, 2020

Back to the Table of Contents of “Build Your Roadmap”

It turns out that business leadership, civic leadership, and military leadership rely on similar sets of skills. I’ve discovered this myself over the years — so it’s good to see it in the published literature, too. But I think regardless of the sector you work in, there is a real need to see and build on what they have in common. Bottomline up front, effective communication and critical thinking skills turn out to be the most important. (But don’t forget about character).

As part of my larger project of helping people create their own roadmap, this article focuses on the overlap of important leadership skills common across various sectors.

As an officer in the US Army, I had been brought up to understand the components of successful military leadership. In fact, I learned from some of the best. Early on, you begin learning from examples. And even before I started leading Soldiers, I had four years of training in the leadership laboratory that is West Point. Along the way, I made lots of mistakes that my roommates and peers could tell you about.

And since organizations can only fix what they measure or notice, the yearly evaluation became pretty important. If I hadn’t gotten it before then, though, I would’ve quickly figured out what attributes the Army thought would make a good leader — they’re written on the evaluation form. Hopefully once a year, I’d be rated by my boss and my boss’s boss on a form called the Officer Evaluation Report (OER). And through my career, nothing would direct my career more than the collection of my OERs.

It wasn’t lost on me that the front of that two-page form listed nine traits the Army thought essential to the practice of military leadership. The first five, in order, were:

1. Communication

2. Decision Making

3. Motivating

4. Planning (Defined as using Critical and Creative Thinking)

5. Executing (Defined in part as maximizing the use of available systems and technology)

(Note to bosses and organizations: nothing does quite as good a job of communicating your priorities like hinging your performance reports on them!)

Through my Army career, my bosses and I were to come to that list and discuss how I had performed in each category. (Side note, later in the business sector, I found it surprising how many people told me they never sit down with a boss to review performance). The OER became a guide that shaped our regular counseling sessions, and helped my mentors guide me. It helped me, in a sense, focus my efforts…and become the leader I chose.

Part-way through my Army career, I returned to study at the Kennedy School of government en route to teach at West Point. While in graduate school, it allowed me a chance to think through what leadership is, and consider its dimensions through various endeavors. I taught American government, and found great similarities in the skills needed by military leaders and those required for work in the public sector or non-profits — better known as civic participation in your community.

I was especially inspired by the work of Mary Kirlin, who’d composed a list of civic skills that foster civic engagement. Her list looked like this:

1. Communication

2. Collective Decision Making

3. Critical Thinking

4. Organization

And that is when it struck me as a young professional. The military did not have a monopoly on leadership. Notice the overlap? (The overlap of communication and critical thinkings skills should catch your eye)

As someone looking at military leadership and civic-political leadership, this was a breakthrough for me. In fact, the first two items on both lists are fundamentally the same. Planning might include Kirlin’s critical thinking and organization ideas, too, I reasoned.

I concluded that we could map leadership skills in the military world onto those needed in the civic world.

Years later, I would retire from the Army and start my own business. I did not yet fully understand the concept that leadership is universal — only with different acronyms. I had a hunch that the skills I’d need would be similar to the ones the Army emphasizes — and I was mostly right. In fact, here’s the list the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) uses for the necessary skills for today’s workforce or career readiness as they call it:

· Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

· Oral/Written Communications

· Teamwork/Collaboration

· Digital Technology

· Leadership

· Professionalism/Work Ethic

· Career Management

· Global/Intercultural Fluency

So NACE has identified eight competencies — and notice the overlap. Like the military and civic lists, this one emphasizes communication and critical thinking as well. Going further, the leadership skill here equates to motivating on the military OER. Again, there’s significant sharing between the lists. But it is saying again in a louder voice, the two most important, emphasized or noted skills are communication and critical thinking.

It would come as no surprise then that I gravitate towards those are do a great job of communicating complex ideas in straightforward manner. They include folks like Bernie Banks, Alexis Jones, Craig Flowers and Ilana Zivkovich. I recommend you check out their work as communicators in leader development. In addition, if you are not where you think you need to be, get a coach, my favorite is Pat Kirkland. She has done amazing work to help me in my public speaking and Michael Brough has really helped me in my written communications.

What about the additions on this list? I think they’re instructive, and good additions, since the NACE list is more recent than the other two. Digital technology? We didn’t even think about it when I was conducting my initial research — but it’s essential now. And it’s not just about whether you can use the MS Windows suite. It also deals with your profile online and how you engage others on social media. (If you are looking for better understanding there, I recommend you follow Jake Dunlap and Jason Schenker on LinkedIn.)

The global/intercultural fluency skill set is another the Army has come to embrace over the years. We entered both Iraq and Afghanistan without a broad-based understanding of cultures, languages and people much different from America’s. That made it difficult for us to build bridges with the people there, and our missions sometimes suffered as a result.

The Army quickly corrected for that. Before a combat deployment, most units would spend a month at the National Training Center…so NTC began to help develop soldiers’ and leaders’ intercultural skills. I took part in some of this training before my own deployment, and broadened my own appreciation for cultures that are different from mine.

The Army has often been at the forefront of this, with a global reach that has placed us in proximity with peoples all over the world. Admittedly, the interactions haven’t always been positive…but I’d say that overall, soldiers’ interactions (especially during peacetime) with Koreans, Germans and other global cultures have deepened our appreciation for others — and for the amazing diversity within our own borders. Over the years, the military has been on the forefront of this — from integration of the armed forces to allowing Sikhs to practice their cultural heritage while in uniform. And for an institution that so prizes tradition, this kind of forward thinking is important and necessary.

The skills commonalities between these three different endeavors have given rise to plenty of cross-vocational pollination. Sun Tzu for business, anyone?

But I notice in these lists something that’s taken for granted — unsaid, perhaps because it’s so obvious it’s taken as understood. But these days it deserves saying.

Good will. Honesty. Ethical commitment. Sincerity. Call it what you want, it’s the commitment to doing the right thing.

On the Officer Evaluation Reports, the moral component front-and-center. A black mark there erased any other good you might have done. But what’s happened to that in the world of business? Or civic service? More military generals and admirals have been removed for ethical shortcomings than have been injured in combat in the last 20 years. Can we say that about other sectors in society?

What happens when a government official lies to the public, or uses the office to further personal aims, rather than those of the society? How do we respond when a business leader covers up mistakes to save face — while at the same time jeopardizing customers or the environment?

These days, the ethical component can’t be taken for granted. Maybe it never should’ve been…but needs to be front and center now.

Going forward, regardless of sector, you will be well served if you can communicate well with your team and think critically to make smart decisions. But whatever you do, never forget that character matters in all things.

Join with me on Twitter and LinkedIn as well to share your thoughts, ideas and opinions. Or comment below to let me know what is most interesting to you and where you would like me to go into more depth.

Joseph Kopser

About the Author



Joseph Kopser

Speaker, Author, Investor and Innovation Expert @TeamGrayline | @BunkerLabsATX | @USTomorrowUS | @CleanTX | Father of 3 daughters | www.josephkopser.com