“Semper Gumby”: Mental Flexibility in Entrepreneurship

(Or How to Use Military and Sports Doctrines to Make Your Small Business Team Have Dangerous Minds)

By Matthew Bow

In this article, Matthew Bow reflects upon lessons in leadership that he learned from his time in the military, and discusses the value added by hiring veterans for small, start-up businesses.

If you have been to college, a trade school, or any other post-secondary high school education, you know that humans have differing and divergent learning styles. 

So here’s the most critical piece of knowledge you could have as a business owner:

Just producing masterpiece emails and/or PowerPoint presentations often is not the way to reach full engagement of your employees.

Here are four things I learned about being an effective leader from my military service.

1. Understand Your Team’s Learning Styles

In any job interview you, a small business owner, are conducting with potential hires, the most important question you can ask is about their learning style. This knowledge allows you to understand how best to reach all your employees to reach maximum output when you are a small business.

Take me, for example. I am generally a kinetic or auditory learner. When I go for walks, I am able to think about and plan out a solution for a problem, or if I listen to a podcast I am able to pick up life skills or hacks to make my life more efficient. 

Knowledge of your team’s learning styles can make you a more effective leader. #Entrepreneurship

My knowledge of learning styles has helped me reach others and teach more effectively. In the military, I was often the only information technology (IT) and radio guy in my company – so I had to spend a lot of time training others to use radios. In the Army, communication is just as important as your rifle and proper tactics while engaging the enemy (or simulation of said enemies for you sports fans – that means hard practice makes for easy games).

The value added is to also practice servant leadership. We have all seen the memes – there are reasons why officers, lead soldiers’ PT (physical training) during company runs.

A cute Baby Yoda meme about doing physical training in the military from the random corners of the internet.

You, as a small business leader, need to learn about emotional IQ, because you will be the person your employees turn to for leadership. You have to learn your people and their jobs as well as you can. Oftentimes, you will have the most flexible schedule, because the success of your small business will depend on you. Cross-pollination can help in training people – if you have a separate IT, cyber and software development people in your company, have them teach each other and encourage them to do a multiphasic project.

The baddest asset for being a small group leader, or I say squad leader, is to buy into your team. Your team is your team, family is business, business is family. Start ups are hard – so is pushing for greatness. 

2. Gain Trust as a Leader

Trust is key to effective leadership. As an effective leader, you have to relinquish control – the more you entrust your staff, the more you will get done together as a team. As a bonus, your staff will metaphorically run through a wall for you. I say these things because, as military veterans, we all can be “Semper Gumby” – always flexible. We cleaned the fort, so you could say. Wow, LOL.

This means that, as veterans, we have tons of outside practical experience – the value added is amazing. Our life experiences as veterans give us a unique view of the world, which we bring to our work. For example, we are great with presentations, because we have all had to brief our military colleagues on various topics. I stood up four companies (military units) with government work orders because I was the only one who got those orders done promptly…sometimes too promptly, as I often got told to check on something obviously too early for turnaround. Leaders, if your people care, they will break walls and barriers, and be bold…I believe the phrase is “fortune favors the bold.”

“Leaders, if your people care, they will break walls and barriers, and be bold.”

3. Learn about Your Team

Also, learn about your team. Who needs a boost of motivation, who needs competition, who seems to just get stuff done? Once you learn about your team, and they help your organization become successful, remember to pay it forward. When they have their own opportunities, for example, they need a recommendation letter, write it for them. Connect them with people who could help them advance their career goals (if they’re making a career change). There are amazing and talented people out there, but it all means nothing if you don’t have buy-in in your organization.

4. Lead with Empathy

Remember to lead with empathy. This means being mindful of your staff’s workload and not simply delegating to them without considering their mental health and capabilities. It’s important to give workers a break sometimes, since downtime is just as important as time spent working. Make sure you don’t serve as the source for employee burnout. Everyone needs to feel safe in their job.

As a boss, make sure you don’t serve as the source for your employees’ burnout.

You, as the leader, have an awesome responsibility. Take it seriously, but have fun as much as you can while figuring out your human capital – your greatest advantage. I can teach you about leadership, or show you, but you have to choose to be a leader or not.

Semper Gumby,

Your friendly neighborhood commo (communications) guy


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