Using leadership techniques from the military in pharma companies

Applying leadership and communication skills taught by the military may be able to improve the performance of managers and team leaders within the pharmaceutical industry. Blair Hesp discusses, as our leadership and talent management themed month begins.

If movies are to be believed, demonstrating good leadership in the military involves a significant amount of shouting accompanied by witty put downs as you outline the reasons why your subordinates should be so lucky as to be welcomed into your organisation. Of course, this form of communication is considered to be totally inappropriate in a civilian workplace, and while this can, and does, occur within a limited realm of military life, the communication skills possessed by staff with military experience, and the value of these skills in civilian workplaces, are often overlooked.

In a military environment the quality and clarity of communication is often, literally, a life and death situation. So how can lessons in communication and leadership from the military be applied in a civilian setting? You might be surprised by some of the communication techniques taught in the military, described below, and how they can be applied in the workplace.

The ‘Team’

Referring to your team as ‘Team’ sounds horribly cheesy when it is first put into action, but compared with ‘guys’ or ‘everyone’ or any other collective noun, it brings a level of respect and purpose that is accompanied by a subtle reminder of togetherness. Even making the conscious decision to consistently address your team collectively is an effective method of reinforcing the concept of each team member having a common goal. It reminds everyone that despite being addressed by a team leader, all members of the team are motivated to achieve the same goal, and everyone’s contribution is equally valued.

Does anyone have any questions?

It is almost a given that when completing a presentation you should finish with the ubiquitous line ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ However, what proportion of people who have questions are actually brave enough to ask that question? While unintended, this question will often be perceived by the audience as being somewhat rhetorical and with any response viewed as a challenge. At the same time, no one wants to be the only person who looks like they did not understand their task or were not paying attention. Therefore, asking a question can be socially awkward.


“When was the last time you received brutally honest feedback on your leadership from your team?”


So why does the military use ‘understanding questions’ and how do they work? These are questions that are used to check that your team correctly understood your instructions at the conclusion of a meeting or briefing, and usually involve asking each, and every, person to repeat their instructions back to the leader. Key benefits of using understanding questions include:

• Every member of your team is aware that they must pay attention to your brief because they know they will be asked a question at the end.

• Any ambiguities in your instructions should be identified before your team begin their task(s).

At first glance, this may sound like you are patronising your team, but as long as all team members are asked an understanding question, and are aware of the purpose of asking these questions, then improved outcomes and efficiencies inevitably follow.

Are your communication and leadership skills as good as you think they are?

When was the last time you received brutally honest feedback on your leadership from your team? In fact, have your team ever given you bottom-up feedback, and if they did were they really honest with you?

Again, social barriers make providing honest feedback to leaders difficult to do, and for leadership candidates it can be unnerving to be forced to provide a direct and honest critique of the leadership and communication skills of someone who is often your friend as well as a leader. There is no mistaking that such a critique is more than likely to deliver solid blows to a leader’s ego, but good leaders also learn very quickly that they have probably just been given the most enlightening feedback they will ever receive.


“…you operate as a team, and teams will not work well without a culture of mutual respect.”


Praise and reprimand

However, a one-way street of negative feedback, as communication in the military is often portrayed, achieves very little, and praise is also recognised as an extremely effective performance management tool. Accordingly, leadership candidates who have just received an honest assessment of their faults also have their strengths and positive actions reinforced during the same assessment.

Immediate praise and reprimand acts to instantly reinforce positive behaviours and eliminate negative ones before they take hold. It is also widely recognised that this feedback must be immediate and specific to be effective. The use of mixed messages, such as the all-too-common phrase ‘That was really good, but….’ are likely to be met with a sharp rebuke from leadership instructors who demand clarity when providing feedback – it’s praise or a reprimand, not both.

What is the glue that binds good leadership techniques?

The key theme that runs through the entire leadership and communication theory in the military is that you operate as a team, and teams will not work well without a culture of mutual respect. The foundation of this respect builds from acknowledging the individual talents that each of your team members brings, and above all, remembering that leadership is often less about what you told them to do and more about listening to, acknowledging and acting on what your team is telling you.




About the author:

Blair Hesp is a Director of Kainic Medical Communications Ltd., a New Zealand-based medical communications agency that specialises in providing on-demand, overnight medical communications resource to overseas agencies and pharmaceutical companies. Blair has a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Otago and a New Zealand Diploma in Business. In addition to several years’ experience working in the Global and European medical communications industry in the United Kingdom, he has also spent several years working in the international intellectual property industry.

Blair was a part-time seaman combat specialist in the Royal New Zealand Navy for 8 years and received several awards from his peers recognising excellence in seamanship and leadership during this time.

Can lessons in communication and leadership from the military be applied to pharma?