I enlisted in the Army when I was 18 and served for over 18 months as a mandatory conscript in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Although enlisting wouldn’t be the first thing that comes up to mind if given a choice at 18 years old, I have learned a lot from my experiences in the military.
I think it’s useful to share these learnings with people, especially if you’re in the startup world and want to know what I’ve learned from the military, especially from a startup perspective.
Most of the lessons that I’ve learned in the military were during my 9 months of training to be a commissioned officer. It was a known fact and was stated in the military directives that cadets have a different set of rules and regulations than other conscripts.
During the 9 months, there were many memorable lessons learned, which I’ll share with you here.
Here are the top 5 soft skills that I learned in the military that has helped me in my startup journey:
1. Discipline & Responsibility
I have never seen a better example of discipline and responsibility than what I experienced in the military. Every soldier has to be punctual, tidy, and self-disciplined to carry out their duties.
These were essential skills for me as an officer, where I was responsible for the lives of my cadet peers in my section or platoon. It’s a huge responsibility, but it also helped me to grow in confidence and be more organized in my daily life.
It also taught me accountability as whatever I do or didn’t directly affect my peers around me. A good example is having the entire platoon being punished for my mistake.
This is very similar to running a startup, where your co-founders, employees, and customers will be affected by the actions you take and the decisions you make.
This is why it’s important to take responsibility for your actions and have the discipline to execute well.
2. Risk Management
The military teaches cadets to be responsible for their actions and decisions. The SAF’s risk management strategy is all about “responsible ownership.”
There are many lessons learned from this. For example, I had to write a report before and after every training exercise, I did with my platoon and signed by my commanding officer. This taught me to take responsibility for my actions and the actions of the soldiers under me.
In a startup, there are always risks involved with running a business. You can’t avoid taking risks in business, as this is how you can grow your business.
However, it’s important to manage the risks that you take and learn from them. It’s easy to get excited about an idea, but it’s more important to have a calculated approach when taking risks.
The biggest lesson I learned in the military was the importance of having a “comprehensive risk assessment process” when planning any exercise or mission. This includes identifying all potential risks and mitigating them before execution.
It would help if you did the same for your startup, as the last thing you want is a repeat of something bad happening. This will affect your customers and employees negatively, which is not good for business.
3. Bureaucracy and Red Tape
In the military, there are many rules and regulations that soldiers have to follow. It can be frustrating sometimes, especially when you don’t see the point of them. The organization operates as a bureaucracy, and it’s not uncommon to see red tape and bureaucracy in the military given the rigid hierarchy of command.
A vivid example that resonates with me today was during my first day being posted to my military unit to serve my remaining 6 months in the military as a commissioned officer, a second lieutenant, was when my senior warrant officer, who had been serving in the military for over 25 years and had been known for pioneering and leading several key initiatives in the military, had to first salute and greet me as a junior officer, despite her senior experience.
The rationale behind this was that the army had to have a strict hierarchy and chain of command, which is essential for efficiency in operations.
The red tape that I experienced in the military was due to the lack of resources available to support the different initiatives. For example, if I wanted to do something innovative and outside of the norm, I would have to go through the chain of command to get approval from the highest levels of the military, and this would take time.
In a startup, this wouldn’t work as the organization would be flatter, and you would have to be more agile and fast in decision-making.
However, I learned to adapt to the red tape and bureaucracy in the military, as it was part of my job. The bureaucracy is also something that I can relate to in the startup world. You will encounter different types of “red tape” when dealing with different stakeholders in your business.
The key thing here is to understand that it’s not personal but just a way of doing things that have been around for a long time. For example, if you need to hire someone new into your startup, there will be a process and paperwork involved. There are reasons behind this as they want to ensure that only the right people join your team. You need to adapt and understand this.
4. Command & Control Leadership
Leadership is one of the most important soft skills in any organization or company, especially when running a successful startup. I learned leadership from serving in the military at an early age (18 years old), which has helped me become a better leader today at 24 years old in my current role as CEO of one of my companies: Cudy Technologies.
In the military, we had to learn to be a leader in any situation, whether it was a small group of 5 people or in front of thousands of people.
In the military, you have to lead with a strong presence and show that you are confident in what you are doing. As a young officer, you are responsible for the lives and welfare of your soldiers, and as such, you have to make sure that they are safe and get the job done.
In the military, you learn how to take charge in situations where you need to control the situation. You learn how to manage different personalities as well as different skill sets in your team. In the military, we were trained on how to deal with different types of people and personalities. It helped me learn about the different personality types that exist in society today, which I can now apply in my work as a CEO and entrepreneur.
In startups, you will have to deal with different personalities and skillsets as well. Some people will be more aggressive, while others will be more passive. Some people may have a different approach to solving problems, and some may be more cautious than others.
As a leader in your startup, you need to lead with a strong presence and know-how to take charge in situations where you need to make sure that the team is on track and the goals are being met.
5. Persistence & Perseverance
In the military, we had many training exercises where we would go through long periods of intense training in a short period of time. In my last few months of training as a cadet, we had very long training missions that require us to spend a long time in the field.
For example, we would spend days at a time in the field in the tropics for up to a week straight without showering or having access to proper meals and amenities. We would sleep on the ground, and there was nothing that we could do about it. We could do the only thing to persist and keep going until the end of the training mission.
It wasn’t always easy, but it taught me how to be persistent and persevere in any situation. As an entrepreneur, I have learned how to persist through hard times. Sometimes you have to power through it and keep going.
The same is true for startups. Sometimes, you will face situations where things don’t go your way, and it will be hard to keep going, but if you persist and persevere in the end, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
While the military is a very different environment from a startup environment, I learned many soft skills in the military that have helped me succeed in my current role as CEO of Cudy Technologies. The key thing is to understand how these soft skills can be applied in your startup environment and use them to your advantage.
Even if you did not serve in the military, there are many other experiences that you can learn from to improve your soft skills. For example, if you have served in a volunteer organization or club, you will have gained many of the same soft skills I did from serving in the military.
I hope that this article has been helpful to you and given you a better understanding of the different soft skills that you can learn from serving in the military.
About the Author
I am the Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students learn better. I am also a mentor and angel investor in other Startups of my other interests (Proptech, Fintech, HRtech, Ride-hailing, C2C marketplaces, and SaaS). You can also find me on Cudy for early-stage Startup Founder mentorship and advice.
You can connect with me on Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexanderlhk) and let me know that you are a reader of my Medium posts in your invitation message.