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Leadership Lessons I Learned from the Military

Nov. 11, 2022
Veteran and J&J Consumer Health executive Kathy Widmer reflects on how serving her country translates to her role today.

In the military, your objective is clear, but the path to achieving it is often not. I learned this while attending the United States Military Academy at West Point and experienced it first-hand while serving as a captain and field artillery battery commander in the U.S. Army. We faced obstacles, both known and unknown, and were surrounded by teammates from different backgrounds who have unique needs and perspectives – all in an environment where the margin for error is zero.

Now I have the privilege of helping lead a team as part of a leading consumer health business. While consequences in business are decidedly less dire than in the military, we face similar challenges in trying to determine the best way to achieve our goals. Thankfully, what I ultimately learned in the military also applies here – you can exponentially increase your odds of success in uncertain times by cultivating effective leadership.

In the military and in business, effective leaders:

1. Manage ambiguity through adaptability

2. Lead from all angles

3. Celebrate wins collectively

Manage Ambiguity Through Adaptability

Good leaders plan accordingly in a world where change is constant. Strategy and planning are key to success but failing to pivot or to reassess a situation given new information could prove detrimental. Changes caused by factors like human error or even weather – much like in business – can sometimes bring about a shift in the outcome of a mission.

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The Army trains you to expect the unexpected, constantly evaluate your plan of action and adapt to new demands that may rise at a moment’s notice. A good leader plans thoroughly, but always holds those plans with a loose grip. This way, it is easier to change course if the circumstances require it. Effective business leaders must be just as adaptable. Building the capacity to be flexible and nimble is a fantastic way to embrace change. If recent global disruption has taught us anything, it’s that agility must be central to any business strategy. But building resiliency requires leaders that welcome change and adapt with it to fulfill their goals.

Lead From All Angles

My leadership philosophy is based on one of my favorite sayings: A servant leader is like a shepherd, occasionally in front, sometimes behind, always by their side. This may sound like a different approach to some business leaders, who for decades were encouraged to take a top-down approach. However, this philosophy is much more in line with how the modern military trains its leaders – not to lead from the front or the top, but from every angle.

There are too many variables in today’s world for a leader to have all the answers. Leaders need to provide a vision for the future, define success along the way and get their hands dirty when problems arise. But most of the time, their role is to encourage and empower their teams to drive the organization forward. A servant leader approach opens communication, fosters creativity and spurs innovation.

Celebrate Wins Collectively

In the military, soldiers learn from day one that they do not only represent themselves – they represent their team, squad or section. The goal is for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect and for teammates to take care of each other. Individual care is given when someone is struggling or when someone deserves recognition for their role. At the same time, it is understood that team wins are not individual, they are collective, because it takes teamwork and everyone to truly succeed. A good leader must balance both individual care and collective credit.

Business leaders understand that every employee has a story, and their experience affects the organization and its people. The global disruption we all faced over the past few years has brought this front and center. Key areas of our business have required individual care, but the success of our company has been a collective effort, where we all came together to provide for each other and the customers and consumers we serve.

Being a leader is more than having the right title or sitting at the top of an organizational chart. It's a responsibility to your team – to the people that rely on you and support you every day. By embodying these qualities, leaders, their teams, and their organizations can thrive.

As company group chairman for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health North America and Latin America, Kathy Widmer leads a significant portion of the J&J Consumer Health business. She is also chairman of the board of the Wounded Warrior Project. Widmer graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and is among the earliest graduating classes with women. She holds an M.B.A. from Oklahoma City University.

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