Drill Instructor

10 Leadership Lessons from a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer

In Leadership by Stephen Zakur0 Comments

Last fall, the Army Times published an article with 10 Leadership Tips from Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. SMA Dailey’s advice was for the senior non-commissioned leaders of the US Army. While his leadership lessons apply to those leading soldiers, in the right context they serve as guideposts for leaders everywhere. Here’s my take on SMA Dailey’s concepts translated for the business world.

No. 1. Yelling doesn’t make you skinny. PT does.

Be visible. Every day. Be there when your teams start their day (0630 for those of you doing Physical Training). Be there when your teams end the day. Be with them celebrating success and when conducting retrospectives on failures. Everything we do is team sport.

And if you can lose a few pounds while doing so, even better.

No. 2. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. 

I don’t know why, but it still amazes me how easy it is for something I say to instantly become dogma. People listen to leaders. Be thoughtful about what you say.

Of course, being thoughtful requires that you have context and that comes from listening. The most frustrating leaders I’ve ever worked with are those who listen with their mouths. Don’t be that leader.

No. 3. If you find yourself having to remind everyone all of the time that you’re the sergeant major and you’re in charge, you’re probably not.

Position does not confer authority, it just means you get a bigger paycheck. How you act, how you treat people and the value you deliver all confer authority.

No. 4. You have to work very hard at being more informed and less emotional.

Controlling one’s emotions is a meets minimum to be a good leader. It’s the “being informed” thing that most of us have to improve. You have to have a keen interest in what’s going on in your organization. You have to know your industry. You have to know your profession. “Sharpen the saw” every day.

No. 5. If you can’t have fun every day, then you need to go home.

There are many things that take the fun out of work: doing work you don’t believe in; working for a leader who doesn’t inspire you; being in a role that has become routine. Regardless of the thing that has sucked the life out of your work experience, change it. Get out. Find something that gets you excited every day.

No. 6. Don’t be the feared leader. It doesn’t work.

Great leaders engage people. Great leaders want people to engage them. You want to have clear purpose, high standards, and accountability. But you don’t have to be a jerk while doing it. Don’t be a jerk.

No. 7. Don’t do anything — and I mean anything — negative over email.

While I love the written word, some use it as a crutch to avoid interpersonal interaction, especially for bad news. Walk down the hall. Pick up the phone. Skype. Do what it takes to connect directly with people.

No. 8. It’s OK to be nervous. All of us are. 

I recently has one of those moments where a project I was working on turned south. It was one of those things where something unforeseen conspired to upset everything. The focus that came from that moment provided me with the energy to push forward. I also reached out to mentors for guidance and I relied upon my team to help shape our direction. Again, it’s team sport, you’re not alone.

No. 9. If your own justification for being an expert in everything you do is your 28 years of military experience, [retire]…

This is another “sharpen the saw” moment. It’s not your tenure that makes you a leader. It’s the knowledge and expertise that you bring to the table. If you’re leading marketing people it doesn’t mean you have to be the greatest marketeer (or the best coder if you’re an IT person) but you do have to keep your skills up, make sure you’re hiring the right people, and listen and learn as you move forward.

No. 10. Never forget that you’re just a soldier.

You’re in your job for the same reason everyone else is in theirs: to create value for your customers, every day. The people you lead expect you to articulate a clear direction, chose the right people to get you there and then execute. They expect to see you leading every day. You’re one of them. You just happen to be the person in charge.

I’ll let you all contextualize this closing quote from SMA Dailey:

“…[your role is] not just to ensure everyone has matching PT belts and make sure everybody stays off the grass. Your job is to lead soldiers, to ensure they’re trained and ready to fight our nation’s wars, and bring them home again, and get them ready for the next adventure. Everything you do … should be focused on that…”

About the Author

Stephen Zakur


Steve Zakur is a technology and operations executive who transforms organizations into digital leaders using agile methods for both software development and business execution.

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