Life Flip

3 leadership lessons that will take you from the battlefield to the boardroom

When Ted Studdard enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school in Commerce, Georgia, he thought he'd do one tour and get out. He certainly didn't think he would become an officer; he never imagined that he'd have an impressive 25 year career, nor did he expect that his experiences in the field would result in a leadership position in the private sector. He assumed he'd go back to Commerce to serve in the family insurance business. From leading Marines in combat to leading employees at The Home Depot, where he serves as the Divisional Staffing Manager of the Western Division, Studdard has found that good leadership translates no matter where you serve.


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Studdard always wanted to be a Marine. His father served as a Marine between Korea and Vietnam in the late 1950s, and his uncle, also a Marine, fought in some of the most pivotal battles of World War II. As his first operational tour was coming to a close, Studdard thought it might be time to head back to Georgia. Financially it made sense and it seemed like a natural move, but the actions of one leader changed his mind. Through the course of his career, Studdard would come across three great leaders that would fundamentally influence not only his path, but his leadership philosophy as well. The three lessons that he learned early in his career still resonate today.

Ted Studdard with then President George Bush.

3. Know your people.

Studdard was stationed in Hawaii and was contemplating his next move, specifically whether or not to stay in the Marines, when (then) Colonel Wayne Rollins came to his artillery battery's live fire training. "He said, 'Hey Ted. I want to talk to you,'" Studdard recalled, adding, "He knew my name. He had several thousand Marines and sailors in his regiment and yet he was willing to go out of his way to not only talk to me but to really mentor me. That's the essence of a leader." Rollins sat with Studdard for hours, talking through different options, and always with Studdard's best interest at heart – even if that meant it was a competing interest of the Marines. Knowing your people – who they are, what drives them and something as simple as their name – is instrumental in building organizational trust.

2. Empower your people.

When Studdard was a tactics instructor in Quantico, Virginia, he was with a group of leaders conducting a reconnaissance for a training mission along a series of tank trails deep in Virginia countryside when they got a flat tire. Studdard was the junior guy, so changing the flat fell to him. While several of the majors and lieutenant colonels offered advice, the Commanding Officer, (then) Colonel James Conway, stepped in. Studdard shared, "He walked up and said, 'Men, he knows how to change a tire. Let's get out of his way and let him do his business.' All those leaders meant well, but what sets great leaders apart is that they teach and train their people and then they trust them to do their job, while providing an environment for them to succeed."

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1. Have their backs.

We all make mistakes. Studdard learned the hard way that even with the best intentions, errors still occur. But as a leader, how you react to those mistakes is what shows your true mettle.

Studdard had been in his first operational Marine Unit about two months when he made an innocent, albeit potentially catastrophic, mistake. "We'd had horrible weather for a couple of weeks," he explained, "and we'd been carrying around this particular munition that was a pain in the rear end to transport and it could only be used in very specific training areas. We'd been waiting for clear weather so we could shoot and observe the impacts, and we finally had a beautiful day and we were in the right location. I thought it was the perfect time to shoot this ammunition.

Just as we fired the last round, our Commanding Officer, Captain M.A. Singleton, arrived at our position. He asked me, 'Ted, did you really just shoot that ammunition?' And I was on cloud nine. But then he said it again. 'Ted? Did you really just shoot that?' I answered yes. I thought he was going to be so proud of us … and then asked if I knew where everybody was."

Studdard continued, "There were 2000 Marines that were in the training area. I thought that I knew where all the units were until he asked me about the mortarmen. I didn't know where they were. Turns out they were in front of our position and we had fired over their heads, which could have created a really dire situation."

Ted Studdard, USMC.

Studdard expected to be relieved on the spot, but to his surprise that did not happen. Captain Singleton took Studdard aside and asked him questions, trying to ascertain if he really understood the ramifications. Instead of sending Studdard home, Singleton finished the conversation by telling him: "I believe in you. I have faith in you. Go out and train your Marines and don't ever do that again."

Studdard recognizes that he got a second chance and stressed the importance of standing up for your people. "We knew if it wasn't illegal, immoral or unethical that Captain Singleton had our backs," Studdard said. He would hold us accountable, but he was helping us grow. Singleton's accountability coupled with trust and compassion helped build a cohesive team, which, within the year would perform exceptionally well in combat.

Whether you're leading troops into battle or are leading teams in the private sector, Studdard's leadership lessons are ones to implement. "Leadership is universal," he believes, "It doesn't matter if you're in combat or corporate America. The Golden Rule still applies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."