3 Leadership Lessons from the Military that Drive Success in Insurance

Serving others is in my DNA. Both my father and grandfather served in the military. I spent 11 years on active duty for the United States Army, and my son is a veteran of the Iraq War.

When I was first hired for a position at an insurance company, I thought it was just an interim job—not a lifelong career. However, I soon learned that in insurance, you get to help people every day by making sure they have the proper coverage for themselves, their family, their business and their staff.

In more than 20 years of working in the insurance industry, not a day passes when I don’t draw from my military background to be a more effective leader. Here are my three favorite lessons learned from the military—and how you can apply them to any leadership or management role in the insurance industry:

1) Integrity inspiresand inspiration leads. A superior once told me, “When you’re serving in the military, you can lose your life and you can lose your limb—but the one thing that cannot be taken away is your integrity. That has to be given away.”

The essence of integrity is what you do day in and day out, and how you’re true to yourself and your beliefs. This goes for sales positions, corporate positions, and any other position all the way up to the CEO. In the military, we say, “Lead with character, courage, confidence, and conscience.” I believe those qualities are the building blocks of integrity. When managers work with integrity, it’s inspiring to other employees.

On that note, great leaders inspire, period. If you lead with integrity, you will build a culture of inspiration, which is contagious. When you have a team and culture that inspires others, your team will thrive—and, ideally, your business will thrive as well.

2) Play to people’s strengths. As a leader, you’ve got to know your people and their individual strengths in order to put them in positions where they can excel based on their personalities and character. 

And remember: It's a lot harder to teach someone traits like honesty, integrity and work ethic than it is to teach them technical skills. In 2016, Jeff Boss, executive coach and former Navy SEAL, summarized this idea of “skill without will” when he told Forbes, “The recipe for success looks like this: hire for character, train for competence, coach for performance. It’s simple, it’s effective, and you won’t go wrong.”

Whether you’re leading a platoon or a team of insurance professionals, commit yourself to the individual development of your team members. Encourage them in areas where you know they can thrive and be well-positioned to evolve and grow. This will create confident employees and a cohesive team.

3) Step forward. I came into the business world with a sense of mission. While the military has a reputation for rigidity and following orders, many people don’t realize how often you’re told to “make it work.” You quickly learn you’re far more capable than you thought. Your inner self develops past any preconceived boundaries. This resourcefulness and willingness to move forward in the face of uncertainty is invaluable in leadership.

Much of my success has come from taking the next step forward. While it may seem simple or even cliché, the ability to defy your own self-limiting beliefs can make you a great leader. When you have that mentality, your inner drive kicks in because you don’t want to let others down. You want to succeed alongside your team.

In the Army, we serve to protect others. In insurance—whether you’re a broker or agent, in sales or marketing, or a claims adjuster—your main goal is to make sure customers have the right protection in place. Take these lessons from the military and apply them to your management style. Hopefully, you’ll find both your business and your team will begin to thrive.

Patrick O’Toole spent 11 years on active duty in the U.S. Army. He is now director, executive vice president, and chief agency and distribution officer of HealthMarkets Insurance Agency, Inc., a subsidiary insurance agency of HealthMarkets, Inc. Previously, he served as vice president and segment leader with MarketPoint, a wholly owned subsidiary of Humana, Inc.