What it Takes to be in the Military

traits of a military leader

Do you have what it takes to join the military? Active-duty military life is challenging, but it can be enriching for those who fit the bill.

A recent report from the Mission Readiness group found that about 75% of American men and women between the ages of 17 and 24 wouldn’t be eligible for U.S. military service for various reasons, including being too overweight, other health problems, and lacking a high school diploma.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are currently 1.3 million active-duty personnel in the various branches of America’s all-volunteer military forces, which constitutes just 0.5% of the U.S. population.

So, when the Marine Corps says, “The Few, the Proud, the Marines,” there’s much truth to the fact there are very few Americans who make the military cut.

But beyond the eligibility requirements to join the military, there are many other innate characteristics that recruiters look for in future servicemembers. Traits like discipline, confidence, leadership skills, teamwork skills, empathy, and intellect are just as important as top physical fitness.

We’ll detail the top characteristics that make for an excellent U.S. servicemember and explain why those traits are so important.


traits of a military leader

Discipline is one top characteristic that comes to mind for most civilians when thinking of military life. Many people can probably imagine military movies or TV shows they’ve seen featuring drill sergeants yelling at cadets.

Being in the military requires a significant amount of discipline, whether it be respecting military rituals, asking permission before speaking to a superior, maintaining grooming standards, and being punctual.

Many people can summon the motivation to meet their goals, but in the military, that initial drive needs to be maintained daily and turned into a fine-tuned self-control and self-discipline.

Teamwork Skills

Excellent teamwork skills and working with others may be one of the most essential characteristics of a good service member. Teamwork is emphasized by military recruiters even before you join boot camp, and there’s a good reason for that. If you ever find yourself in the line of fire, being able to work as a cohesive unit can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Being a good teammate in the military means putting the team’s interests before your own, holding teammates accountable, and sometimes telling other people what they don’t want to hear. Even if one member of your unit shows up late or is unprepared, it could sabotage the success of an entire mission.

Leadership Skills

traits of a military leader

Just like teamwork, leadership skills are essential to the success of the military and individual military members. While military officers must have key leadership skills and soldiers must obey orders, every military member can benefit from learning and acquiring leadership traits.

Excellent leadership involves always treating others with respect and dignity, earning the trust of your peers, setting high standards and keeping yourself and teammates accountable, and embracing the responsibilities of military life with enthusiasm. Indeed, all of these traits are must-haves for high-ranking officers, but it’s easy to see how every military member can benefit from learning and developing them.


Being in the military takes brawn and physical prowess, but it also requires significant brainpower. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are necessary due to the complexity of some missions, and service members must be able to think fast and think on their toes.

Soldiers are also asked to learn new tasks very quickly. In the military, you may be required to master a skill in six months that most people in civilian life would have to learn in about four years. Being intellectually engaged and a lifelong learner will help tremendously.

Also, military recruiters are increasingly looking at intellect as a top skill for new recruits. Recruiters are pursuing college grads – not just high school grads – and especially those who majored in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Some military branches are having shortages of recruits with vital technical skills, so having these skills increases your chances of making the cut and having a successful military career.


traits of a military leader

Due to the hard realities of military life, many people may be surprised to think of empathy as a crucial military skill. Increasingly, though, military leaders and soldiers are developing the skill of empathy.

The difference between empathy in military and civilian life is a stark one, though. As Chaplain (Maj.) John McDougall, U.S. Army, describes in an article in the Military Review, empathy in the military isn’t about “going soft” or having shared experiences with others. For both officers and enlisted, empathy is more so about understanding the motivations of others and learning active listening skills.

In 2006, the U.S. Army surveyed the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq and added empathy under the character portion of its Army Leadership Requirements Model, McDougall wrote in the Military Review. On complex battlefields in the Middle East and military life in general, having empathy and understanding the motivations of others is critical.


While empathy may not immediately come to mind when thinking of attributes for a servicemember, personal courage definitely should. Personal courage is one of the U.S. Army’s seven core values, and the army defines it as “facing fear, danger or adversity (physical or moral).”

Whether in peacetime or on the battlefield, serving in the military requires a great deal of courage. Soldiers and officers say courage is doing the right and honorable thing despite what others think, fighting alongside teammates, putting life and limb on the line, and enduring physical and mental stress.

The Change is Forever

traits of a military leader

The Marines like to say, “The change is forever,” meaning that once a Marine, always a Marine. Indeed, serving in the military is something that’ll completely change your life, give you rich and rewarding experiences, and help you develop relationships that can last a lifetime.

Being in the military is certainly not easy, and as we described, an increasing number of young Americans don’t meet eligibility standards. But if you are eligible, the characteristics and traits we described will go a long way to making you an excellent soldier and servicemember.

Some of these traits are innate, but all can be learned through hard work, motivation, and keeping your eye on the prize. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to becoming one of “The Few and the Proud.”

At Empire Resume, we not only share the curiosity about how military promotions work, we know how it works firsthand. As company founder, I’ve gone through the promotion process myself and have watched others do the same. When you or someone you know is ready to begin their career search outside of the military, contact the best military-to-civilian resume writers at Empire Resume. We deliver results, guaranteed!

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for service-members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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