When Mikael Granlund was called up for service in Finland’s military seven years ago, he could have tried to get an exemption. For an elite ice hockey player such as Granlund, who now plays for the National Hockey League team Minnesota Wild, a year in the armed forces can bring serious athletic setbacks. But Granlund didn’t try to be exempted.

“For a Finn, it’s an honor to do military service,” the 25-year-old Granlund said this month. “It’s just something you do if you want your country to stay independent.” What about athletes? “Professional athletes do it, too,” Granlund added. “It’s just something you want to do.”

Granlund is not alone. Each year, several of Finland’s top athletes join the Finnish Defence Forces as conscripts. So do music stars, who could similarly try to be exempted. Though the FDF—like most armed forces—exempts would-be conscripts only for health-related reasons, in many countries young men fake illnesses in order to avoid service. And young star athletes and artists would, one might think, have a good reason to avoid the draft, as their careers could suffer irreparably from a year away from the limelight. (Next year’s cohort of conscripts will include one of the country’s biggest pop stars, Robin, who will enter the navy.)

Finnish troops training, September 2015.
Finnish troops training, September 2015.

Indeed, as Granlund’s and Robin’s enlistments show, the FDF has managed a feat that other armed forces could learn from: it has made itself an attractive destination for conscripts and professional troops alike. This helps explain why the armed forces routinely have more applicants than openings for noncommissioned officer positions. According to a May Eurobarometer poll, 95 percent of Finns trust their army, a higher rate than anywhere else in the European Union. (In Germany, 66 percent trust the army; across the EU, the average is 75 percent.)

Granlund and many other Finns may consider conscription a patriotic duty, but militaries cannot count on citizens’ love of country to fill their ranks. Consider the case of Russia: even though a June poll found that 87 percent of the country’s citizens support President Vladimir Putin’s handling of foreign affairs, only around 37 percent of its young men perform military service, which in theory is mandatory for everyone.

The appeal of Finland’s military extends beyond patriotism and depends partly on its willingness to listen to its soldiers. In 2002, the FDF introduced a system that tracks and evaluates soldiers’ and officers’ experiences. “It has changed how we treat our soldiers and how soldiers view the FDF,” said Brigadier General Jukka Sonninen, the FDF’s head of training.

Under this system, which the FDF calls “Transformational Leadership,” Finland’s military regularly polls soldiers throughout their service on matters such as sleeping arrangements, superiors’ leadership, stress management, unit cohesion, and communications from central offices. The FDF carries out the survey at every level, too: group, company, battalion, and brigade.

Sonninen’s unit tracks and evaluates the results, paying particular attention to changes in scores. “The point is not that we conduct surveys and score well and say, ‘That’s great; they love us,’” Sonninen told me. “The point is that we analyze the results and then look for the root reason: Has a certain event caused a particular score? A certain person? Certain processes such as health care? When people figure out that the process works, it dramatically changes their attitude.”

Finnish troops, in other words, know that they don’t have to call a hot line or contact a superior to talk about their problems. Sonninen’s staff will regularly come to them and follow up on the results.

This fall, soldiers gave the cohesion of their units an average score of 4.2 out of 5 and gave the officers in charge of their training the same rating. Those scores and all others have improved over the last 15 years. In a survey of conscripts also conducted this fall, 66 percent rated their military service positively; in 2002, less than half did.

A Finnish soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2006.
A Finnish soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2006.
Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

FDF officers’ leadership abilities have quickly improved thanks to the scheme. Although Finnish officers never treated their soldiers brutally, they mostly relied on their authority to get things done. Now, Sonninen told me, success is based on a mutual bond of trust between commanders and subordinates. The well-being of Finnish soldiers has also grown. “The bond between the soldier and the commander can’t just be about authority,” Sonninen said. “You don’t shout to your subordinates; you talk just like you talk to a normal person. Listen to the people you lead; don’t just give commands.”

Finland has shown that the secret to making the armed forces popular is ensuring that the low-ranking soldiers and noncommissioned officers who make up most of the ranks are content.

That approach is working. In the most recent survey of graduating conscripts, conducted this fall, 80 percent supported maintaining conscription; 42 percent said that they would serve even if conscription were not mandatory; and 22 percent were neutral. Only 36 percent said they would not serve. If Finns forced to serve say they would have done so even if they did not have to, then the FDF has managed a feat from which other countries can learn. Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a security analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (who also served as a conscript), argued that there is plenty that other countries can replicate. “Don’t oversell,” he said. “You can’t have cool videos of soldiers jumping out of airplanes if you can’t deliver. But equally, don’t undersell.” Once troops are enlisted, militaries must make their service worthwhile. “Keep them learning skills that they can also use elsewhere,” Salonius-Pasternak said. “There’s a difference between getting people and motivating them. This way you get the best people instead of a large percentage who couldn’t find any other work.” (The U.S. Army has struggled with recruits who fail their training since it relaxed its admission standards.)

Armed forces elsewhere have commanders who treat their subordinates with respect, inspire them, and help them develop. Finland has excelled by systematizing those virtues.

Although polling troops may seem like a soft-glove approach not suitable for a fighting force, it is in fact a clever way of incentivizing the enlisted to give their best. As militaries in Europe and North America seek to expand their ranks, keeping morale high will be crucial to their ability to recruit and retain troops. They should note Finland’s example.

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