Saturday, November 24, 2007

Military Leadership in the Real World

Recently on LinkedIn, I answered a question on the applicability of military leadership to the business world.

Q? Is the military model of leadership really applicable to the business world?

A: Short answer...yes. I believe there is great applicability between the military model for leadership and the business world. I am still in the military but am in my second stint working within a civilian organization - now a public engineering organization with nearly a $1B annual program. I write extensively about leadership lessons from both worlds in my newsletter and my blog. Bottom line - in my opinion - business is not combat. But...leadership is leadership.

What is important to understand is that the leadership model seen in the movies, or even what is commonly understood as the top-down, command and control model - is not what you will see in today's military. This is especially true in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where this approach simply won't work. What you will find instead is much more aligned with today's business environment:

- Decentralized, intent-based, empowering leadership. When you cannot be everywhere in which your mission takes place (mid to higher level officer ranks to be sure), you cannot tell people how to do stuff. Instead, you focus on what must be done (tasks, mission orders) and why (purpose, intent). Empowered subordinates, trained and resourced for success, will take care of the rest. No difference.

- Information, network-centric operations. Today's military is totally wired, completely networked, often down to the soldier on the ground. Distributed operations based on a shared common operational picture allow leaders to make quick decisions, shift resources, and focus on what is (versus what was, i.e. traditional stove-pipe, analog reporting) and what will be (again, enabled by an understanding of the operational picture). All of this only works when people communicate, when leaders circulate the battlefield and move to where the action is, and when the team understands that information is everything. Technology, equipment, etc. are focused on enabling the success of the people who do the work. No difference.

- Values and culture. Military leadership focuses on creating a culture based on values (things like duty, honor, loyalty, integrity), trust, and a belief that every member of the team is important. It's not who you know, it's what you do. Successful leaders understand that it is all about people...and ethical performance. No difference.

Again, business is not combat. Life and death leadership principles may not work in the real world. But this is not the norm. What will work is selfless leadership, a passion for execution, and a belief in themselves (confidence and competence) and the team which they serve. No difference! Hooah!

I do feel pretty strongly about this issue (hence this blog site!). But I also know that not everything we do in the military is directly translatable to the business world. Pushups, marching, court martials, etc. won't necessarily work well in most organizations. But the core issues, things like empowerment, communication, values, learning, discipline, people...these are the components of military leadership that we would want to see in any team.

So what do you think? Did I answer this one right?

This is Leader Business.


James T. Parsons said...

Tom, as you know, I also am passionate about this issue, and the importance of leadership succession planning which the military model of leadership does better than the business world.

I think the sad answer is that often the leadership models of the military and corporate America are not the same, although they should be, solely because many businesses do not develop the leadership of their teams and companies. Often companies can be too "leader" focused on the success of an individual manager, CEO, etc. Such businesses and the people in them run on the model that "if I make myself irreplaceable, then they can't fire or down-size me as easily." This message is often conveyed top-down in companies, starting with the packing of golden parachutes. Military, in contrast, MUST develop the WHOLE team, since no one soldier/sailor is going to ensure mission success, and any one person may have to be replaced, due to retirement, redeployment, promotion, injury or death.

However, what I think corporate America OUGHT to see is that they must learn from the military model of which you write, and are ill-advised to overlook military experience in their recruiting of leaders. Here in Austin, many of the most effective leaders I see often have military experience, and specifically speak about leadership succession training and development. The companies that often perform best long-term are those that adopt models that are similar in nature to military team development.

At the Austin Leadership Forum breakfast last month, one such company, National Instruments, showed such wisdom. As an example, its CEO and Founder, Dr. James Truchard apparently has had the same salary for much of the company's history, which is modest, does not take stock-options, etc. Instead, he had NI invest in its employees and hired key engineers when most tech companies were forced to downsize, with a long-term view toward growth. I have no doubt that NI's policies require employees to work very hard, but they are provided a stake in the company, are empowered to succeed, and reassured that, in lean times, the executives will take a pay cut before lay-offs are approved. As a consequence, NI has been listed in the 100 best companies to work in for many years running.

I hope that your readers really appreciate the wisdom you bring to these articles, since I think they show the insight that is needed in many companies.

Tom Magness said...


I am sorry I missed the NI presentation at the Leadership Forum. Sounds like a great speaker...and little wonder they are one of the "Best Companies" every year. Thanks for your passion about the business of leaders.