Winning the leadership war: Lessons from the military

Studies of leadership now comprise a great deal of the literature on organizational culture.

A substratum of these studies is military leadership, an area of renewed interest if the books in the business section of any mega-bookstore are any indication. The shelves are replete with a dozen versions of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, reprints of von Clausewitz’ On War, and concentrated lessons from the U.S. Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, Attila the Hun, Ulysses S. Grant,
Robert E. Lee and a dozen other conflicts and generals. Many books target the business audience with titles like The Way of the Warrior: Business Tactics and Techniques from History’s
Twelve Greatest Generals (James Dunnigan).

Why war and warriors as a contemporary interest for students of business? Perhaps because war is the ultimate transaction; the ultimate win-or-lose entrepreneurial act. Perhaps because we have not yet created a sure formula for finding and creating leadership in organizations — without the formula we mount scouting parties into territory where leadership has been an issue for centuries. Perhaps interest is fuelled by the larger-than-life personas of military leaders — Napoleon’s short stature and big hat, Grant’s cigar and careless uniform, Montgomery’s beret and battle fatigues, Patton’s pearl-handled revolvers and riding breeches, MacArthur’s sunglasses and corn cob pipe. Few great generals resemble men in gray flannel suits.

Perhaps their basic humanity in the midst of inhumanity appeals to us, their realization that their art is a monstrosity. As Lee put it, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” Or as Lee’s contemporary William Tecumseh Sherman put it, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…. You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against those terrible hardships of war.”

Interest in military leadership would be mere curiosity were it not for the belief that leadership lessons from war and the military apply to civilian organizations. Obviously peace and war, the civilian and the military, are different. American analyst Walter Ulmer, in Military Leadership in the 21st Century (Parameters, Spring 1998), identifies five differences:
“First, there is only one American Army. One cannot transfer out of that army without also leaving the institution. The executive who is unhappy at GM might find employment of a similar nature at Ford. But the Army officer who becomes frustrated in his job must either bear up or exit the profession. Second, an employment contract with Sears or GE does not carry with it the implicit duty to risk one’s life to meet corporate goals. There are no unlimited liability contracts in commercial organizations. Third, the military leader-follower relationship is supported by law and tradition as well as by local policies. Fourth, all senior military leaders have been promoted from within the ranks of the organization. To these basic differences we add the warrior ethos essential to an effective fighting force.”

Ulmer and others argue that similarities between the civilian and military leadership outweigh differences. And indeed there are many commonalities.

Both the military leader and the civilian leader have one face turned inward to the organization itself, and another turned outward. The inward face turns to employees or soldiers. The outward face turns to clients, the competition or the enemy — and sometimes to governments that establish the regulatory environment for business, and the politico-diplomatic policy environment for the military (in short, one’s own government can be friend or enemy).

The military leader faces the starkest paradox in terms of his relationship with those he leads. He must care about his troops but he must order them to do things that may lead to their death. Sometimes a military leader is entranced by one or the other side of this balancing act: there is a world of difference between the British General Hunter-Wesson at Gallipoli in 1915 who said: “Casualties? What do I care for casualties?” and the caution of George McClellan, a federal army leader of the American Civil War (beloved “Little Mac” to his troops), who was reluctant to fight and who constantly implored his authorities for yet more reinforcements before engaging the enemy. His reluctance drove Lincoln, in exasperation, to write McClellan: “If you do not intend to use my army, may I borrow it?”

Or contrast the attitudes of generalissimos during the First World War, who would not visit military hospitals lest the horrors there dim the will to throw millions of men at each other, with Robert E. Lee’s anguish after Gettysburg, when he rode in front of his troops crying “It is all my fault,” inducing his own officers to comfort him in his genuine grief.
In less stark terms, the civilian leader faces the same balancing act. She must remain concerned about the well-being of those within the organization, while expecting them to stretch beyond limits of absolute organizational safety or comfort to achieve organizational goals.

Both military and civilian leaders must ensure their “troops” know why they should do what they are ordered to do. This factor has only emerged in the last 200 years in the military sphere. Before that it was uncommon for generals to care about the minds and motivations of their troops, many of whom were mercenaries or their nation’s dregs, escaping worse fates by joining the army. But the rise of literacy and the “citizen army” — men who were both soldiers and citizens — changed all that. As Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant put it in his Memoirs (1885):

“Our armies were composed of men who were able to read, men who knew what they were fighting for, and could not be induced to serve as soldiers, except in an emergency when the safety of the nation was involved, and so necessarily must have been more than equal to men who fought merely because they were brave and because they were thoroughly drilled and inured to hardships.”

And Field-Marshal Montgomery put it this way in his Memoirs (1958):
“Every single soldier must know, before he goes into battle, how the little battle he is to fight fits into the larger picture, and how the success of his fighting will influence the battle as a whole…When Britain goes to war the ranks of her armed forces are filled with men from civil life who are not soldiers, sailors or airmen by profession, and who never wanted to be….The young man today reads the newspapers…he has the radio and television…He can think, he can appreciate, and he is definitely prepared to criticize. He wants to know what is going on, and what you want him to do — and why, and when. He wants to know that in the doing of it his best interests will be absolutely secure in your hands.”

The civilian leader has similar challenges creating an informed, motivated workforce. Like generals, business leaders cannot leave all communication to underlings. Montgomery, for instance, made it a habit to speak directly to his troops before battles, and his distinctive beret and battle fatigues were his way of being recognizable to his troops (although his superiors ordered him to abandon the garb because it made him recognizable to enemy snipers).

Civilian and military leaders must monitor the results of miscommunication with troops. And they both must balance attention to detail with time to think and strategize. As Montgomery put it:
“It is absolutely vital that a senior commander should keep himself from becoming immersed in details, and I always did so. I would spend many hours in quiet thought and reflection in thinking out the major problems. In battle a commander has got to think how he will defeat the enemy. If he gets involved in details he cannot do this since he will lose sight of the essentials which really matter; he will then be led off on side issues which will have little influence on the battle, and he will fail to be that solid rock on which his staff can lean. Details are their province.”

But how difficult for civilian and military leaders to follow this rule. As the American management consultant Warren Bennis puts it, “The routine crowds out the important”. In armies and in companies, leaders must find their thinking time. If they do not, the penalties are immense. As British Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler wrote in 1907: “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”

A danger for both military and civilian leaders is the temptation to see their worlds as technological rather than human. To cite Montgomery again:
“An army is not merely a collection of individuals with so many tanks, guns, machine-guns, etc…The raw material with which the general has to deal is men. The same is true in civil life. Managers of large industrial concerns have not always seemed to me to have understood this point; they think their raw material is iron ore, or cotton or rubber — not men but commodities.”
Failure to embrace technology can be tragedy in war: witness thousands of cavalrymen slaughtered by newfangled machine guns in the First World War. But if technology were everything, the U.S. would have won in Vietnam.

Leaders in both sectors must exhibit two kinds of leadership. As Ulmer puts it:
“There really are only two ‘different situations’ the leader must confront. There is the situation where immediate action and centralized control are the guiding parameters. This is the ‘operating’ situation, requiring standard procedures and crew drills, with expectations for prompt, discernible, measurable results…The other type of situation gives the general officer or CEO more trouble. It requires contemplation before action, patience with ambiguity, and an appreciation for broad participation in the decision-making process. Skilled, self-aware leaders are able to recognize and discriminate between behaviours suitable for these two situations. More important, senior leaders in particular must be able to shift from one set of leadership behaviours to another.

In the tangled but necessary web of ethics and values, the two sectors have much to learn from each other. Their leaders must possess “warrior codes” that protect human beings, constrain leaders’ behaviour within civil bounds and channel energy into acceptable combat and competition.

The military world has no monopoly on good leadership. Its failures are as instructive as its victories, and increasingly it looks to the non-military world as its learning field. But unless civilian leaders capture the imagination of the public and of biographers and historians as thoroughly as military leaders have, military leadership past and present will continue to afford us lessons in triumph and in tragedy.

John Butler is the president of the Agora Group, an HR and health-care management consulting firm. He may be contacted at (905) 294-9762 or [email protected]

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