What to learn from the military was the topic for
Tuesday evening’s Leadership Chat on Twitter. Let me drive a couple of stakes in
the ground before we get to the main points.
We shouldn’t be learning from the whole military. As with business, we learn
the most important lessons from top performing organizations. Those top
performing military organizations are from all branches of the service and from
many countries. The good ideas and lessons come from everywhere. I’m likely to
mention the US Marines more than other organizations, but that’s because I’m a
former Marine and it’s the service I’m most familiar with.
We can also learn from the way military organizations have tackled problems
similar to what we face in business today. We’re in the midst of the transition
from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. To succeed, business will
need to give more people the power of independent decision and action, while
doing everything possible to assure that those actions are aligned with
organizational strategy. Military organizations began dealing with a similar
transition about 200 years ago.
In 1760, Frederick the Great’s Prussian army was considered the world’s best.
Operation was based on strict obedience of those below to the plans and
directives of those above. Planning and execution were separate. If that sounds
familiar, it’s because the Industrial Age machine model is almost the same.
In 1806, the Prussian army, operating the same way, was defeated by a French
army that used a new kind of independently acting solider to supplement its mass
formations. Since then there have been changes and backsliding, but top military
organizations today have mastered what’s called a “mission order” to achieve
both strategic alignment and operational autonomy.
The big changes began in the late 18th Century, sparked by many things,
including the American Revolutionary War, changes in technology, and some
The French should have led these developments, since they were leaders in
developing what was called “light infantry,” but they didn’t for two reasons.
One was that they didn’t have the training culture that existed in the British
and Prussian and other armies. More importantly, the French chose to rely on
geniuses like Napoleon, rather than systems for their continued success. Alas,
the next Napoleon was not nearly the genius of the first.
The British army was where many important things happened. The British
suffered from American sharpshooters during the Revolutionary War. John Moore
was one of the young British company commanders in that war. In 1801, now as Sir
John Moore, his regiment was the first to be designated “light infantry.” In
1803 he established a training camp at Shorncliff to train a new kind of
independent soldier. He thought that regular English soldiers could learn to
That sounds comical today, but then the prevailing wisdom was that only
people from “hunting cultures” could shoot well. The English hired mercenaries,
especially Austrian mountain soldiers, as marksmen. Moore thought any soldier
could be taught to shoot reasonably well. He was right. You can find the story
of one of the legendary regiments that emerged from Shorncliff in Mark Urban’s
excellent book, Wellington’s Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England’s
This was time of incredible change in the British army sparked by the Peninsular War. The
British Army, with the Portuguese and Spanish fought the French on the Iberian
Peninsula from 1808 to 1814 and set up the final defeat of Napoleon that, in
turn, set up his defeat at Waterloo. We are in the midst of the 200th
anniversary of that war. The war also had a profound affect on British national
identity and the conduct of warfare in addition to making the reputation of
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
Helmuth Graf von Moltke began the transformation of the Prussian and then
German General Staff and general orders that had transformed the German Army by
the start of the 20th Century. That story is the best we have about how an
organization changes from a mix of zealous reformers, determined resisters and
outside pressures. The story is well told by Stephen Bungay in his book, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans,
Actions and Results.
That’s the background for the discussion we had on July 26. Here are the main
points from that discussion, with pointers to resources.
Mastering the Mission Order
American military manuals define a “mission type order” as an “order to a
unit to perform a mission without specifying how it will be accomplished.”
Marine doctrine puts the same thing this way:
“We leave the manner of accomplishing the mission to the subordinate, thereby
allowing him the freedom and establishing the duty for him to take whatever
steps deemed necessary based on the situation. The senior prescribes the method
of execution only to the degree that is essential for coordination.”
The principles of the mission order are described well in a document called
either Warfighting or MCDP-1, the official Marine doctrine. I describe it in a review what includes pointers to the book on
Amazon and a PDF version of the document.
In business we often call this “delegating,” where we assign a task to
qualified people without specifying the details. Too many people who advocate
delegating do so without mentioning that there are conditions that are necessary
for delegation to work. I tackle that issue in my post “Don’t delegate unless.”
When we do this well, the results are increased productivity, morale,
innovation, and agility. Military units, especially elite units, do a better job
than most businesses of doing this consistently.
Training Prepares Leaders for Today and Tomorrow
The military spends far more time training for missions than it does carrying
the missions out. In business, the reverse is true. Even so there are some
important lessons we can learn from the way military organizations do training.
The military has learned that if you don’t train your leaders at all levels
properly, you can’t consistently use mission orders and reap the benefits.
The military does a better job than most businesses of training leaders in
decision making, training them in the skills necessary two levels above their
current position, and creating the situation where there are multiple qualified
candidates for every promotion.
Most training in business decision-making consists of working on case
studies. Military services teach decision making the old-fashioned way, by
creating a simple, but flexible system, having leaders in training make lots of
decisions and critiquing the outcomes. The result is that a freshly minted
second lieutenant is usually more adept at decision making that many mid-level
managers. It’s one reason why junior military officers are recruiting targets
for many business organizations.
Here are two pointers to the kind of decision aids, the military gives to
leaders. One is a standard format for conveying direction. It has various names
that sound something like “five paragraph operations order.” There are also checklists
for analyzing situations. Checklists are powerful tools that can help you increase
performance without an increase in staff or ability. Here’s a pointer to one such checklist named METT-T.
The US Marine Corps is the world’s largest elite fighting force, but the
Marines recruit from the same pool as the other US services. What makes Marines
special is not what they were born with. It’s what they become from the training
they receive and the culture that envelopes them. Follow these links to
statements of Marine Corps Leadership Principles and Marine Corps Leadership Traits.
Culture is expectations, not regulations, and it’s a two-edged sword. Culture
can create the expectation of excellence, but culture also can be a barrier to
change. That’s the lesson I draw from the history of changing cultures to a
“mission order” culture from a “commander plans and tells” culture. Businesses
have struggled with this change for a few decades, but military units have been
working on it for 200 years or so.
“Leaders decide, let them learn how” is my post with
some analysis of and a pointer to Army Colonel Paul Yingling’s excellent paper
on adaptive leadership and how to develop leaders for it.
“Leading with Two Minds” is a column by David Brooks in the NY
Times about recent changes in the US Army.
“Inside The U.S. Navy’s Leadership School” is an article from
Forbes about the Navy’s Executive Learning Office.
The Strategic Leadership Studies Competencies and Skills site is a
treasure trove of documents and references about military leadership.
American Generalship: Character Is Everything: The Art of
Command is a new book by one of my favorite analyzers of military
leaders, Edgar Puryear.
I’ll end on a personal note. One of my heroes is George Catlett Marshall. I
attempted to explain why in a post titled “Simple Leadership Lessons from George Marshall.”