What Business Can Learn From the Military

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Dr Johnson. Is this what is behind the large number of parallels that are drawn between military service and business? Business leaders are simply indulging their armchair-general fantasies, imagining their corporate decisions as battlefield orders to think less meanly of themselves? I don’t believe so. The military and civilian worlds are separate but there is much they have taught and can teach one another.

As for parallels, there certainly are a lot. I know that military history has inspired many business articles because I have written many of them. I have explored lessons from the motivation of French Revolutionary armies, the operational freedom of Napoleon’s Corps system and the political micromanagement of the Vietnam War. I haven’t written these pieces in order to give anyone a sense of martial pride, but to use history – military history in particular – to facilitate learning.

Yes, there are undoubtedly individuals out there trying to compensate for ‘not having been a soldier’ by fighting their own boardroom battles. This is evidenced by the influx of military language into the business world. Customers and clients are ‘targeted’, when perhaps they should be connected with or reached out to.   However, just because some have, for whatever reason, taken lessons from the military in a very literal and potentially unhelpful way doesn’t mean to say that there is nothing positive to learn.

As such, this article is primarily a defence of the idea that there is a wealth of relevant knowledge to be gleaned from the armed forces. Those who believe that business men and women merely enjoy playing at being soldiers point to the apparent disconnect between the two systems. The military operates within a clear rank structure; orders are given and followed. Conversely, in the modern corporate world there is an emphasis on delegating responsibility; on empowering and freeing your people.

However, modern businesses aren’t rudderless. Empowered employees still need to be working cohesively and not embarking on their own rogue agendas. How has this been solved? Businesses have looked to the military for inspiration – to the Prussian army 200 years ago, to be precise. The command and control of the armed forces is not as rigid as is imagined. The Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik (mission-orientated tactics) became a component of military doctrine across the western world and has since become a significant influence on how civilian businesses are run.

The central idea of Auftragstaktik is that commanders should give their subordinates general directions of what needs to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it. For example, an officer might receive orders to attack a certain position but, as the person on the ground, it will be their decision whether to assault directly or from one of the flanks. The orders will contain the intent of their superior officer and the concept of operations on a wider scale. This should inform their decision making but not dictate it. If the commanding officer’s intent is to make a rapid advance, the subordinate will have to prioritise speed but still retains overall discretion.

This has proved equally successful in the civilian world. Managers are able to communicate to their subordinates what needs to be done when and where. Importantly, they must convey why this needs to happen, as ensuring everyone knows their manager’s overall intent and concept means that they will be working in the same direction. However, the manager can delegate the responsibility of how this happens to each individual. Empowered people, working harmoniously – all derived from a military doctrine.

The military is not an archaic organisation but a forward-looking entity capable of generating new thinking and new systems of management. Civilian managers only now learning about management methods which have been used in military circles for over two centuries may well discover other successful management and leadership techniques through studying the armed forces and their history. The military are people who know about managing people when the stakes are at their very highest. This is not playing soldiers or compensating for ‘thinking meanly’ of yourself – it’s learning from experts and there is much we can learn.

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