3 Lessons from the Military

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There are a lot of things you can learn from the armed forces. But some military practices don't adapt well to the world of business. That's why Tom Wolfe refused to give "Right Stuff" speeches to business groups.

Wolfe noted that the "right stuff" for a military pilot meant putting his life on the line, and doing it day after day. There's no business equivalent for that.

But there are other military practices that you can pull over and use in business without a lot of adapting. Here are three.

Help the young ones succeed. The military piles expectations and responsibility on people, regardless of age. And the young ones do quite well.

It's pretty straightforward, really. The military invests in training to make sure people can do the job assigned. They supervise. Perhaps most important, they expect performance.

Learn from experience. It doesn't have to be your experience. Many military leaders steep themselves in history. They try to learn from those that have gone before.

In business, history is barely mentioned. But there are lessons to be learned from business history. For an idea of what's possible, check out Brand New , by Nancy Koehn. You'll find lessons from the likes of Josiah Wedgwood, Estee Lauder, and Henry Heinz.

Learn from your own experience, too. In the military, the operation's not over till the after-action critique is done. Make time after every project or campaign to tease out the lessons. Then share them.

Use simple decision tools. In the business world, "decision making" is treated like sacred writ. There are fat books on the subject. The military approach is different.

The military thinks that one thing leaders should do is make decisions. To make that both easier and more effective, there are simple analysis and communication tools.

An example is METT-T which provides a "checklist" of things to consider when planning an operation. The letters stand for Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops, and Time.

When it's time to lay out and communicate the plan, you can use the five part operations order that military leaders have used for decades. Viet Nam vet and Navy SEAL, Jesse Ventura, supposedly planned his campaign for governor using ops orders. The five parts are Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration/Logistics, and Command and Communications.

Simple decision tools offer two benefits. They allow you to make rapid decisions without spending mental energy on designing the process. And they give everyone a common framework for analysis and critique.

Boss's Bottom Line

Give your people the ability to perform well. Expect it.

Use simple tools to stay agile, effective, and steadily improving.


Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 5/11/2010 10:13 AM Bob wrote:
    I think you are right on point. The last company I worked for did not do any of these three things well or at all and is in serious trouble now. They do not train the new people & have no performance expectations for anyone. They cannot/will not learn from their own history let alone another company and the decision making tools which are used are extremely complicated & do not work well.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/11/2010 10:38 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for those kind words, Bob. I've been around business now for more than forty years. Throughout that time there have been studies and articles indicating that top performing companies were almost always "top training" companies. Still, training in many places is haphazard at best and rarely measured for its effect on performance.

      Reply to this
  • 5/16/2010 11:36 PM Chris Young wrote:
    Nice post Wally - thanks for sharing what you've learned and thank you for your service to our country!

    I think the third lesson you list is especially powerful as simple decision tools encourage empowerment throughout the organizational chart and provide an established protocol for effective decision making.

    I've included your post in my Rainmaker top five blog picks of the week  to share your lessons with my readers.

    Be well!
    Reply to this
    1. 5/17/2010 6:20 AM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks, Chris. It's always an honor to make your list.
      Reply to this
  • 5/18/2010 6:14 PM Karen Schmidt wrote:

    Having been associated with the military both personally and professionally I now know that we can learn a lot from them.

    One of the sayings that I learnt from them that has stuck with me is that a leader needs to follow the 3 Fs . . . firm, fair, friendly. If things get tough and something has to give, it's friendly that goes but never the other two.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/18/2010 7:20 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that, Karen. It's powerful and easy to remember.

      Reply to this
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