What to Learn from the Military

Subscribe to the Three Star Leadership Blog

Working Supervisor's Support Kit
A collection of tools and information that will help you do a better job as a boss. 
Buy Performance Talk
Leadership Digital

Contact Wally  about coaching, consulting, or speaking to your group.

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 dynamic individuals.

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 shoot rifles.

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 Legendary Sharpshooters.

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.

Culture Rules

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.

More Resources

"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."

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.



What did you think of this article?

  • No trackbacks exist for this post.

  • 7/27/2011 6:03 PM davidburkus wrote:
    "Culture Rules" - couldn't agree more.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/27/2011 6:56 PM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks, David.
      Reply to this
  • 7/31/2011 12:28 AM David Crader wrote:
    I found these articles very interesting, especially comparison with Army. Really appreciate your information and experience. Good job. Thank you.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/31/2011 11:54 AM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thanks so much for those kind words, David.
      Reply to this
  • 7/31/2011 6:25 PM Tom Magness wrote:
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Wally. Having just returned from Afghanistan, I especially appreciated your comments on Mission orders. I see it like this -- there is simply too much to do on deployment to tell people HOW to do things. Focus on WHAT to do (and WHY it is important) and train them on how to THINK, and you'll see the real empowering concept of Mission Orders take hold throughout the organization (a culture of empowerment that I saw working magnificently wherever it was employed). Thanks for sharing! Hooah!
    Reply to this
    1. 8/1/2011 8:34 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for that great comment, Tom, and connecting the point to real life. You reminded me of something Helmuth von Moltke wrote: "The rule to follow is that the order should contain all, but also only, what subordinates cannot determine for themselves to achieve a particular purpose." Italics are mine.

      Reply to this
  • 9/28/2011 9:45 AM Simon at sales training wrote:
    "Culture is expectations, not regulations"... Reminds me of what my dad use to say all the time when I was young:
    "It's not what you say, but what you do".

    He served in the army for most of my childhood and always ran a tight ship.

    I think he would agree with your article as I can relate with it in many respects.

    I think the culture is probably the most important part!
    Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.


 Email (will not be published)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.