Brandt On Leadership -- Soldiers Of Fortune? At Ease!

Dec. 21, 2004
The military's methods work -- but not in the corporate world.

American business has a recurring infatuation with military leadership models. CEOs speak loosely of business as a "war for market share" and then see respectful 19-year-olds skillfully handling weapons of mass destruction and $30 million fighter jets and wonder: Why can't my entry-level workers be more like that? This question, in turn, has spawned a cottage industry in books that promise to transfer military precision and culture from the barracks to the boardroom, with titles ranging from Sun Tzu's ancient "Art of War" to Col. Larry Donnithorne's "The West Point Way of Leadership: From Learning Principled Leadership to Practicing It" (1993, Random House). CEOs, it seems, have more than a little Five-Star envy when it comes to their peers in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. I understand their fascination. I recently spent a weekend on the U.S.S. George Washington, and the experience of watching a $5 billion aircraft carrier run efficiently and well by teenagers barely out of high school is something I won't soon forget. The sense of mission, the level of training and the delegation of life-and-death authority implicit in the U.S. military's organization is little short of awe-inspiring. And yet I came away more convinced than ever that military leadership models -- though impressive in their results -- have limited application to the modern corporate world, for three reasons: Total Immersion: Imagine the success rate you could have with new employees if, during their first 90 days on the job, you could control their every action -- from how they trained to where they slept to what they ate. You could, in 90 days, so completely surround your employees with messages about your mission, about their roles and about the behaviors you expect that your recruits might-well charge up any hill you specify. In a free society, however, your employees go home each night and listen to all kinds of messages and voices -- family, recreation -- that compete with yours. You have to convince your employees of the importance of your priorities every day -- without benefit of . . . The Brig: Much as we might like to, you and I can't throw a recalcitrant employee into prison until performance (or behavior) improves. Even more inconvenient is that we can't threaten to have him or her shot by their co-workers for disobeying a direct order. You have to coach -- and encourage, and cajole and reward -- for the performance you expect. In today's lean economy, you need to do this very well because, unlike the military, you don't have the advantage of . . . Redundancy: On an aircraft carrier, it takes eight people to manage the release of its enormous anchors -- six to operate the anchors themselves, and two more to observe the other six for safety reasons. This modus operandi -- using multiple, redundant systems to manage and monitor activity -- is absolutely essential in an environment in which a mistake can lead to a loss of millions of dollars or thousands of lives. Yet how many businesses -- at least those that don't deal with bombs -- can afford to assign 25% or more of their staff to safety, quality control or other monitoring duties? How many businesses, for that matter, would or could invest the weeks or months of training that make those redundancies work in the first place? The bottom line on military leadership for CEOs is this: Although there's an enormous amount to admire in the U.S. military -- from professionalism to willingness to sacrifice for freedom -- it's not a viable model for your business. Unless, of course, your MBOs involve a war for something more important than market share. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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