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What military leadership can teach us about strategy

Damian McKinney

What military leadership can teach us about strategy

The military’s emphasis on following the mission offers some valuable lessons for business leaders, argues strategic business consultant, former marine and author of The Commando Way, Damian McKinney

There is more similarity now in terms of operating environments between business and the military than at any time in history. Everything from political unrest to internet security contributes to this dynamic.

When I first entered the business arena, I was shocked by the lack of ability to execute. Businesses were just not set up that way; they were long on strategy and short on execution.

The military, on the other hand, has had to consistently adapt operations at all levels at all times, from the cold war to the more recent ‘war on terrorism’.

While the military was grooming leaders, the business world was creating generations of managers. Those coming out of business schools were prepped to focus on strategy and not the translation of strategy. At the top of their classes are many business school graduates who know how to plan and orchestrate but not how to lead through issues.

The mindset of the military is about both leadership and followership. The mission is where the authority lies, as opposed to business where rank (or title) gives you authority.

Business needs a new approach, and the military approach is effective and works in a non-military environment. The operating skills I learned as a commando carry over to business. In both cases, you have smart people that you can't order: you must inspire. It is leadership by guile rather than strength.

In business, just as in the military, there should be an emphasis on strategy that is translated to alignment.

Everyone must understand the ‘battle map’ or the intelligence. As the situation changes in business there is a need for root cause analysis, just as there is in the military.

Execution and followship

Business execution as a category has only emerged over the past decade. Management teams are now expected to be excellent in execution as well as strategy.

However, the tough environment we are currently working in has called into question what great execution looks like.

This is where the ‘Commando Way’ comes in.

The mindset of the military is about both leadership and followership. The mission is where the authority lies, as opposed to business where rank (or title) gives you authority. In the military, if you fail the mission then you have failed.

To have great leaders, you need great followers. A report is not about whether you can do your current job; it's about whether you can do the job one or two levels up.

This has long been the case in the military, as you have to be able to take on your boss’s job at any time. It is a much deeper and more effective bench. Now is the time for businesses to take on this mindset.

Damian McKinney is a former Royal Marines Commando. After a military career he set up McKinney Rogers in 1999.

His book The Commando Way is published on 27th September 2012 (LID Publishing).

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