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Military precision

Steve Hemsley

Leadership in the Armed Forces can mean the difference between life and death. Steve Hemsley asks what leaders in the public and private sector can learn from the military counterparts

If there is one thing business leaders can learn from the military, it is being able to distinguish between strategy and tactics.
In his book The Art of Action, historian Stephen Bungay says strategy was always the art of the general (today’s business leader) and tactics the craft of the officers (the managers).  

The troops (the employees) were tasked with implementing these tactics, but the tricky part was ensuring there were no gaps between the strategy being planned at the top and the tactics being executed on the front line, something business leaders can certainly sympathise with.
Military leadership hierarchies have evolved over the centuries but what has not changed are the transferrable skills military leaders can bring to commercial organisations.  

Perhaps not surprisingly many ex-military leaders now head up companies in the defence and security industry. 
Edward Macfarlane, for example, is managing director at Advance Security which has a £90m turnover and 4,000 employees. He previously served in the Coldstream Guards in Cyprus, Belize, Kenya and Northern Ireland and understands how the difference between strategy and tactics can get confused in business.

“The military take people who have the potential to be great leaders and make them into successful leaders, but in business we often try to turn managers into leaders but they end up just managing,” he says. “A leader is someone who can innovate under pressure and who develops his people rather than simply maintains them. Military leaders have the trust of their teams while some business leaders try to be too controlling.”

Mission Command

Rob Walker, head of travel security intelligence at International SOS and Control Risks which manages the global security of top executives and government officials, says businesses should adopt the military’s Mission Command style of leadership.

Walker is a former infantry officer who served in Northern Ireland and the Balkans with the British army. The Mission Command idea is that soldiers understand clearly their commander’s intentions, their own individual missions and the context in which they are undertaking their particular job. They are also clear about what effect they will accomplish and the reasons why the result must be achieved. In business this approach transfers into modern workplace strategies that empower employees to feel more engaged, thrive as a team and operate collaboratively to boost productivity.

Martin Halsall, an ex-Flight Commander in the RAF, is currently teaching at the Greenwich School of Management and says empowerment is crucial because micro-managing people is an ineffective way to lead. 

He commanded an airbase with 1,500 airmen and women. “Micro-management frustrates employees and this never happens in the RAF. You get paid to do your job and are left to do it. If you mess up it is your fault,” he says. “Perhaps too many people in business leadership positions do not have enough trust or confidence in their staff, or they are ineffective at delegating.”

Performance coach Professor Graham Jones has worked with elite military personnel and senior business leaders at clients including Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola and British Airwaves. He believes business leaders should also note the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’s motto which is ‘Serve to Lead’ where leadership potential is assessed and identified early. 

“Business leaders can learn a lot from Sandhurst in terms of understanding the importance of spotting potential in younger workers,” says Professor Jones.  “Some business leaders are in their position for the kudos and the package and are not risk takers. You need to make leadership decisions based on what is best for your organisation rather than yourself.”

One product of Sandhurst is Nigel Murray who attended the Royal Military College and was part of the British Army, 14th/20th King’s Hussars until 1991. He spent three years as a major and today is director of Omnis Global which provides managed document and print services. 

Communication above all

He says military leaders can communicate effectively because the army teaches them how to keep their troops informed about what is going on.
“The army also teaches you awareness of different cultures and the importance or reconnaissance (checking out the competition), two vital factors to succeed in business,” says Murray.

The real test of any leader is how he or she performs under pressure. The military is skilled at spotting dysfunctional teams, getting everything aligned and ironing out conflicts and tensions. Military leaders cannot show weakness even when they feel they are on their own, whereas business leaders can start to question their own ability.

Warren Jacobs, founder of online gaming marketing business Active Win Media, spent three years in the Israeli Army Special Forces working for the anti-terrorism unit and he has transferred special techniques to help combat and avoid stress in his business. 

“Whether you are leading people in the army or in business they will only go that extra mile for you if you do too. They need to understand the structure they are operating within, the pressures and why particular processes and procedures are in place so things do not fall apart if problems occur.”

Making the change

Consultancy firm Deloitte has established a Military Transition and Talent Programme and the lead partner is former army captain Chris Recchia. He says Deloitte benefits from the attributes the army instils in people including integrity, and moral and physical courage.

The Officers’ Association is a charity which has close relationships with employers in the financial sector. 

Its careers consultant Gordon Ross spent 20 years in the navy and says one of the attributes he communicates to all employers is the leadership qualities of the candidates he puts forward. “The financial services industry wants strong leaders who understand security issues such as cybercrime,” he says. “The officers have the technical skills required but often need to adapt the leadership styles they honed on the front line to win the same trust and respect in a commercial environment.”

Being able to adapt leadership skills is crucial. Ex-Royal Marine David Hildrew is a 1980s Falklands War veteran who set up the male grooming brand The Bluebeards Revenge. He says having a structure to your day and being disciplined are vital on the battlefield and invaluable in business, but you must be careful how you introduce this approach in the workplace.

Lead from the front

“You cannot be as rigid or take an overly disciplined approach when working in civilian life. You must make subtle changes and lead from the front,” he says. “I behave how I expect my staff to behave. I set the tone but with a sense of humour and by explaining why I am doing something. This way people adapt and mimic your approach.” 

Business leaders can be afraid to accept that sometimes things will go wrong and that this is not a weakness. Charles Clark, a former British Army captain and founder and CEO of Rosslyn Analytics, says all leaders must be prepared to lose some battles to win the war.  

“In some companies inexperienced leaders are not always willing to accept this. They do not have the confidence to admit small defeats on their way to achieving a much bigger goal,” he says. “If your principal objective is out of reach you need to find ways to move forward towards it. In business this could be creating more noise about your organisation through better marketing.”

Losing small commercial or workplace battles can happen when a business is going through a period of transformation. 

Katarina Skoberne is a leadership coach who uses her great grandfather’s military thesis to help organisations adapt to the impact of digital technology. Her great grandfather was rear-admiral Aleksandr Dmitryevich Bubnov who wrote ‘The Psychology of a Naval Leader in Battle’ while at St. Petersburg Naval Academy in 1910.

Katarina has worked with clients including Procter and Gamble, MTV and Diageo and says there are parallels with how armies and businesses must be led when people have to react to radical changes. Leadership is about learning to cope with rapid change. 

“We are currently faced with a transition of business to digital which is not just purely a technical challenge,” she says.  “Companies that didn’t exist five or ten years ago are pushing legacy businesses out of the market. If incumbents don’t adapt they cannot thrive, so in digital transformation strong leadership is vital.”

Creating the right culture

Her great-grandfather observed that a leader’s army will never be truly effective unless his fighters are connected with him spiritually. “A business strategy will not work unless it is supported by culture, and often the culture in older businesses has been firmly planted for decades.”
Of course, there are some military leadership traits that do not transfer to the business environment. Shouting orders to employees is likely to have a negative impact on engagement levels and productivity. Similarly, when the bullets are flying in action and you have frightened people someone has to make a decision and the situation can become aggressive. This might work in a trench but it is unlikely to have a positive effect in the boardroom when a business is facing a crisis. In the commercial world, being able to persuade and incentivise is often a more powerful weapon.


  • Helen Mayson

    Hi Scott - thanks for your feedback. Really interesting to hear different experiences and I think reflective of the fact that the RAF is so large, different areas of the organisation will have different ideas on how to manage. Great to hear you think it's being minimised, though.

  • Scott Fraser

    I have already commented on this in the LinkedIn ILM thread but will do so here as it's probably as appropriate if not more.  In my 22 years of experience within the RAF, I have to firmly disagree with the comments that Micro-Management doesn't happen, it certainly does!! Judging by the reactions of my ex-colleagues (most of whom are still serving) they all agree.  Perhaps if it had been worded along the lines of this 'Due to extensive training and on-going development within the RAF combined with methods such as Mission Command and Empowerment, micro-management is minimised.'  This would have been a more reflective statement in my opinion.

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