Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful

Posted: September 23, 2016 in Leadership
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Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is from the Introduction of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

The profession of arms is concerned with the legal, rational application of force to the resolution of a social or political problem. If you are going to rationally apply force, then you will necessarily be directing missions that are risky for those you are leading and the ones you wish to influence through force. The rational application of force therefore requires rational leadership.

But here’s the rub. When you get right down to it, there is nothing less rational than asking people to put themselves in harm’s way for the good of someone else. Evolution has endowed us all with a survival instinct. We have a propensity to avoid life-threatening danger, if at all possible. How do you get people to go against their deepest instincts—and interests—in order to achieve someone else’s objectives?

The military takes a very pragmatic approach to leadership and leadership development. When I was a young cadet, training to become an infantry officer, we learned a set of basic principles to guide in our leadership.

  1. Achieve professional competence.
  2. Appreciate your own strengths and limitations and pursue self-improvement.
  3. Seek and accept responsibility.
  4. Lead by example.
  5. Make sure that your followers know your meaning and intent, and then lead them to the accomplishment of the mission.
  6. Know your followers and promote their welfare.
  7. Develop the leadership potential of your followers.
  8. Make sound and timely decisions.
  9. Train your followers as a team and employ them to their capabilities.
  10. Keep your followers informed of the mission, the changing situation, and the overall picture.

In addition to inculcating these principles, the military approach to leadership development focuses heavily on the “nuts and bolts” of leadership and influence. I call this the competence-based philosophy of leadership development. In a nutshell, officer candidates and rank and file soldiers who have been selected for development are put through grueling training that builds planning, decision-making and directing skills. The military hierarchy does not rely only on character traits and willingness to take charge, but also seeks to impart the specific skills and knowledge required to command.

The underlying assumption of competence-based leadership is that soldiers will follow their leaders if they have confidence in their abilities and judgment. Confidence is directly related to the leader’s abilities to make sound plans, give clear and specific direction to followers, and to exercise rational powers and decision-making even under extreme conditions. The military training system therefore takes a fairly mechanistic approach in imparting these competencies. Instead of simply haranguing trainees or giving them rousing speeches—although those are sometimes required—leadership instructors focus on the processes of situational analysis, problem solving, planning, and organizing. Military forces the world over have created standardized approaches for all aspects of the leader’s job, from how to analyze the enemy’s likely actions and intentions, to assessing the tactical value of ground, logistical requirements, personnel needs, ammunition calculations, etc. There are also standardized processes and templates to follow for tactical planning and giving orders and direction. Everything that a leader has to do has been broken down into discrete steps. The focus of leadership training and professional development is on acquiring the knowledge, skills and attitudes to apply these processes and methodologies in all circumstances. In the final analysis, conflict is too dangerous and important to be left to the vagaries of personality and natural talent. Leadership trainees are assessed against these requirements and must be able to implement them to a reasonable standard before official promotion and appointment to command.

I’ll have much more to say about all of these leadership principles and processes as the book progresses. The key point though is that leadership can be developed. Some people have more natural talent than others. Also, some people have more of the “right stuff” to progress through the ranks and be entrusted with very high levels of responsibility. However, no matter what the command level—tactical, operational, or strategic—leadership is fundamentally the same in form and philosophy. It is the content and complexity of the leadership and command challenges that change as hierarchical and operational responsibilities widen in scope and deepen in impact.

© 2016 Richard Martin. Reproduction, forwarding and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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