Military leadership works for soldiers, but surely not for civilians, right?

Posted: September 30, 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?

Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Whenever I present the principles of military leadership and the related philosophy of leadership development, I often get skeptical responses. Some people tend to dismiss the leadership principles and philosophy enunciated above as too simplistic. One frequent objection is that these principles and this philosophy are okay for low-level supervisors or maybe middle managers, but that organizational and strategic leadership are too complex and critical to be reduced to such simple concepts. Others point out that there are different types of leadership for different situations. How can the military, which relies heavily on authority and discipline, have anything to teach “civvies” about leadership? The implication is that entrepreneurs, executives, and others have nothing to learn from military-style leadership. A third type of response is that the principles and philosophy might work well in Western nations, where there is a culture of openness and inclusion, but that they couldn’t possibly work in other cultures, such as the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.

I can address all of these objections with a simple question. Let’s take the principle to lead by example. Does this principle apply to all of the supposed exceptions cited in the previous paragraph? If we can honestly answer in the affirmative, then we have to admit that leading by example is not just a military leadership principle. We would have to conclude that leading by example is actually a universal leadership principle. Leading by example is (or should be) relevant and applicable to presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and COOs, doctors and nurses, or anyone else for that matter. Not just soldiers and their commanders.

By extension, whether we’re talking about business, government, politics, non-profits, Boy Scouts, health care, education, or whatever, can we honestly dismiss this principle as non-applicable and not relevant? And can we say that Asians, Arabs, and Africans also don’t appreciate exemplary leadership? More generally, can we say that all of the principles and philosophy described above are not relevant and applicable to all levels, fields, and cultures?

Which brings me to the final and most common skeptical objection, that this all quite self-evident and straightforward. After all, doesn’t everyone know that a leader must be competent, or lead by example, or should keep her followers and other stakeholders informed of the situation and in the loop? Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But the reality is that, no, a lot of people, leaders and followers included, don’t seem to know these most fundamental of principles. Or if they do know them, they can’t seem to apply them consistently and judiciously.

As I stated earlier in this introduction, I’ve broken every single one of these principles at least once, and in some cases multiple times. I usually didn’t do so out of malice and certainly not out of ignorance, although in some cases I conveniently “forgot” them. Any other person with leadership experience, regardless of the field of endeavor, will admit as much also if they’re honest.

The key question isn’t why the military believes in and teaches such simple and basic leadership principles, or why military leadership development is so focused on imparting teachable skills. It is instead why, despite these approaches being supposedly simple and self-evident, more leaders don’t use them. To put it in a different light, why do so many leaders falter in applying the basics?

So there you have it, the philosophy underlying the military principles of leadership and leadership development. And this is also why I have written this book and why you should read it and take in its lessons for your own leadership and that in your team, business, association, or organization.

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

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  1. […] Military leadership works for soldiers, but surely not for civilians, right? […]

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