The Limits of the Teachings of Army Command
ÖNE OF THAT All-time great corporate emails were sent a few years ago by a Shell manager to cheer up a team of oil engineers on a project in Russia’s Far East. “Personally, I love winning like most others,” he enthused. “I despise cowards and all the time I play to win.”
The language was bizarre in other ways too. “When each of you were children, I am sure you all admired the champion marble player” in 2007, exactly did not hit a nerve with anyone. The anachronism was because the author was frank of a rousing speech by General George Patton to American troops in 1944. Patton’s “all real Americans love the sting and the fight of battle” became “all real engineers love the sting and the fight of the battle.” Challenge”. And so forth.
Copying from the army is rarely this awkward, but the idea that managers can learn from uniformed guys persists. A home industry is based on the imagination that soldiers have leadership insights that can be useful in the boardroom. Two new books based on that premise came out this month – Risk: A User’s Guide, co-written by Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general of the US Army and “The Habit of Excellence” by Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp, a British officer.
General McChrystal’s book is a potpourri of anecdotes and case studies on how to deal with risk. The general’s idea of creating “fusion cells” to bring together a network of intelligence teams fighting al-Qaeda has spread to other areas: the state of Missouri has done something similar to connect different agencies to fight Covid-19 .
Lieutenant-Colonel Sharp wrote the more distinctive book, a detailed account of how the British Army goes about developing its leaders. Much of the thinking will be surprisingly familiar to managers. The concept of the “mission command” of the army, in which the overall intention of a mission is the focus and the decision-making for implementation is delegated to the people on site, is similar to the ethos of agile software development. “Serve to Lead”, the motto of the Army Academy in Sandhurst, came decades before today’s fashionable management theory of “Servant Leadership”.
But these echoes are only that. The differences between leadership in the army and running a company emerge from both books more clearly than the similarities. Obviously, the use of lethal force is not a huge feature of corporate life. The stakes are much lower, so the risk calculation is just a different one.
Executives in the armed forces can draw on deeper motivations from soldiers than bosses from their employees. The story provides a shared narrative for those on duty. Patriotism offers a ready-made sense. And nationality works like a permanent non-competition clause: soldiers do not change their loyalty to countries in the same way that workers can change companies. “England expects every man to do his duty,” was the message Admiral Nelson sent to his sailors before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Swap in your employer’s name and see how it sounds.
The opposites don’t end here. Leaders in the armed forces play a much more familiar role than the average boss. You will have been with the armed forces for years yourself. The people among them are often very young. Many live and work in the immediate vicinity.
The armed forces also value intensive training in preparation for extreme stressful moments in which there is no time for consultation with high-ranking personalities. When crucial decisions have to be made in a company, the bigwigs make an appointment weeks in advance. The closest analogies to army leadership are more in top-class sport than in companies.
It is interesting for civilians to read about life in the army, but mostly because it is so strange. It can make sense to hire veterans, but as part of the mix, not as a template. A 2014 research paper found that chiefs who were in the armed forces were more conservative than those who weren’t in uniform. They invested less; they are less likely to commit fraud; and their companies have fared better in times of crisis.
Patton’s 1944 speech ended with imagining what his soldiers would say to their grandchildren after the war: “Son, your grandfather rode with the Great Third Army and a goddamn son of a bitch named Georgie Patton!” The Shell boss’s letter ended: “The details of the team are summarized in the attached email.” War and work are not the same thing.
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This article appeared in the business section of the print edition under the heading “Don’t go into battle”