There’s no absence of leadership models in today’s business world. But few think of military leadership as relevant to corporate success. Peter Danby thinks that’s a big mistake.
As the business world seeks the situation-sensing, emotionally intelligent, transformational leader, the military model is usually ranked as a relatively primitive kind of leadership. But, after some 16 years working in leadership development, I have come to appreciate the enormous value that I gained from my own military career. Perhaps old-fashioned concepts drawn from the military, like service and duty, discipline and love, should not be discounted so quickly.
Many images and perceptions of the army today are likely to come from Hollywood, television, adventure novels and history books. I ask you to set these aside, just for a moment, and explore with me the idea that there is no simple “military model” but rather a raft of paradoxes. The military unit is an organization built on hierarchy and strong traditional values but also one that demands innovation and flexibility. It’s an empowered organization that also demands total obedience. Open expressions of caring and compassion take place in the ultimate macho organization, yet it’s one where everyone is asked to be ready to pay “the ultimate sacrifice” (and, in the military, this is much more than giving up your annual stock bonus). To lead in the military, one has to grasp the essential foundation of military leadership, responsible empowerment.
Generally, people know what they are looking for from empowerment – a flexible, fast-moving organization able to respond to change and different situations. It requires individuals capable of working independently and interdependently to achieve the desired goals with the minimum of guidance and a sense of personal accountability. Less well understood is what is required to create the conditions that will enable this to happen. I hear the expression “I empowered her to complete a task” as if empowerment is some special gift to be given out by a particular manager. It is not; it is the result of a long- term investment in creating the right conditions within an organization. Companies restructure, create flat organizations, develop new systems of communication – and wonder why nothing changes.
The British Army has created that flexible, fast- moving organization through its philosophy and training and may have some lessons to offer. The British actually copied this concept of empowerment from the German Army. Auftragstaktik was introduced into their culture as far back as 1806; we only formally adopted these principles as part of military doctrine in the 1980s. They are the foundation for an organization capable of peacekeeping and special operations, as well as fighting wars in the jungle, the desert and the mountains against an ever-changing threat.