Why military training produces excellence in leadership

August 13, 201410:00 am2170 views

One assumption is that military service — particularly service in the crucible of combat — is exceptionally effective at developing leadership and management prowess. Why? It’s nurture, not nature. In all services, military leadership qualities are formed in a progressive and sequential series of carefully planned training, educational, and experiential events. This is far more time-consuming and expensive than similar training in industry or government.

Secondly, military leaders tend to hold high levels of responsibility and authority at low levels of the military organisation. Most importantly, military leadership is based around the concept of duty, service and self-sacrifice. Obligations to followers as a moral responsibility, defining leadership as placing follower needs before those of the leader. And this is something taught and reinforced in as a value priority to junior leaders.

Military leadership extends to caring for the families of soldiers, especially during combat deployment. Serving in crisis conditions where leadership influences the physical welfare and survival of both the leader and the led — in extremis contexts — renders transactional sources of motivation (e.g. pay, rewards, or threat of punishment) insufficient.

Why should a person be motivated by such rewards when they might not live to enjoy them? Why would a person fear administrative punishment when compliance might lead to injury or death? Soldiers in such circumstances must be led in ways that inspire, rather than require, trust and confidence. When followers have trust and confidence in a charismatic leader, they are transformed into willing, rather than merely compliant, agents.

See: Are Asians More Accepting of Workplace Bullying?


Military Leadership

In the lingo of leadership theorists, such influence is termed transformational leadership, and it is the dominant style of military leaders. Contrast the military leader value set reflecting service to the one that currently exists in some businesses. Are we likely to see business leaders placing the well-being of their shareholders and employees above their own?

On 4/2/2009, in a swift response to public outrage, the Obama administration imposed a cap of $500,000 in pay for top executives at companies that receive large amounts of bailout money from the US Government. From a military perspective, a half million dollars is a generous sum, more than double the compensation of a four star leader in charge of a theatre of war.

But the quantity of compensation isn’t as relevant as the message to followers that, when times were tough, the leader put his or her personal welfare ahead of theirs, like Erwin Rommel of the German Heer. Negative perceptions of a military leader in combat would render them mistrusted and ineffective in the eyes of their soldiers. Why should business leaders expect anything else on the part of people desperate about the loss of their equity, employment or lifestyle?

The current economic environment, partly caused by a crisis of self-service leadership, has created belt-tightening measures designed to make the most of lean budgets: travel funding restricted, training programs cut, personnel layoffs and other draconian, cash-saving measures. CEOs have to start leading like generals – even if it means living a lifestyle in common with their troops.

The best leadership – whether in peacetime or war – is borne as a conscientious obligation to serve. In many business environs, it’s difficult to inculcate a servant-leadership value making leaders servants to their followers. In contrast, leaders who have operated in the crucibles common to military and other dangerous public service occupations tend to hold such values.

Merging this selflessness with the adaptive capacity, innovation and flexibility demanded by dangerous contexts – one can see the value of military leadership as a model for private sector leaders. In your own development as a leader, have you found value in putting other people first? Did it seem out of place in competitive, results-oriented businesses?

Moreover, did it powerfully influence people or merely suggest weakness? And have you had role models in business whom you see as effective because of their servant leader orientation? In the end, adopting the servant-leader position is one of enlightened self-interest. Adopting and promoting the position of advancing the interests of those entities whose interests are aligned with yours, as well as developing social capital.

This is an abridged version of “Why The Military Produces Great Leaders” from Harvard Business Review. Any questions? Contact Shiwen at shiwen@hrinasia.com

Further Reading

Bass, B. M. (1991). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational dynamics18(3), 19-31. Retrieved from http://www.techtied.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/bass_transforrmational_leadership.pdf 

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