Ten leadership lessons from the military

Could a stint in the army prepare you for the cut and thrust of business life? James Petter, VP and managing director of EMC UK&I reckons his time as a Green Jacket shaped his leadership skills in ten ways...

by James Petter
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Some leaders enjoy using martial language to talk business. Staff are 'troops'. The company 'battles' its competitors. The market place is a 'dogfight'. In general, the realities in warfare and the business world are very different indeed but after fifteen years in the private sector, I’ve found there are a few lessons from my time as an army officer that offer helpful insight into the practicalities of business leadership.

1.    To lead is to serve

The leader in a business is responsible for everything within his or her organisation: for the development of the proposition; for the success and well-being of the staff; for every challenge, trial and tribulation. In order to keep up the respect and motivation of your staff, it’s important to maintain a mindset of responsibility and care for your team at all times.

2.    Never give an order you couldn’t follow yourself

In the army there are no private offices or ivory towers. An officer must take on the same challenges as his men. That’s why soldiers come to trust the decisions their leader makes and follow his orders. I make a point of regularly working alongside other members of my team, even down to making cold-calls.

3.    Play people to their strengths

Military hierarchy serves a very specific function: to allocate resources in line with expertise. When anything sub-optimal can cost lives, there is no room for patronage or politics. There’s no room for them in business either.

4.    Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In the army, no-one wants to have to be a hero. In business, everyone wants perfect trading conditions. But both worlds are unpredictable. If you prepare for the worst-case scenario, it makes it much more likely that you’ll cope if it happens.

5.    Never retreat but, occasionally, advance in another direction

Confidence in business is vital, but over-confidence is a curse. A change of tactics or shift in strategy is always preferable to a total U-turn later on – or bone-headed persistence.

6.    Protect your supply lines

An army marches on its stomach. A business marches on its supply chain, its accounts department, its customer service operation, its IT infrastructure and so on. In short, it’s not just the big decisions taken in the boardroom that ensure success, but the hard graft in the back office, and that’s worthy of just as much of your attention.

7.    Under a good general there are no bad soldiers

In large, hierarchical organisations, it’s tempting to pass the blame downhill when things go wrong. But failures are never solely the responsibility of your staff. As leader, you accept that mantle yourself. If you did everything right and things still went awry, then it’s likely you have the wrong people assigned to the task.

8.    Know when to use the stick… and the carrot

There’s no magic formula for balancing incentive and ultimatums. However, in any endeavour, a good structure for success should be sufficient motivation. If you build in good incentives to succeed, then you shouldn’t ever need the stick.

9.    Today’s training wins tomorrow’s battle

Throughout history, the best armies in the world have always been those equipped with the best training. In business, training must encompass both practical learnings and the bigger picture of the business’ strategy – so that, as your business evolves, your personnel are ready to embrace (and thrive with) the changes that will entail.

10.    Don’t give away your plan of attack… and keep your defences hidden

There’s a time to wow your competitors, and there’s a time to keep them guessing. Loose lips can sink business plans, and propaganda can win market share, but there’s a time and a place for each.


James Petter is VP and managing director of EMC UK&I, and a former Captain of the Royal Green Jackets

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