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Are There Business Lessons from How the Military Works?

June 1, 2003

One of my business clients recently sent me a "Leadership" article from Industry Week in which the president of the magazine's parent company, John R. Brandt, described his experiences during a weekend trip aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. In the article he asks the question: Can business learn better ways of doing things from how the military works?

His conclusion is: "Although there's an enormous amount to admire in the U.S. military… it's not a viable model for your business." I believe that on one level he is right - the inability of finding a business analogy to the military mission of breaking things and killing people -, but on another more crucial level he is wrong - the leadership skills required to get the right things done right - he is wrong.

In the article Brandt writes that there are three reasons for the military's limited application to the modern corporate world:

Total Immersion: The author laments that business cannot get the 90 days of undivided attention a military boot camp provides to new recruits.
He misses the point here. Sure, employers do not get employees 24 hours a day for 90 days, but immersion in training and mission and roles can be developed. My experience with entry-level employee turnover - a major problem with many companies - is that a well organized, "total immersion" approach to early training and indoctrination will more than pay for the enormous and often unappreciated costs of employee turnover.

The Brig: "Even more inconvenient is that we can't threaten to have him or her shot by their co-workers for disobeying an order." Now where the author got this notion is beyond me. I know of no officer that ever threatened anyone with getting shot. Disciplining non-performers, however, whether in the military or in business is what separates average from high performers.
The author also comments that in business "you have to coach - and encourage, and cajole and reward - for the performance you expect."
Well, guess what? Human nature exists in the military. Coaching and developing your troops is what makes them better.
Finally, I suspect the column's author is not a veteran or he would know that the brig, like the local jail, is for illegal activity, not poor performance. Coercion does not work in business and does not work in the military.

Redundancy: The author witnessed the large number of sailors used in releasing an anchor. The redundancy is in the safety, quality control, and monitoring activities.
Then he goes on the state that businesses cannot afford the military type of employee redundancy. This is where I do agree with him. When Navy supply ships are turned over to private operators and civilian crews, the number of crew members is drastically reduced. The private operators cannot afford the same number of crew members that the Navy used on the same ship.
I offer a different reason of why there is redundancy in equipment and personnel in the military. Go back to the military mission: break things and kill people. Redundancy allows the mission to carry on even under severe loss of equipment and personnel. In the 1960's the U.S.S. Ranger aircraft carrier suffered a large fire on her hangar deck that destroyed planes, equipment and killed many crewmembers. Within 24 hours, she was again launching and recovering aircraft. That is the real reason for redundancy.

I add one of my own points that the article does not touch upon.

Developing bench strength: In researching my grandfather's combat death in the French Argonne forest in 1918, I found that his combat engineer regiment and the infantry regiment to which it was attached when it went "over the top" on October 14, 1918, lost most of their platoon officers and sergeants in the first few hours of the battle, yet still managed to carry the objective. Why? The corporals and privates were trained to know what and when and how to get things done. The military develops leadership understanding and strength deep into the bench, so when the official leadership is gone, there are members that can step up and assume the responsibilities. Business managers are not killed in action, but do readily leave and move around to different jobs. Any business today that is not actively developing its bench strength deep into the employee ranks is doomed to mediocrity.

Admittedly, I write this article with personal bias. Several of the influential members of the Stanford Business School faculty that built the school up to world-class levels were military veterans, mostly of the Navy's nuclear submarine service. Tom Peters, the management guru and one of my graduate school professors at Stanford, was a Navy SeaBee (Construction Battalion) officer. I have heard Tom and several of the veteran faculty members talk of the valuable experiences their service gave them for the business world.

What the author misses is that effective leadership is required in any successful organization, be it business, military, non-profit, or volunteer. All of these types of organizations can beneficially learn from each other.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.