OBORN FROM Unprecedented corporate emails were sent several years ago by a Shell official to energize a team of petroleum engineers on a project in far eastern Russia. “Personally, like most others, I love to win,” he said. “I despise cowards and play to win all the time.”
The language was weird in other ways as well. “When each of you were kids I’m sure you all admired the marble player champion” didn’t strike a chord with anyone in 2007. The anachronism was because the writer borrowed generously a moving speech by General George Patton to American troops in 1944. “All real Americans love the sting and shock of battle” from Patton became “all real engineers love the sting and shock of challenge”. Etc.
Copying from the military is rarely so awkward, but the idea that managers have lessons from guys in uniform persists. A cottage industry is based on the idea that soldiers have leadership knowledge that can be useful in the boardroom. Two new books based on the premise came out this month – “Risk: A User’s Guide” co-authored by Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star general in the we Army, and “The Habit of Excellence” by Lieutenant-Colonel Langley Sharp, a British officer.
General McChrystal’s book is a medley of risk management anecdotes and case studies. The general’s idea of creating “fusion cells” to bring together a network of intelligence teams in the fight against al-Qaeda has spread to other areas: the state of Missouri has done something similar to connect different agencies to fight against covid-19.
Lt. Col. Sharp wrote the most 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 army’s “mission command”, in which the overall intent of a mission is defined at the center and the decision-making that carries it out is delegated to those on the ground, is similar to the ethics of agile software development. “Serve to Lead,” the motto of the Army Academy at Sandhurst, came decades before the now fashionable “servant-leadership” management theory.
Yet these echoes are just that. The differences between leading in the military and running a business stand out more strongly in the two books than the similarities. Obviously, the use of lethal force tends not to be an important feature of business life. The stakes are much lower, so the risk calculation is simply different.
Leaders of the armed forces can rely on deeper motivations among soldiers than bosses with their employees. History offers a shared narrative to those on duty. Patriotism provides a ready-made goal. And nationality works like a permanent non-competition clause: soldiers don’t change allegiance to a country in the same way that workers can change companies. “England expects every man to do his duty,” was Admiral Nelson’s message to his sailors before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Swap your employer’s name and see what it takes .
The contrasts don’t stop there. The heads of the armed forces play a much more family role than the average boss. They themselves will be in the forces for years. The people below them are often very young. Many live and work nearby.
The armed forces also emphasize intensive training in anticipation of times of extreme stress, when senior officials do not have time to be consulted. When critical decisions need to be made in business, bigwigs schedule a meeting weeks in advance. The closest analogues to military leadership are found in elite sports rather than in business.
Life in the military is interesting for civilians to read, but in large part because it is so foreign. It may make sense to hire veterans, but as part of the mix rather than as a role model. A 2014 research paper found that bosses who had been in the military were more conservative than those who had not donned uniforms. They have invested less; they were less likely to commit fraud; and their businesses have performed better in times of crisis.
Patton’s speech in 1944 ended by imagining what his soldiers would say to their grandchildren after the war ended: “Son, your grandfather rolled with the Great Third Army and a son of a bitch named Georgie. Patton! The Shell executive’s letter ended, “The details of the team are summarized in the attached email.” War and work are not the same.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “In battle, they don’t go”