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‘Ten Hut! Military Leadership Lessons for B-Schools

(published in BusinessWeek, March 2010)

Former active-duty soldiers are learning a lot from B-school. Maybe it’s time for B-schools to learn a thing or two from the military

It’s long been accepted that the business school experience can be a highly effective way of shifting military, naval, and air force officers into corporate life.After all, even though it’s now five years old, the Korn Ferry report “Military Experience and CEOs: Is There a Link?” suggested that ex-service personnel who come through the system can make quite successful business leaders.

At the time, S&P 500 companies run by individuals with a service background were clearly outperforming their competitors.But is this evidence that business schools are teaching the soldier, sailor, and fighter pilot everything they need to perform in the commercial world, or could it be that they have more than a few lessons to pass on themselves? Particularly since Scott A. Snook, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, has claimed the U.S. Army is “one of the best training institutions in the world.”

Of course, some of the very basic skills of business tend to be skipped at West Point, Quantico, or Sandhurst, the training center for British army officers. Ulysses S. Grant may have gone down in history as one of America’s greatest generals, but his record in commerce between his first stint in the army and the outbreak of the Civil War was a complete disaster. Even the most impressive soldier, it seems, might benefit from a few B-school classes in accounting and business planning before leading a charge into the corporate world.

However, what the services have shown themselves particularly good at, especially over the past decade, is leadership. Adam Stanley-Smith, an ex-USMC captain who saw active service in Iraq, took an MBA at one of Europe’s top schools, HEC Paris, and experienced more than a little culture shock when confronted with the way individuals lead in the civilian world. While appreciating that “you can’t treat classmates like privates” (even though many might benefit from a little Marine Corps-style discipline), he confesses it took some time to understand the way professionals from the business world approach a problem.


It’s an admission shared by MBA students from other major armed forces. Simon Tidd, a British army tank commander who studied at the U.K.’s Warwick Business School, initially found himself taken aback by the heavily consensual route to decision-making, although both he and Stanley-Smith say their programs helped them find a “middle way.” However, many of us in civilian life who have sat through seemingly endless meetings that led nowhere might find the injection of a little military “get up and go” highly welcome. Even if there isn’t the incentive of someone shooting at you to hurry proceedings along, the emphasis on getting the job done could make many a large organization exponentially more effective.

When one talks to MBAs from the armed forces, there seem to be two key leadership lessons that the services could teach the corporate world. The first is focus—identifying the problem, deciding on a solution, and then getting on with it. The second is the avoidance of micromanagement. The average civilian often thinks of the services as a “command and control” environment, where everything is ordered to the nth degree. But nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, the services now work on a combination of careful briefing to establish a clear understanding of the mission objectives and then a delegation of responsibility right down the chain of command. It’s not an abdication of responsibility but rather an acknowledgement that the people on the front lines (whether that’s the motor pool or the actual front lines) tend to be the best people to appraise and adapt to a situation. The aim is to get away from the “chateau generalship” syndrome that produced the disasters of World War I, where leaders in mansions behind the lines dictated impossible orders to troops on the battlefield. And given the increasing need to react to rapidly changing markets, it’s an example that could profitably be followed in the world of business.

One school, the Desautels Faculty of Management at Canada’s McGill University, has bought into the idea of the military teaching business to such an extent that it now regularly brings a retired general into MBA classes. No armchair strategist, Roméo Dallaire was commander of the U.N.’s underresourced peace-keeping effort in Rwanda in 1994. With fewer than 300 soldiers, he managed to save more than 30,000 lives as the country descended into genocide despite being consistently outnumbered and outgunned. Dallaire’s key message is that leaders don’t have to be charismatic in themselves. Instead, they must have a charismatic cause and the ability to communicate its value to their team. Of course, that’s a little easier when your job is to stop innocent people from being butchered than it might be when you are implementing a new IT system. But the essence still rings true. The important factor is that leaders genuinely believe in what they are doing and engage those around them in the same way.

Highly professional armed services like those of the U.S. and the U.K. are very good at getting things done—and arguably far better at it than many of their counterparts in the business arena. Service personnel entering the commercial world are all too ready to admit the gaps in their knowledge and to learn. Perhaps it’s about time the business world adopted the same open-minded attitude, too.


About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.


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