in a crisis is one of the attributes the Army instills in its recruits. But the
military has far more to offer corporations than effective leadership. Jane
Lewis finds out why Army officers are tailor-made for today’s uncertain
Business has long harboured what one commentator calls "a fatal
fascination" with all things military. The jargon says it all: we hit
targets, wage campaigns, wheel out the big guns and storm the bastions. Even
the phrase ‘captains of industry’ was coined by a military historian.
But it was the so-called ‘leadership crisis’, that many pundits claimed was
stifling UK business in the late 1990s, which did most to propel armed service
expertise to the forefront of management thinking.
"We are going through a revolution from old style manager to business
leader," said John Adair, the world’s first professor of leadership
studies, and a former lecturer in military history at Royal Military Academy
Sandhurst. "Despite all the books, the real message of leadership is not
As he went on to explain to the CIPD’s annual training conference in 1997:
"We wait until we’re on the beaches at Dunkirk before looking for our next
According to Adair, every company is looking for leaders at three levels:
strategic (running the organisation); operational (running the ‘significant’ part
of the operation); and leading small groups of people at team level.
Judging by the growing popularity of military-inspired leadership courses
this is a message that many companies have taken to heart.
According to Rick Chattell, a former Army captain whose Inspirational
Development Consulting group runs leadership projects at Sandhurst, "the
Army has a lot of very translatable skills". His own course, which fuses
military’s expertise in leadership and motivation with real life company scenarios,
has attracted business from Marks & Spencer, Royal Bank of Scotland and
document solutions company, Ikon, among others.
This is hardly surprising: in a recent survey of 400 HR managers, the
majority claimed they considered leadership the core area of their management
programmes. And there is a growing perception that the Army may be the best
place to get it. As Chattell concludes: "We do train the best Army
officers in the world."
So what lessons can the corporate world learn from the way officers are
selected, trained and developed in the Army?
The first, perhaps, is its highly rigorous recruitment process. Although the
pass-rate at Sandhurst is high, the selection process that proceeds it is
"horrendous", says former Army major turned Jane’s World editor,
Charles Heyman. He reckons only 10-15 per cent of those who apply each month
will eventually get through. According to Chattell, 40 per cent of those
applying to the Royal Commissions Board – the stage immediately prior to
Sandhurst entry – will be ‘weeded out’.
To say the selection process is ‘holistic’ would be to underestimate the
point. Even before they start proper training, potential recruits are put
through a gruelling series of tests ranging from the physical, through the
academic, to those designed to evaluate qualities like initiative, endurance
and personal charisma.
The ultimate aim, says Heyman, is to single out people with natural
leadership qualities who can work under pressure and cope with the
responsibility Army life demands of even its youngest officers.
As the Army points out in its career literature: "Even the most
talented and confident individuals will be stretched by the officer’s
role." Too right, says Heyman. In what other sector are junior operatives
just out of training responsible for commanding a tank troop worth £16m?
"In Kabul at the moment, there are two 19-year-old second lieutenants
commanding 30-strong infantry platoons," Heyman says.
The Army’s ability to instill good organisation among its recruits is so
well-known that the concept of military discipline has become a cliché. Less
obvious to outsiders, however, is the emphasis cadet colleges place on
developing ‘softer’ management skills like communication, delegation and
"One of the useful things I learned in training", says one former
Royal Marine turned City banker, "was how effective you can be if you
learn how to take the heat out of situations."
Much of this is down to the emphasis given to self-control and
self-knowledge during training. The forces are well aware that if an unexpected
crisis hits (a common event in any active service operation) "people
revert to type", says Chatell. The point of the emphasis on drilling and
discipline, therefore, is to make gut reactions as predictable as possible.
Taking the initiative
But it would nonetheless be wrong to assume that the Army’s emphasis on
discipline produces people who are too rigid and inflexible to react quickly to
changing situations. On the contrary, says Heyman, the ability to take the
initiative is one of the most important skills any officer learns. "In
fighting regiments, you can’t afford to be rigid. You have to have the courage
to take quick decisions and the confidence to see them through."
Much of the discipline included in the Army’s training methodologies, he
adds, is more to do with putting people under pressure. If you can withstand
the constant hectoring on the parade field, or the knowledge that you will be
penalised for leaving a speck of dust on the light bulb in your room, you will
emerge a far more resilient character. He also scoffs at the idea that the
formality of Army life stamps out risk-taking. "If you’re looking for
buccaneering types, go to the services – they’re all there."
But is the model of Army leadership really viable in the modern corporate
Many critics claim the shift from hierarchical organisations to flatter
structures, devolved authority and team-based systems, renders the ‘command and
control’ model typified by Army training invalid.
Indeed, it may be no coincidence that so many of the old school ‘captains of
industry’ who promoted and perpetuated this business model were themselves
moulded either by active service during the Second World War, or by their
experiences doing National Service in the decades that followed. What is needed
in business now, they argue, is not the kind of authoritarian leaders that a
military training produces, so much as ‘enablers’.
But, as a recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out, this
argument fails to consider the equally dramatic changes that have taken place
within the armed forces. "Military strategy, like business strategy, has
had to evolve," it claims. Enemies are now "amorphous" and
To cope with this the military has evolved a new philosophy of
"manoeuvre warfare", which is "tailor-made for today’s uncertain
business environment". The qualities needed in manoeuvre warfare, the
article concludes, are an ability to spot and target critical weaknesses,
"boldness, surprise, decentralised decision-making and rapid tempo".
Two leading luminaries of Exeter University’s Centre for Leadership Studies
are convinced the link between key military attributes and successful business
practice is even more pronounced.
In their recent book Intelligent Leadership, John Potter and Alan Hooper
interviewed some 25 senior managers, ranging from Sainsbury’s Sir Peter Davies
and Stuart Hampson of the John Lewis Group, to TGWU national secretary Jim
Mowatt. The main idea was to establish what traits these effective
practitioners of change management had in common.
"One thing very high on the list was integrity," says Alan Hooper.
"What was important was the way they related [to others in their
companies]." Indeed, several of those interviewed maintained that the
virtues of integrity, trust, openness and honesty had been critical to the
ultimate profitability of their businesses.
And integrity, as Hooper points out, is something all the services produce
in abundance. Indeed, they "place integrity before everything else… it is
instilled into the culture. If there is a breakdown in integrity among people
serving, they will be kicked out." It is obvious why, he says. "If
you’re training people for war, you must have complete trust in them."
Given that the very credibility of capitalism is under question following
the exposure of widespread fraud and malpractice in hitherto respected
companies, it is clear how attractive these traits are likely to prove to
recruiters in the future.
Charles Heyman claims that one of the major culture shocks that many
ex-officers experience when they join commercial firms is a lack of loyalty and
openness. They’re also surprised by the secrecy that surrounds salaries and
executive compensation. "In the forces, it is all on the
It is no coincidence, he adds, that so many former officers have forged
names for themselves in the City, particularly in the back offices of banks
where deals are ratified and settled. "They’re good there, because they’re
the kind of people who refuse to be bullied."
The best business leaders, remarked Sir John Harvey-Jones in 1998, are not
driven by cash rewards. "It is balderdash to say business leaders are not
paid enough. They get too much. The best are not motivated by money, but by
Linked to integrity is the Army’s emphasis on leading by personal example,
says Hooper. "One thing that comes through in training and becomes part of
the culture is the importance of sharing things with people you lead."
Senior officers, he says, spend a lot of time with their troops explaining
objectives and listening to feedback. "How many managing directors really
do that with their organisations?"
Making the most of human capital
Like most organisations, the armed services believe people are their most
important asset. But few commercial enterprises can match the investment they
make in backing up this claim. When it comes to nurturing and uncovering
talent, the forces are unbeatable, says Hooper. There is a real concern for
understanding what makes people tick and with empathising and knowing staff.
Teamwork, of course, is key. There’s nothing like active service to make you
understand "that you can’t do it on your own; others in the team you’re
leading may be brighter than you or have more knowledge than you".
The opportunities the Army provides in terms of personal and professional
development are also difficult to beat: it is a generous sponsor of education
and training and encourages people to diversify into new fields of expertise
(see box, right). And, unlike many of their commercial counterparts, the
services pay particular attention to succession planning. "They recruit
and look for leadership right from the start – a rarity in most
companies," says Hooper.
Denis Quilter, founder of change management and e-learning consultancy
AdVal, maintains that one of most useful skills his Army training instilled was
effective decision-making. "You learn it formally, and by experience.
You’re always evaluating situations, problem-solving and making
decisions." In fact, one of the most lasting lessons he learned is the
importance of not making decisions when you don’t have to. "You learn to
distance yourself from your emotions and [tame] knee-jerk reactions," he
Given this litany of strengths, you could be forgiven for thinking it might
be better to apply to Sandhurst or Dartmouth, rather than Harvard Business
School, Cranfield or Henley Management College, if you want to get ahead in
business. But even the most enthusiastic and versatile ex-Army types stress
there are certain important aspects to an MBA education that even the most
comprehensive forces leadership programme could hope to replicate.
"Many [former officers] find companies somewhat chaotic after the
services," says Heyman. "It can take them a couple of years to
realise an organisation may have to be chaotic to respond to the market-place."
Quilter agrees. Nothing can prepare you for the cut and thrust of commercial
life until you experience it, he says. There’s a process you have to go through
of "being blooded in business".
This may be why, at the end of last year, the Navy (which claims to be the
most forward-looking of the services) began headhunting civilian business
whizzes to take on some of its most senior positions – even to the point of
creating temporary ranks for them and issuing uniforms. "A lot of our
senior jobs involve strategy and budgets," says the First Sea Lord, Sir
Nigel Essenhigh. "If the best recruits come from commerce and industry, we
should consider them."
Perhaps this extraordinary development should be seen as a signal that the
most effective leaders of the future – whether running regiments, commercial
enterprises or public sector departments – will be those who have had a taste
of both systems.
Captains of industry
Anyone still believing the typical
ex-officer is what Adval’s Dennis Quilter calls "the Colonel Blimp type;
left right, left right" is in serious need of a reality update. One of the
armed forces’ main strengths is the sheer diversity of people it develops and
it is often a wrench when talented officers leave to pursue other careers. The
Army has grown philosophical about this, says Alan Hooper. "There’s a
recognition that if we are losing good people, at least they are going to work
elsewhere for UK plc."
Although there are far fewer Army officers at the helm of the
UK’s flagship companies than in times past, many more have made their mark by
becoming entrepreneurs and consultancy, unsurprisingly, has rapidly evolved
into an ex-forces speciality. Officers from all three services, meanwhile,
continue to be favoured recruits both in the public, voluntary and charity
sectors. The link between an Army background and a subsequent career in
politics may seem less pronounced than in the days of Cromwell, Wellington or
Churchill, but it is notable that two of the three main parties have opted to
make former Army officers their leaders.
Here we summarise the careers of some of the more notable
civilian leaders the Army has helped produce in recent years.
The talented all-rounder
Sir Peter Parker became a household name in 1976, when he took
control of British Rail, then in the grip of one of its perennial crises. His
skill at handling unions, standing up to government plans for railway
retrenchment, and his introduction of the Intercity 125s (then the fastest
diesel trains in the world) established his reputation as a pioneer of modern
management. But as Prue Leith wrote in his obituary earlier this year, Parker
was such a well-rounded individual that he could have been "a soldier, a
politician or an actor".
Parker, who spoke fluent Japanese, joined the Intelligence
Corps in 1943 and served in Burma. After a meteoric rise, he left the Army as a
major in 1947. Before taking the chief role at BR, he spent 20 years in the
private sector at Philips Electrical and Booker McDonnell. Later, he helped
guide Mitsubishi Europe.
Parker’s trademark was his open and positive style of
management. But what really stood out, says one former colleague, was that he
was "unfailingly courteous" and "always humane in his dealings
with those who had the good fortune to work for him".
The dual careerist
Neil Johnson, currently chairman of toy-maker Hornby, is a
former lieutenant colonel who has divided his career between the military and
management, and maintains close links with the Army.
Immediately after Sandhurst, he quit to join the motor industry
as a graduate trainee at Lex Services. He came to prominence in the 1970s, when
he joined the core team at British Leyland. At 32, he joined crisis-hit Jaguar
as sales and marketing director helping to steer the company out of trouble.
But Johnson could never get the Army out of his system. Taking
a huge pay cut, he went on secondment to the MoD and took command of the 4th
Battalion of The Royal Green Jackets.
However, Johnson’s most celebrated (and controversial) role to
date was at the RAC, which he restructured into a commercially-minded
organisation and eventually sold to Lex Service for £437m. For this, he scooped
a personal reward of £570,000.
Johnson’s magic touch has also been much in evidence at Hornby,
where he has trebled the share price. Unlike many former officers, the one
sector he refuses to touch is defence sales. "There is a real difference
between putting on a uniform to serve your country and wandering round the
Middle East selling cluster bombs."
This August, Dennis Quilter takes over as executive chairman of
AdVal Group plc, the performance management consultancy he founded on leaving
the Army at the age of 44 in 1989. Within less than a decade, the group had
evolved into one the UK’s premier e-learning companies and was floated on AIM
in 1998. "Entrepreneurialism is not something you’d associate with the
Army," he says.
In fact there were abundant opportunities to try things out.
One of Quilter’s first business experiences was running the forces’ newspaper
in Cyprus. But it was the sheer quality of the professional training that
Quilter received from the Army that stands out. He joined the Middlesex
Regiment as a private and progressed quickly through the ranks. After a stint
in the Small Arms School Corp, he was transferred on commission to the Royal
Army Educational Corps, where he was encouraged to take an Open University
degree in maths and science, a teacher training course, and a Masters degree in
educational technology. By the time he came to form AdVal he was "already
pretty well ensconced in my field."
Quilter’s forces contacts initially helped get the company off
the ground: his first deals were with BAe, GEC, the MoD and the RAF. But now
that most of the group’s business comes from the private sector, is his Army
background a selling point? "I tend to be quite circumspect about
it," he says. "There’s the worry that people will see you as
strait-laced. But when you dig down deeper, you find there’s quite a lot of
Two party leaders
At first sight, the differences between former Liberal Democrat
leader, Sir Paddy Ashdown, and Tory leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, seem pronounced.
But a scrutiny of their respective careers reveals some remarkable
Both were forces’ children (Ashdown’s father was a colonel in
the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and Duncan Smith’s was an RAF war hero)
and both saw active service when they joined up themselves.
Ashdown, who according to one commentator still looks
"dangerously fit and active" at 60, fought in Borneo, Kuwait and Aden
with the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service. Duncan-Smith was despatched to
Derry as a second lieutenant in the Scots Guards. He says he joined up "to
find out what it was to be a leader".
The mixed fortunes both men met on leaving the Army may be
typical of the experiences of many former officers struggling to find their
feet in the outside world. After a stint in the Diplomatic Service, Ashdown
took jobs at Westland Helicopters and a sheepskin jacket company. Likewise,
Duncan-Smith started selling defence kit for GEC-Marconi before switching to a
Both went on to endure a lengthy period of personal,
professional and financial crisis when they were made redundant. "I’m a
failure; great schemes have come apart," thought Duncan-Smith. He now
says: "You can see why people do not want to get up in the morning."
The turning point for both came when they were selected as
Parliamentary candidates. "I’ve been a soldier, a diplomat, a businessman,
unemployed and a youth worker," concludes Ashdown. "It’s been a very
good apprenticeship for politics."
Duncan-Smith also seems to have retained more flexible outlook
than many credit him with. Renowned as a right-winger’s right-winger, and once
condemned by Ken Clarke as a "hang ’em, flog ’em Tory", he has
surprised the party in leadership with a new emphasis on ‘compassionate