When you think of military training, images of endless lines of marching soldiers, hours of shoe-shining and a red-faced sergeant major screaming at recruits inevitably come to mind. In a civilian world governed by work-life balance, flexible hours and payouts for injury to feelings, few modern managers would turn to the Army for leadership tips. But military experts take serious issue with this stereotype.
Alan Axelrod, author of Eisenhower on Leadership, which analyses the Second World War general’s approach to managing his troops, believes the ‘boot camp’ perception of military leadership, popularised by reality TV and situation comedies, is quite wrong. In fact, argues Axelrod, the business world has much to learn from modern military leadership.
“The emphasis at the lower levels is on mentoring; at the highest levels, it is on finding creative solutions to very specifically defined problems or missions,” he says.
“Military leaders are compelled to deal with diverse sorts of people of varying levels of authority, skills and talent to achieve narrowly defined goals [missions] often for the very highest of stakes, with limited resources – especially of time.”
Parallels with business
Brigadier Richard Barrons, who has led thousands of troops across the world, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is the author of The Business General, also believes that there are a surprising number of parallels between the war world and the business world.
“The Army is more like contemporary commercial life than people realise,” he says. “And just like businesses, we’re very conscious of the price of failure. The price may be expressed in different terms but the sentiment is similar.”
Just as the modern competitive landscape changes constantly in business, the military now has so much more to do than simply beat the enemy, adds Barrons.
“There’s a political, social, economic dimension to everything – what your allies are thinking, what they’re capable of, what resources you can deploy.
“In modern warfare you don’t just charge at the enemy, you look for a creative and dynamic solution,” he says.
Some organisations are so convinced of the value of military management techniques that managers are literally putting them to the test, and a number of military-inspired courses are springing up to meet this need.
The Reserve Forces, for example, runs a series of events called Executive Stretch which are designed to push delegates to their limits, both mentally and physically. They cheerfully describe the course as: “Two days of sheer hell. A lifetime of growth.”
Colonel Nigel Ffitch, who ran a recent event at Bisley camp in Surrey, says the course teaches communication and team-building skills by pushing participants beyond their normal boundaries.
“They are challenged to do things they might not think they are capable of. They come through it and they grow,” he says.
Lieutenant Peter Elston of the Royal Military Police and a group leader at Executive Stretch, says courses like this are so successful at bringing out good leadership because “there’s nowhere to hide”.
Compared with traditional classroom training, there are more opportunities to deal with real situations and work as a team, argues Stephane Coasne, sales director (Europe, Middle East and Africa) of electronics firm Teleadapt, who attended the Executive Stretch course.
“The feeling was we were in a real situation with serious challenges and pressures – you can really feel it,” says Coasne. “Each exercise made you think: how can we improve on last time? I will take lots of good things back to work – priorities, communication and delegation.”
Charles McSweeney, associate director of construction consultancy Cyril Sweett, found the course an opportunity to test new management styles.
“Where some have strengths, the others stepped back – it’s different from what I am used to, which is to step in and lead,” he said.
A dangerous game
But Anna Hipkiss, a learning and development coach from consultancy Avenue Management, warns that there are real dangers in immersing staff in military life on courses such as this one.
“I have personal knowledge of people leaving companies as a result of their experiences,” she says. “They lost their self-esteem with their peers because they weren’t able to hack it. You need a good facilitator to pick up the pieces if things go wrong, and who doesn’t allow the group to bully an individual.”
Hipkiss concedes that military management training could offer some benefits, however. “[On a course] leadership is not complicated by protocols, regulations and constraints – all the clutter of the organisation is behind you.
“You are able to focus on the pure process of leadership in a way you are not able to do in your organisation. You can ask yourself whether the rules mean you have to behave that way or if there’s another way of doing things,” she says.
And while the leadership doctrines of the barracks may not appeal to everyone, their track record is longer-established than that of some of the management gurus around today, as Barrons points out. “The advantage the armed forces have is that they have operated for thousands of years – there’s been a gestation of philosophies from Roman times to the present day,” she says.
As with any management philosophy, its success is all in the execution.
If you and your team want to take the challenge, you can find your next Executive Stretch event at www.sabre.mod.uk/output/Page39.asp