What business can learn from the military

In politics and in business, military leaders are coming to the fore, and can offer some valuable lessons about how to thrive in an era of change and uncertainty.

With three Generals in the White House, military leaders dominate Donald Trump’s team of advisors and are seen as a steadying influence on an unpredictable President.

In business too, companies are drawing on military thinking as they seek to navigate a climate of change and disruption. Concepts such as VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – which was coined in the wake of the cold war have become part of business vocabulary, while a book by a former US General has become a business best seller.

In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, Stanley McChrystal explains how the approach which helped to beat ISIS in Iraq can help businesses to transform their operations too.

Yet despite the rise of military influence, there are still plenty of misconceptions about what such leaders can offer, says Richard O’Quinn, a PhD candidate at UQ Business School who commanded a battalion in the US Special Forces and has served under General McChrystal.

Richard, who was raised in Virginia, now lives in Brisbane with his Australian wife Alison following a military career spanning over 20 years. He says, “All too often people’s perceptions of the military come straight out of Hollywood movies. They think that all we can do is fire a gun. But as military people, our goal is to make things happen, and we are very aware that if we have to resort to force to do so, the plan has already failed.”

He says that Special Forces personnel in particular are highly-motivated self-starters. They have to operate in difficult conditions with limited resources, think creatively to solve problems and build relationships with many other parties while operating under extreme pressure. 

So what can businesses learn from their experience?

Develop a change mindset

The ability to operate in uncertain situations should be a key lesson for businesses, according to Jonathan Sullivan, a MBA graduate from UQ Business School who spent ten years in the Australian Army and is now a consultant with McKinsey.

“I work with a lot of successful business leaders but the ability to take decisions in ambiguous environments with incomplete data is something I rarely see. In the current climate, this skill is becoming increasingly important and is something that military people have to do all the time.”

Richard O’Quinn agrees. He believes that businesses have become very adept at operating in stable markets but now need to change their mindset. “In the military the expectation is that you are not in a stable environment and you have to try your best to get a grasp on it. We know our plans are only good until the first enemy contact and then we expect things to change dramatically, however you can plan for change. This is probably the best mindset to have.

“There is a lot of contingency planning – we try to identify all eventualities, the points in the operation where everything might change, and the factors outside our control, then rehearse what we are going to do. Carrying out simulations and immersing yourself in scenarios allows you to consider things you might not have thought of just by looking at a spreadsheet.”

Control your response to stress

In times of uncertainty, the ability to regulate your emotions and control your response to stress is crucial for sound decision making, says Jemma King, a PhD candidate at UQ Business School who helps train Australia’s Special Forces.
“In uncertainty you often revert back to old ingrained learned patterns and behaviours, forgetting the complex decision making tools just when you need them the most.

“This is because the brain hates uncertainty, especially having to make decisions with limited information under time pressure – in particular decisions that hold the potential for public humiliation and failure, and have serious implications for you and your colleagues’ future. Under these conditions it’s not uncommon to go into a state of fight or flight. Your amygdala flares and your decision making process becomes binary.

“We train Special Forces to physically regulate their stress response. They must gain control over their attentional focus, analyse the situation and then identify the appropriate emotions to facilitate effective decision making.

“We also conduct a values identification process. Checking if decisions are in alignment with core values is a good benchmark check when no other information is available.”

Work as a team

Leadership and teamwork has always been a key strength in the military. Richard O’Quinn says there are three key principles in the elite forces. “Firstly, there is a shared understanding of what needs to be done and how it should be done. There must also be a high level of trust, not just in terms of ethics or confidence in our capabilities, but in the fairness with which we will treat each other and our wider families.

“We also use distributed leadership. People often assume the military is about command and control, but having one person making the orders and everyone else carrying them out is not an effective model. Where people are working in small teams spread over vast geographical distances, responsibility has to be devolved – but there is an expectation that you will do your utmost to achieve your goals and, while mistakes will happen, you will learn from them.”

Learn and recover from mistakes

Reviewing operations and finding ways to improve can provide a strong advantage in fast-changing circumstances. Richard O’Quinn says that during his time in the military, there were often multiple reviews each day.

“For every operation, whether at individual or collective level, we would have after action reviews where we would quickly go over events as they happened to determine what worked and what we need to improve upon. It is ingrained in us as military personnel, to be constantly striving to upgrade our procedures and working methods to adapt to the threat we were facing.”
For Jemma King, PhD candidate who is also researching managing stress in the Special Forces, reviews are not just a way to improve tactics but also to aid their recovery and build resilience for the future. “We know that mistakes will happen, particularly working in high stakes, high octane environments,” she says. “So a key aspect of our training is post-mistake recovery tactics, and avoiding the shame spiral. As we know this state is fertile ground for making more subsequent poor decisions.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019