HR & Management

How employers can learn from military leaders

4 min read

08 March 2014

In a short space of time we have witnessed the banking crisis, phone hacking and MPs expenses scandals. All of these things have brought leadership into sharp focus and led us to ask many questions, of which innovation and VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) particularly interest me.

From all of the recent references to VUCA you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a new phenomenon and that we suddenly need a whole new raft of leadership skills. Well, here’s the thing, it’s not actually a new phenomenon.

The term VUCA derives from military vocabulary and they have been training their leaders to operate in this world for many, many years. In fact, it’s one of the cornerstones of military leadership

Here are some of my favourite techniques, taken from the military, that you can use to help you be an effective business leader whilst operating in a VUCA world.

Provide stability

A leader’s role is to create stability and an air of calm – these tools can help by ensuring that teams are not reliant on particular individuals.

  • Train your team to understand and be able to carry out other peoples jobs;
  • Don’t allow a job description document to constrain what your people do – give them freedom to act; and
  • Recruit for flexibility, intellect and team ‘fit’ – not just skills in a narrow job role.

Provide clarity

In times of uncertainty it is important for leaders to communicate and provide clarity where they can.

  • Ensure that everyone in your team or organization fully understands the vision or end goal as opposed to just their individual task. This means that if the situation changes, they still know what the team or organisation is ultimately trying to achieve; and
  • Tell people what they need to achieve – not how to achieve it.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” 

  • General George Paton 

These two points will empower your people to act and handle change quickly with the end goal still in mind.  The military call this ‘mission command’.

Communicate

It is easy to stop communicating when under pressure but the impact on the team can be huge.

  • Communicate regularly and build it into your processes;
  • When teams are under pressure, individuals will often retreat inwards  and team meetings stop taking place – this is the worst thing that can happen in difficult times; and
  • Establish a routine for team meetings and communications and make them sacrosanct. This gives you confidence that the team know what is happening and it gives the team confidence in you and the plan.

Communicate early

The military have the concept of a ‘warning order’ which tells subordinates early on what little information is available about forthcoming operations. This allows for concurrent activity and provides a faster response time to challenges. Critics will say, ‘But this could waste time if people start working on the wrong things.’ Not so if you have provided clarity and everybody understands the end goal.

Plan for the risks

The military have a great phrase – ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’. So what can we learn from this?

  • Consider the ‘threats’, ‘risks’ and ‘what if’s’ that may affect your plan – create a simple Issues and Risks register;
  • Once you have considered the risks – plan for them. Don’t just have a plan B, have a plan C as well; and
  • Communicate the risks and plans. It will allow people to act quickly when things change and once again, it gives them confidence.

Ben Morton is an international team development consultant and coach whose clients range from small and solo business owners to FTSE 100 companies and international brands.

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