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How can the military be better at leadership than business?

How can the military be better at leadership than business?

How can the military be better at leadership than business? The military spends time and money on leadership training. Most companies have weak or non-existent leadership programmes. “A once a year off-site playing golf does not make leaders. Neither does reading a book on leadership or watching a TedTalk” Sinek .

Leadership requires training. Intense training. We would not place someone in a financial, marketing or production role without formal qualifications or training. Yet, we place people in leadership roles without any qualifications or training. In their work The Leadership Pipeline, Charan, Drotter, and James stress the importance of learning to manage and lead. They note that people are generally promoted due to their technical skills. Our best bookkeeper becomes the supervisor. We do not reduce the workload so that they can lead, nor to we provide any training on how to manage or lead people. This means that our newly appointed supervisor is left to deal with the most difficult role they will ever perform: managing people, without any guidance on how to do that. Naturally our newly appointed supervisor will fall back on what they have heard and seen. Unfortunately, this is usually around power: command and control. As if organizations where the military.

And yet, it is the military that shows us true leadership. How can that be? A number of influential leadership authors and speakers point to lessons learnt in the military. Surely the military is the institution that needs the highest level of control and command as lives are at stake? But this is not the case as those who spend time with the U.S military inform us. Let us look at two examples:

Our first example comes from Simon Sinek. Sinek tells us that the military selects leaders that want to lead. They go through rigorous selection processes. During this process a candidate leader is given a task and evaluated on how well s/he does. Observers rate their performance. While we would automatically believe that it is the achievement of the tasks objective that would rank highest, the opposite is true. It is the leaders that look for input from others, that are open to feedback, that are rated the highest. Even if they do not achieve the objective.

Our second example comes from Margaret Wheatley. In her book Who Do We Choose To Be (Wheatley) concurs and provides the After Action Review (AAR) process invented by the US Army in the ‘70’s as an example of this. During an AAR, each soldier has to provide feedback on what s/he saw from their unique perspective. The belief is that no-one else stood where you stood, and therefore your input is invaluable to the group. The group is not disbanded until the whole event is discussed, understood and the learnings extracted. Learning is so important that time is given to this as a priority no matter what. Each soldier is treated as an equal to their peers, irrespective of rank. This process is built on the fundamental belief that the participatory process will guarantee learnings will quickly be implemented. Lives depend on learning and implementing quickly.

When comparing to corporate life, it seems that working in an organization is harsher than putting your life on the line for your country. Following the leadership theorists of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s business has come to fully embrace the belief that the purpose of organizations is to unlock value for shareholders. This belief is held to be sacred and rules every decision that is made. The only measure of success in this world is the achievement of productivity goals. Not only is it harsh, it is also myopic and self-serving. Leaders sacrifice their followers for personal gain, career advancement and the illusive ‘successful’ label. Leadership today has been debased to mean “those who take things to scale or are first to market or dominate the competition or develop killer apps. Or hold onto power by constantly tightening their stranglehold of fear until people are left lifeless and cowering” (Wheatley).

Yet, for many years books have been written, academic papers published, TED talks given pleading for leadership of a different kind. There are common golden threads: leaders in service of their people (Greenleaf) , leaders eat last (Sinek) , authentic leadership (Henderson & Hoy) , service over self (Wheatley) , adding value by serving others, self-sacrifice (Maxwell) . Most importantly, in one way or another, all these influencers are talking about love.
What has love got to do with it? Everything! If the examples above still don’t convince us, then let’s look at leaders in the field. Let’s look at the current response to the pandemic by the leaders of the world. Who has done best to respond sanely and humanly?

Wittenberg-Cox says “Looking for examples of true leadership in a crisis? … women are stepping up… These leaders are gifting us an attractive alternative way of wielding power” Wittenberg-Cox goes on to identify seven characteristics of women that make them uniquely suited to wield power. One of these qualities is love. “Generally, the empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe than the one we have gotten used to… compare these leaders and stories with the strongmen using the crisis to accelerate a terrifying trifecta of authoritarianism: blame-“others,” capture-the-judiciary, demonize-the-journalists, and blanket their country in I-will-never-retire darkness”. We have become so used to leaders who are all in it for themselves that we think it is normal. We have become lulled into giving up our very freedom to be human and treated as such. World-wide our disenchantment with our leaders has resulted in the electorate only showing up half the time, if that.

So, what is it that the military is doing that creates such phenomenal leaders? They invest time and money into training their leadership. The demonstration of leadership qualities ranks high on performance evaluations and their reward and promotional systems are tied to this value system. Leadership, true leadership that sacrifices self for their followers is what makes the military great. Or as Sinek says “the key to military success is love”. The budget for training and development, especially leadership development is never cut in the military as this is essential to success. The budget for training and development is always cut in business when the purse strings become tight, and leadership development was seldom invested in to begin with.

Companies that perform well, understand this: you achieve results through your people, you build a great brand and provide excellent service to your clients through your people (van Bentum and Stone) . You deliver on your strategy through empowering your people to go up and beyond. You remove yourself as the “lid” (Maxwell) or the limit, to their success.

We need great leaders now. Leaders that are prepared to sacrifice self in the interests of the organisation and their people. We need leaders like Mteto Nyati of Altron who has set a shining example of what can be done when there is a will to do so. This is what Nyati says about his people “I am passionate about human potential. I have discovered that leadership matters. A bad leader managing great people can produce unsatisfactory results. A great leader managing mediocre individuals can inspire them to greatness. I am passionate about unleashing that potential in everybody I interact with”. This is what leadership is about. Invest in the potential of your people, spend time and money on leadership training. Uplift your people to a level they never thought possible, due to your self-sacrifice and service. That is true leadership.

Simon Sinek speaks to South Africa. SAJR. https://youtu.be/hZsbLkO5VDc
Charan, R., Drotter, S., Noel, J. (2001) The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. Jossey-Bass Inc.,
Wheatley, M.J. (2017). Who Do We Choose To Be? Berrett-Koehler, California.
Greenleaf, R.K (1970). The Servant as Leader. Newton Centre, MA.
Sinek, S (2014). Leaders Eat Last. Penguin. USA.
Hendersen, J.E., & Hoy, W.K. (1983) Leader Authenticity. Educational and Psychological Research, 3: 63-75.
Wheatley, M.J. (2017). Who Do We Choose To Be? Berrett-Koehler, California.
Maxwell, J.C. (2007). The 21 Irrefutable Leadership Laws. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Tennessee.
Wittenberg-Cox, A. What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Women Leaders. Forbes. Apr 13, 2020.
Van Bentum, R., & Stone, M. (2005). Customer relationship management. Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management, 13(1), 28-54.
Maxwell, J.C. (2007). The 21 Irrefutable Leadership Laws. Thomas Nelson, Inc. Tennessee
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