Leading Through Uncertainty: Lessons in Managing From the U.S. Military
Two years ago, in a remote valley deep in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Sgt. Dakota Meyer repeatedly ran a gauntlet of enemy fire in a desperate effort to save 36 Marines and Afghan troops caught in an ambush. Last week he received the Medal of Honor from President Obama for taking charge in that incredibly tense situation. Certainly, such a life-or-death situation is a world away from typical office work, but the military's outstanding training for decision-making during crises is something every leader can learn from. That's a point Chad Storlie, a retired U.S. Army Reserve Special Forces officer who also holds an MBA from Georgetown University, has been making for years. He's the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career and Battlefield to Business Success: Applying Military Leadership and Skills in Your Career. He spoke with Inc.com's Christine Lagorio about key military leadership tactics to apply to your small company, lessons from General Stanley McChrystal, and what the U.S. Military has in common with a thriving fast-food restaurant chain.
Why is it useful to look to military leadership styles during times of uncertainty, including the waves of financial crisis that keep hitting American small businesses lately?
The real reason that the military has such strenght dealing with uncertainty is really because it seizes every opportunity—even when things don't go as planned. If you look at an operation like D-Day, the airborne invasion of Europe, a lot of people were dropped in the wrong places, and a lot of equipment was lost. In order to overcome that, they used this concept of Commander's Intent. It's a mix of focus and adaptability. They were able to take an initial failure and turn it into success because the end goal was always in sight, no matter what happened at the outset.
Can you explain the concept of Commander's Intent, and how it can be applied to the workplace?
Commander's Intent is, at its most fundamental level, the description of what success looks like at the end of the operation. Did we drive the enemy off? Did we make the road safe? Did we bring in the equipment to the village? When everyone is planning the mission, and everyone is executing, everyone understands what the commander wants to achieve and what success looks like. In a company, that means that everyone knows what the CEO expects of an outcome. They know their plan of action is, but there's adaptability built in so that even if the mission strays from an intended path, success can be met every time.
Why isn't that kind of crisis-planning already in place in most companies? You've worked at companies such as GE and Comcast—what's the difference you saw?
Considering what I did in the military and what I do now in business: I actually had much more freedom in the military. It was our responsibility to just do the right thing, and then report back. Where as if it's me, and I go in to a multi-million-dollar account now, I'm probably going to be very restrained in what I do.
How can a founder or CEO make sure his or her employees feel like they have enough freedom to innovate or adapt in a time of crisis or uncertainty?
A key part of that is starting with standardized training, so that everyone knows the processes and knows roughly how everyone else is going to react. You have standard operating procedures. Procedures, at the fundamental business execution level, are very important. They save time, they save money, and they make people feel safe. What the Commander's Intent process is meant to do is to be a proper adaptation procedure in unexpected situations. So that would mean that as an employee, you are able to leave the process in order to achieve the mission—but only until you can get back on track.
Doesn't it also take a lot of trust?
A lot of it is really good communication to start with. To say, "this is what we plan to do today," and to make sure everybody knows what you're trying to achieve is key. This is so that everybody knows they are engaged, and it ensures that people are informed. When people are informed, then they can be flexible and be able to adapt to changes. If you look at the military, there's such a stress on communications equipment to make sure every node is able to talk at any time.
Is that communication also important when dealing with enemy—or competitive—intelligence?
Definitely. The military handles intelligence with a systematic approach that's going on constantly. It gives everyone a common picture of what the competition is or is not doing. If you went into any company and asked the top 10 executives who their three top competitors were, most would name the top one the same, but what about two and three? If everyone is not on the same page, with the same competitive goals, that's going to effect pricing, service, and product design. You have to have every part of a small company synchronized on where it wants to go. Differences in it can lead to internal strife. The old [former Intel chief executive] Andy Grove thing, "be paranoid," provides a systematic and ongoing way to stop running from your shadow. Be paranoid, be aware of the competition constantlly, and you'll stay closer to the marketplace.
Do you have any recent examples of instances of great military leadership that business leaders can take inspiration from?
Sure. There's one really great thing about General McChrystal—he's a Special Forces officer and I was one too—is that he constantly worked on leadership by example. That is, fundamentally, do-as-I-do leadership. When it's dangerous or things are uncertain, a leader's presence at the front line is really key. Say, when someone comes into your store with a return, is the manager out front, or hiding in the back? That matters.
What about toward the end of his career?
Gen. McChrystal, when the Rolling Stone article came out, it would have been really easy to say: "I wasn't present; that was my staff; this is something to overlook." Instead, he went to President Obama and took responsibility for his actions. He still led by example, even right to the end. The real foundation for staying true to your principles is leadership by example, and to be that constant presence, reinforcing what you say with what you do. And he's continuing to do that even right now, with his work on education and helping people learn from how the military works.
What other military concepts are useful to apply to small businesses?
If you're going to enter a new market, or launch a new product, I'd say incorporate "war gaming" into your strategy. War gaming is really where you start with an initial plan, and then you examine it through, say, a product's life cycle. That means you're looking at each step in your plan, then asking "how would the competition react?" and "what will I then do to defeat or mitigate what they might do?" Walking through these steps forces you to face your plans against your competition, so that right when you launch you can anticipate exactly what the competition is going to be like. And you can be prepared when the competition does something like a 5 percent price drop; you can have a strategy ready, perhaps to counter them through a direct-mail coupon.
One of the most common start-up mantras these days is "fail fast." That's not exactly something the military would advocate, I imagine. What's the take-away from military leadership on dealing with failure?
The military in general handles after-action reviewing really well. The debrief process has a fundamental aspect of identifying the root causes of an instance of failure. It's not so much encouraging failure, but rather taking the time to really examine it, and say: "how can we do better in the future?"
In an essay of yours on business lessons from the military, you mention McDonald's. What does the U.S. Military have to do with a fast-food chain?
One of the things McDonald's does well is training. It's about standardizing employee procedures, so we have the most efficient way to sell food, and it's done across the board. The company also is remarkably adept at operating at different locations. Menus adapt to what different localities need. This is very similar to the U.S. Military; it adapts the equipment and operations based on location. One thing the military can take from McDonald's is to stress simplicity. That simplicity approach, with the store layout, formulaic kitchen, simple pricing, straightforward menu, and standardized training, ensures the restaurant can be effective 24/7. The final similarity is "we can never be happy with success." McDonald's is constantly adapting its menu to consider, for example, how to be more health-conscious, and how people's tastes are changing. That's a lesson everyone can use.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be speaking at the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000 Conference. To attend, click here.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.