A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a Fortune 500 technology company based in Silicon Valley. Instead of talking about geographic regions like the US, Europe or Asia as "markets," the company referred to them as "theaters," a military term that describes a targeted area of land, sky or sea within a war zone.  I've worked with other name-brand companies like a mid-west consumer products manufacturer where managers refer to their direct reports as "Lieutenants."

None of this language is surprising since one of the bestselling business books of all time is The Art of War, written in the 5th century BC by the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu. Many of the concepts and terms from the book like "laying plans" and "tactics" are embedded into today's common corporate vernacular. Much of the language used in organizations, especially when it involves the core strategy of the business, comes from the military.

And it's causing a big problem.

Military Concepts Occupy Business Culture

Language shapes the mental models that influence what we subconsciously view as important qualities for people and organizations. The problem is that these attributes can be severely limiting to innovation, equity and inclusion.

Consider the military concept of "chain of command," for example. Three simple words force one's mind into a rigid, linear model of authority, decision-making and communication. If you're trying to design the organization of the future, words like these stifle possibilities. Companies like Google, W.L. Gore and Intuit use "networks" of employees and partners to organically come together to explore ideas and innovate - a model far from a traditional hierarchy.

The military language ubiquitously used in business goes on:

  • Leadership ranks
  • Rank and file
  • Subordinates
  • Rally the troops
  • Chain of command
  • All hands meeting
  • Business intelligence
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Market intelligence
  • Battle between competitors
  • Strategic planning
  • Strategic thinking
  • Strategic objectives
  • Strategies and tactics
  • Strategic alliances
  • Mission critical
  • In the trenches
  • Front lines
  • Guerilla marketing
  • Marketing campaign
  • Corporate espionage
  • Execution
  • Promoted
  • Demoted
  • Years of service

No Surprise: Men Command Most Corporate Armies

According to recent research from The Conference Board and Heidrick & Struggles, women held only 22 CEO positions in the S&P 500 at the end of 2018. Research from Catalyst.org reports that 26 women were in command of S&P 500 corporations at the end of 2019, an increase of 4 CEOs over 2018.

Progress?

2019's number still means that 94.8% of all current CEOs in the S&P 500 are men (474 out of 500).

It doesn't get much better as you move down the corporate ranks. A whopping 82% of Fortune 500 executives are male according to research from Craft.co (with 68% being white males at the C-level accroding to DiversityJobs).

What's going on here?

Strong Business Leaders Have Deep Cultural Roots

Here's my theory based on 25 years of leading research, consulting and executive education across dozens of name-brand Fortune 1000 companies...

Men have dominated military culture for centuries. As modern business arose in the 1800's and evolved into the 20th century, military organizing models and concepts were adopted and cemented into the fabric of our organizations. And they persist today.

For example, the lack of gender diversity in corporate America parallels that of historical - and present day - military leadership. For example, it wasn't until 2013 that the US Government lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles. According to Military.com, it took three more years after that for Army Captain Kristen Griest to become the first female infantry officer in US history in 2016. It's just as masculine at the commander level. In 2018, for example, a photo was taken in the White House Oval Office of Donald Trump with his top military leaders. Of the 21 people ranging from Defense Secretary James Mattis to the top brass of the US Coast Guard, Air Force, Marine, and Army, all were white males except two -- Air Force Generals Darren McDew and Lori Robinson (a black male and a white female).

Training in the language of business also starts much earlier than the corporate reception area. Just as the nation's future military leaders get a jump start from attending prestigious military schools like West Point, so do future executives who attend the country's top business schools. While women outnumber men in just about all educational fields today, the Forte Foundation reports that in 2019, 62.5% of MBA students were men. Training for the leadership ranks remains male dominated.

"Institutionalized Masculinity" Limits Who Rises up the Ranks

American business culture generally reveres leaders with a strong and powerful presence - physically and charismatically. When one views leadership with this underlying cultural lens, it's possible to see even more subtle, yet powerfully poignant, examples of how certain masculine traits are associated with leadership.

As we look at our highest-ranking modern-day military leaders - the Commanders in Chiefs of the United States - we see something common:  They're tall.  Donald Trump is 6' 3", Barack Obama is 6' 1", and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are both 6' 2".  When we venture into the corporate board room, we also find that the average height of a Fortune 500 CEO is 6 feet tall, about 2.5 inches taller than the average American male.

Ok. So what?

The assumption that leadership qualities tied to military concepts should be valued and encouraged within business leads many organizations to reinforce mindsets and behaviors that elevate masculine values without even knowing they're doing it. The result: organizations (and our society in general) unconsciously reinforce the underlying message that being male is connected to being a leader. When you look at the overall data, being tall - and white - doesn't hurt either.

Combat Military Language to Change Culture

Corporate cultures are shaped every day through the words and behaviors of leaders, and employees themselves.  Military language infused in business systematically elevates traditionally "masculine" qualities and traits as most the valued and important for moving up into the ranks of leadership. Those who don't fit the mold struggle to rise.

The cycle of "institutionalized masculinity" represents a textbook example of how any "ism" becomes institutionalized - racism, sexism, ageism, and anything else that gets ingrained and perpetuated into culture, ultimately reinforcing the status quo and keeping others on the fringe.

Changing culture starts with changing what people see, hear, and experience in an organization (and in society). In my latest book, The Invisible Advantage, I talk about how the things people experience in organizations shape their assumptions about what's valued versus discouraged, which in turn, influences their behavior to confirm to cultural norms.

I recently led a leadership development program for a healthcare organization that explicitly asks its leaders to avoid using the term "bullet points" during their PowerPoint presentations - and instead refer to them as "dot points." Some may call this extreme, but this values-based organization understands how to fully align its everyday culture with its stated goals.

Want to change culture? Give people different experiences through changing the language that leadership uses, telling stories that reinforce new values, and being conscious about what's formally and informally celebrated and rewarded.

Crack the Code to Equity and Inclusion

It's easy to argue that certain military jargon is necessary for leading and running a business. Don't all organizations need "strategies" for example?

Sure.

But gaining consciousness of what we're saying, and the impact it has on what we're unconsciously communicating, is one of the highest levels of emotional intelligence. That's why we're seeing a groundswell shift to language that honors and includes all people with equal regard - like the increasingly use of the word "they" (vs. him or her), which was Merriam-Webster's 2019 word of the year.

Because culture is "invisible," looking at the words and phrases we hear around us helps decipher what's being explicitly and implicitly reinforced or discouraged on an everyday basis. If we want to reinvent business (and society), we need to reinvent the language that shapes our mental models and culture. Only then can we reshape our organizations and institutions to achieve a shared experience of true equity and inclusion.

Published on: Jan 2, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.