General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: "Leadership, the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because he wants to do it."

I've always been fascinated by the military.  Rather odd in an old hippie like me, eh?  Yet, of late, I find myself increasingly drawn to leaders with a military background.  In fact, two recent new clients of my company Corporate Rain are led by former generals.  I have been utterly dumbfounded by how little they conform to my, or, dare I say, the common cliche of the military leader.  They are funny.  They are careful, sincere listeners.  They are fiercely focused, yet modest  to the point of self-effacement.  They seem eminently practical and open to the new.  They see themselves as servants of their companies and their world.  They are, in short, everything I admire and respect in a corporate leader.

They are anything but the command-and-control totalitarians of some fiction and popular imagination.  They are neither The Great Santini nor Captain Queeg.

I first became aware of this at a Inc. 500/5000 convention in Washington a couple of years ago.  The keynote speech was given by Jim Collins---he of Good to Great and Built to Last fame.  Jim was just coming off two years of teaching leadership at West Point.  However, he reports he was the one taught leadership by his students.

He recounted noticing several important things about his cadets.  One, despite their overwhelming workload in a highly competitive environment, they went out of their way to support each other as colleagues.  And they seemed much happier than students with more cosseted, free-wheeling lives that Collins had observed in elite civilian universities like Stanford, where he had taught for seven years.

Bo Burlingham, in a collateral article to Collins' speech, finds this ambient happiness quite counterintuitive.  He states, "After all, West Point cadets lead extremely demanding lives.  Nearly every minute of every day is programmed, and every aspect of their lives is regimented, down to the color of their socks and the way razors must be positioned in their medicine cabinets.  Meanwhile, they are constantly being tested both physically and mentally--and they often fall short.  This goes on for four years with almost no letup."

But Collins also reported qualities deeply imbued in the West Point cadets that make for their success as leaders (and potentially as business leaders).  There is a universal sense of inadequacy brought on by a system that is designed to have them repeatedly fail.  The system is set up so they cannot not fail.  Failure is part of the process, like for most entrepreneurs.  Additionally, Collins notes there is a predominant trope of service at West Point---service to their country and to their fellow man.

All this builds what Collins calls the success-growth-service triangle of leadership, whose three legs are:

  • Service to a cause greater than themselves.
  • The habit of challenging and encouraging people to stretch and grow.
  • Dedication to communal success and collegiality.

Not unideal qualities in a modern business leader, as well as a military officer.

Collins' intuitions about military leadership are buttressed by The Commando Way, a recent book authored by Damian McKinney (LID Publishing, U.K.,September, 2012).  McKinney is CEO of McKinney Rogers and a former top commando officer in Britain's Royal Marines, roughly equivalent to our Navy Seals or Army Rangers.  McKinney points out that the command-and-control executive, traditionally idealized in business pedagogy, is simply old-fashioned and outmoded in our fast-moving, business world.  McKinney points out that the military realized this long ago and opted for a much more flexible "mission control" approach, which directs field officers in the "why" and "what" of their mission, but leaves the "how" specifics to them.  McKinney's book is a compelling, accessible read, steeped in both military history and its business applications from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clauswitz.

Before I leave off my bon-pensant for our military brethren and their paradigm of military leadership for contemporary business, let me suggest that business schools, who claim to teach entrepreneurship, ethics, and leadership (they emphatically do not and cannot), might well profit from Collins' and McKinney's deep understanding of the modern military's perspicacity and wisdom in creating a flexible and fulgent contemporary executive leadership model.

General George Patton said, "It is a proud privilege to be a soldier---a good soldier...[with] discipline, self-respect, pride in his unit and his country, a high sense of duty and obligations to comrades and to his superiors, and a self-confidence born of demonstrated ability."  Patton also said, "Lead me, follow me or get the hell out of my way."  Thanks, George.