Posted On October 22, 2015

military soldiers walking to helicopter

I’m not the military type. I’ve never fired a gun and don’t intend to, zombie apocalypse or not. But I can appreciate how the military develops leaders.

This isn’t about generals, admirals and other high ranking officers who, when the bombs, bullets and drones are flying, you’ll probably find far from the action surrounded by maps and polite attaches.

No, a leader in this sense for mine is the non-commissioned officer, or NCO—the corporal, sergeant and warrant or petty officer known throughout history as the backbone, the esprit de corps of every military organisation.

These are the primary, most-visible authority figures for most military personnel, the ones who teach, train and mentor. And when there’s no general to be seen, it’s the NCOs and what leadership theorists term true transformational leadership who inspire trust and confidence in the most challenging conditions imaginable, the crucible of combat.

Substitute NCO with “middle manager”, replace esprit de corps with “corporate culture” and combat with “crisis management”, and you can see where I’m going with this.

It’s certainly true that much of the hierarchical approach to military management has seemingly passed its use-by date. For example, agile organisations today strive for a flat management structure to overcome barriers to empowerment and impediments to decision making that come from many rigid levels of authority.

And corporate and military leadership are distinctively different for obvious reasons: military leadership bears the heavy responsibility for a nation’s security, and fighting wars, while business leaders focus on protecting the interests of stakeholders, with profit and return on investment usually the top priorities. It’s also true that leadership development in the military is far more time-consuming and expensive than similar programs in industry or government.

Still, there remains much for us to learn from the military about developing authentic leaders.

We could start with the military’s emphasis, bordering on obsession, on professional development—a continuous, progressive process that spans a recruit’s entire career and comprises training (both individual and collective), formal education, practical experience, coaching and mentoring as well as the individual’s own program of self-development.

Then there’s the constant scrutiny and analysis by superiors to help subordinates recognise their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging, supporting and at times demanding individual self-development and increased commitment.

The military environment also encourages learning from both success and failure, stresses being adaptive and innovative in the face of rapid change, and emphasises timely, informed decision making in which alternative, sometimes nonconformist solutions (and the second- and third-order effects of those solutions) are considered in life-and-death situations.

Not every NCO will rise to the rank of general as did John “Black Jack” Pershing who entered the West Point military academy as a 22-year old cadet and later held the highest rank in the US Army, General of the Armies. Or Mike Boorda, who enlisted as a lowly seaman and became Chief of Naval Operations, the highest position in America’s navy.

Nor will many middle managers reach the stratified atmosphere of CEO like Ron Meyer. The president of Universal Studios started out as a mail room clerk and today is the longest-serving chief of a major motion picture company in Hollywood history. Or Sidney Weinberg who climbed the ranks of the New York Stock Exchange from janitor assistant to CEO.

But the fact remains that for millennia the military’s developed leaders from the bottom up and inside out. By contrast, modern organisations tend to concentrate only on top down, and are often fixated on star performers, ignoring at their peril middle managers who have the qualities and abilities to grow, learn and, eventually, lead.

Don’t take my word for it. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great who is now teaching leadership at West Point, said this about the value of front-line, or unit-level leadership, in a recent interview: “We tend to think that what matters is having outstanding leadership at the senior level. But great leadership at the top doesn’t amount to much if you don’t have exceptional leadership at the unit level.

“That’s where great things get done.”

If you’d like to learn to lead without having to join the forces for a few years, try one of our (much shorter) Leadership courses.

Stephen De Kalb has four decades of marketing experi­ence specialising in key message development, change and stakeholder communications, and has held senior roles with PeopleSoft, Tandy Corporation, DEC and SumTotal. A winner of the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s Gold­en Target Award, he has consulted to organisations such as Samsung, Sydney Olympic Park, SunGard Higher Education, NSW Department of Education and NSW Roads & Traffic Authority.