The soft skills senior managers can learn from the military

24 March, 2022Ouida Taaffe

Senior executives enjoy turning to senior army officers for advice on how to lead their ‘troops’, but are they just basking in a little reflected glory? Or can they really learn something from the way the military engages its people? Stuart Tootal, a former colonel, talks to Ouida Taaffe.

Senior executives often turn to former soldiers for advice on how to lead and inspire, but should they?

After all, soldiers engage in physical combat and can use lethal force. How much of a read-across to the c-suite can there really be?

“There is an issue of the military being revered, but not necessarily well understood,” says Stuart Tootal, a former colonel in the British Army, and holder of a DSO. He joined Barclays as Chief Security Officer and is now a founding partner of Matero Consulting.

Tootal agrees that the military and firms operate differently, but says the military actually has better ‘soft’ leadership skills.

“I was staggered by how regal a company CEO is, after the army,” he says.

“Yes, you call them by their first name, and you call a general ‘General’. But there is actually much more approachability and familiarity between soldiers. Sitting in the same foxholes, you know all your people, engage with them and empathise with them.”

Competitive business practice

But though the military invests much more in leadership than companies do, businesses do face a form of combat. That’s why Warren Buffett looks for businesses that have a “wide and long-lasting” economic moat – like a strong brand such as Coca-Cola, or low-cost processes like Geico.

Buffett learnt how tough and unexpected competition can be like first-hand.

When he bought a 90% stake in the Nebraska Furniture Mart from 90-year old Rose Blumkin in 1983, he wrote a letter to shareholders.

In it he said, “One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like… to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs B and her progeny.”

The acquisition was closed on a handshake, without a non-compete. A few years later, Rose ‘got bored’ and set up a rival store across the street. Buffett acquired the second business in 1992.

What business leaders can learn from combatants

There are few executives as formidable as Rose Blumkin, but being able to lead the ‘fight’ matters. So what can companies learn from actual combatants?

“What soldiers coming into the commercial world often see is that firms lack a clear purpose and an agile way of coming together,” says Tootal.

“The military is about co-ordinating, collaborating and then deciding. There is a systemic structure for clarity.”

Tootal says its often assumed that the military is about simply taking orders, while business is more collaborative.

“The military is absolutely set up to allow challenge,” he says. “If soldiers are tired, hungry and scared you can’t just motivate them by rank and with orders. They want to know that the commander has planned it right, then they are more likely to get out of the foxhole. It has to be a very collaborative, cohesive environment.”

Tootal says business executives are also often surprised to hear that senior army officers are “riven by self-doubt every day”.

He says that the way commanding officers deal with that doubt is by having decision-making handrails and transparent leadership support. “Someone will say ‘Colonel take five. I need to tell you this’.”

How leaders are made

But does the army attract and select people who are naturally better at leading and inspiring others?  Tootal argues that leaders can be made.

“You are aiming for the four ‘E’s of leadership: empathetic, leads by example, energises and is ethical. Those are not the four ‘E’s people usually quote, but, at bottom, it comes down to managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.”

Being empathetic is not a quality always associated with successful business people.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, for example, was famously unpleasant. There are also lots of instances where CEOs have failed to be ethical or to lead by example. Theranos, anyone?

Does that mean that ex-soldiers are too ‘nice’ to advise business people?

“As change management consultants, we do not sit on the fence when it comes to telling people what we actually think. And no-one has ever stopped working with us because we were honest with them,” says Tootal.

“What the military has – mutual trust, empowering people to do their job and a degree of nobility to what you are doing – can absolutely be replicated in commercial organisations.”

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