Business Leadership Lessons from the Infantry

Timor - returning from border tracking patrolI left the military ten years ago having served 24 years in the infantry, including six operational tours of duty to different conflict zones.  I have been in the public and private business sectors since then.  I find it interesting that I often utilise key principles or concepts I learnt in the infantry to help guide businesses I work with to lead, adapt, grow and solve issues.  I thought I would share the key ideas I fall back on:

Lead by Example or Don’t Lead At All.  It should go without saying, but you need to be able to demonstrate that you can stump up and do what expect your team to do just as well, no matter what position you hold.  So as a senior infantry commander I would still find time to fill sand bags, put out barbed wire, or go on patrol – especially when the stakes are high.  It says if its important enough for the ‘boss’ to do it, it’s important for you too.  Its about having executive leadership presence – it doesn’t need to be all of the time but enough to be seen.  It is also about being seen to pitch in and live the ethos and values with your team.  People are watching what we do & what we don’t do – we are leading by example whether we intend to or not – so while we may not always be perfect, we should always be working on trying to be a better leader and seen to be leading by example.

Leaders Eat Last – Long before Simon Sinek made it a TED talk, leaders in the infantry made sure that all of their troops had a meal before they sat down to eat.  If having a communal meal in the field or on operations, the leaders served the food to the team and if they didn’t ration it out right, then the leaders were the ones to miss out.  The leaders also checked on the sentries to ensure that all security and protective measures were in place, and took the chance to talk to everyone after a hard day to engage, joke, and listen so as to understand morale – all before they paused to eat.  It is a metaphor that says as a leader “I put you, our safety and our success before me”.  The infantry is a people based operation and morale is a third of the combat power to achieve success, it is the same in business, the morale or engagement of your team will hugely effect your outcomes – put energy to it, put your people first and make it a priority.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast’.  Too often business people I see are rushing from one thing to the next, and while a sense of urgency is very important, at times you need to shift the accelerator back a notch to make a greater impact.  I first learnt the notion ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ practicing urban combat skills clearing buildings with the US Army, it is a highly complex, dynamic and difficult task – and by being just slightly slower and a fraction more deliberate, you can clear a building faster, with less hick-ups.  It’s the same when implementing a new business idea, slow it down a fraction, get the right building blocks in place, systems cemented, and ensure stage completion before moving to the next thing.

Visit the Troops – In today’s business environment we often have a number of offices or people around the country or globe.  This is the same with military operations.  It should go without saying but leaders must make the time and effort to ‘visit the troops’.  Make the time to visit regularly and make time to do a whole-of-team business update and share stories from the other offices.  Also make time to spend ‘un-booked’ time at each location to just to be there, chat in the corridor, at the water cooler and connect.  Don’t under-estimate the impact of taking a team for a coffee, a drink or dinner to form stronger bonds.  If you have a key operational activity happening in a region, be there and be ‘present’ – you don’t have to run it but be seen to be interested and provide guiding support – its known in the military as Forward Command.  If there is a crisis – go there.  Understand it first-hand – you don’t have to solve it, but be there and front the media – run ‘top cover’ while others in the team resolve the issue.

A Good Plan Violently Executed Beats a Great Plan Too Late.  Too many businesses we see initially have no plan at all and are just in ‘doing mode’ and their decisions flip-flop around depending on the mood and they are reactive to the next issue, opportunity or crisis.  or they are trying to create the perfect plan before starting to execute.  A mediocre plan now is better than a perfect plan late.  Or as Patton said, “A good plan violently executed beats a great plan too late.”  A clear plan, even if it is an average one, gives people direction, anticipates issues and has contingencies, knows the opportunities to exploit, and becomes a backbone which to make decisions off of.  Afghan - QRF ptl BamyanNo plan is rock solid, and in the infantry we said no plan survives first contact with the enemy, because we couldn’t control what happened beyond that point but we could plan for the most likely and most dangerous possibilities.  The same is in business, while we have a plan as soon as it hits the market place we must, observe, adapt and iterate to remain relevant. A have a basic plan and keep improving it as you go – it is highly unlikely that you will need to throw the whole plan out and start again – just adjust and incrementally build. Oh, and if it’s in your head it’s not a plan, that’s just an idea.  Pick a general direction and execute like hell!

A Poor Decision is Better than No Decision. A can still hear the trainer at officer training when practicing to be a Platoon commander when confronting a problem in a training scenario – “make a decision Mr Allnutt!” Now I hear people say thing like: lets defer that decision, let’s wait and see, or hmm I’m not sure so let’s form a committee!  Sure there are times we need to do these things but it shouldn’t be our default mechanism.  In making a decision you need to understand that you dont need to, and usually can’t, please everybody but you just take all available facts and considerations into account – then make a decision.  Making a decision creates action and momentum, from there you can always get more information and adjust rather than sitting latent.  We need to have different decision making tools for dealing with different scenarios from simple, operational and intuitive issues, through to difficult, strategic, and complex issues.

I’ve Got Your Six – Seldom in the infantry was anything ever achieved by yourself.  Whether it was a four man reconnaissance patrol or a Battalion Command team, teamwork was essential to get the best outcome.  The basis of performance for every team is trust working to a common goal.  Everyone in a team has their role to achieve the mission and in a patrol you had the trust in each person in the team that someone was always watching your 6 o’clock or blind spot.  Military infantry operations are a high trust and high consequences environment, especially if that trust is broken, eg a sentry falling asleep.  Timor - water resup border tracking ptlThe same goes for a high performing team in a business environment ie everyone is doing their piece of the project without question, everyone is ‘all in’ and if one fails, we fail – but too often this isn’t the case, but it is equally as necessary in business and needs to be worked on, especially for Senior Leadership Teams.


Keep Everyone in the Know – When we were about to do an infantry operation we sent out a Warning Order to let everyone know what we knew about the operation up to that point so that they could start anticipating what might need to be done and start preparing as early as possible.  We then made plans and communicated them to everyone involved.  Once under-way we would constantly communicate what was happening and changing.  At an organisational level we would meet daily to share information.  If it was a high tempo operation we would meet twice a day.  On routine camp duties it might be once a week or twice a week to close things off – but talking was the key – because others would pick up on and share what was happening above them and around them, and share their plans.  If there is a lack of communication people fill the gap with rumour, gossip, and speculation.  In business, good meetings are the key conduit to good communication, keeping everyone informed and ‘in the know’.  This is one of the biggest failings I see in most businesses.  The bigger, faster and more complex your business becomes – the more meetings (that is good meetings) you need to have.

Get out of the Trenches & Rise Above the Crap – It is very easy to get stuck into the fight that is directly in front of us and lose sight of the bigger picture.  Your attention can get sucked into what is right in front of you.  Occasionally you have to step back from the immediate issue, and see what else is going on.  Get out of the trenches and get a helicopter view.  Its like when in a helicopter, if you are flying at tree top level everything flies by very fast, but if you gain height (but retain the same speed) things appear to move more slowly and you have what appears to be more time to react.  Similarly, crap and distraction will always happen, sure you need to deal with it – but don’t get overwhelmed by it or let it detract from the positive efforts and gains you are making – reflect occasionally on the wins too.

The Power of Identity, Ritual, Symbolism and RecognitionNapoleon said “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”  In the military service, great deeds, and sacrifice are recognised by medals that are worn proudly as badges of honour and recognition.  medals and poppyAdditionally, hats, badges & belts create a sense of organisational identity, while ranks, titles, badges or certificates for progression or tenure reinforce achievement, attainment and loyalty.  Or similarly, the top soldier for the year was recognised with a silver bayonet.  In the NZ infantry we played sport to desperately win a ‘pine cone’ (admittedly from Gallipoli).  These tokens strongly reinforce your purpose, identity and values.  Yet in business, we often find business leaders steer away from any awards, recognition or celebration.   And yet invariably and yet when they do finally decide to do it, their people love it creating a sense of individual and team success, achievement and acknowledgement.  Having things like company branded t-shirts, social fun activities, annual awards events, quarterly recognising people in front or their peers, having welcoming or departing rituals, and smaller ad hoc celebrations, small acknowledgements, and trophies are important.  Anyone who has studied culture knows that symbolism and ritual underpin the culture of an organisations and help create meaning and connection to something bigger than the individual – be intentional – traditions have to start somehow, don’t let your culture be by accident.


Greg is a Strategic Adviser at Advisory.Works

2 thoughts on “Business Leadership Lessons from the Infantry

  1. So true in this day and age also having a good work ethic. Like i say to my team i am not prepared to make you do something that i am not prepared to do……good enough for me then it is good enough for you and i absolutely believe i leading by example. Finally everyone is judge on there work ethic with me regardless of there gender.


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