Military Precision

Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 11:16

Organisations large and small can always borrow from the wisdom of the military. Gerard McManus discusses 10 enduring, but unique, characteristics of the military that are worth imitating.

Modern leadership often portrays the command and control, top-down, ask-no-questions methodologies of the military as out- dated and even unnecessary in the more holistic and "fun" working environments sought by contemporary businesses and other organisations.

But some principles of management unique to the military remain effective simply because they have to be effective.

Military operations are not only inherently hazardous and life- threatening for the personnel involved; there are existential consequences for failure for the greater nation that pays for it to exist. Hence, military organisations spend an inordinate amount of time "getting it right" through training, planning, drilling and strategising.

Counter-intuitively, though, the military operational model is also built in and around things going wrong. Though never broadcast, there are such things as "acceptable losses" in terms of casualties and military hardware losses. War costs both money and lives.

As the following 10 characteristics of military organisations explain, the chaos and unpredictability of a war zone are built into planning and are even acceptable in certain circumstances in the context of broader operational objectives.

1. A higher purpose

Duty, love of country, courage, selflessness and service are among the higher ideals that provide meaning for a career in the military. Any organisation that has no defined purpose, or whose purpose is forever changing, can be a soulless and stupefying place to work in. Most organisations don't have the luxury of the lofty ideals of a crack army unit, yet being able to understand the goals and intentions of an organisation provides a sense of meaning to seemingly unconnected daily tasks.

2. Leadership by example

The importance of leadership is impressed upon recruits in the military from day one of enlistment. Leadership is not confined to commissioned officers. Countless drills and the instillation of discipline are designed to make the job of the military manager easier, but leadership in the armed forces goes far further. Being an outstanding officer comprises intelligent, considered leadership and ability to motivate subordinates. The dictum, "know the way, show the way and go the way" sums up the way a good military leader thinks. In other words: participative leadership, leadership by example and leadership by inspiration.

3. Leadership by empowerment

While military orders are ingrained at every rank, the operational system is designed so subordinates can implement a live mission independently. The Germans called this "Auftragstaktik", while British and Americans call it "mission command". In essence, it means junior officers and troops do not need to look over their shoulder all the time. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the military actually encourages flexibility, ingenuity and individual decision- making. But for this to be effective it is also paramount orders are communicated effectively and subordinates are given proper guidance and properly trained to act independently.

4. Inducements beyond money

You don't get rich joining the military. Military careers are certainly adequately paid and there are many extra benefits for joining the armed forces. However, as many recent studies show, money's ability to motivate staff drops away after a certain point, especially with young people. The military recognises this and employs other incentives, including esprit de corps, mateship, pride and inspirational leadership in the unit or the regiment to motivate. A military medal holds vastly more value than a pay rise.

5. Utilising downtime

The truth about life in the military is for the vast majority of time very little in the way of action happens. Even in wartime, conflict and contact with the enemy can be rare or sporadic. Productivity in the conventional sense is not a relevant military concept, and measurements of performance such as sales numbers and profitability are non-existent. Yet, the luxury of extended periods of non-conflict means preparation, training and drills, and planning and strategising are part of a non-ceasing quest for perfection, precision and task competency. Readiness, preparedness, capability and dependability are some of the benefits of any extended period of downtime.

6. No such thing as 9 to 5

People in the military are, in theory, always ready to be called up and service is theoretically indefinite. There is, as a general rule, no overtime, no weekend penalties and no accumulated days. The reality is leave conditions in the military service are more generous than in many other jobs. But every enlisted person knows ultimately they can be called away and may miss the birth of a child and the funeral of a parent in the service of their country. The consequences of seeing a job as a service are that individuals know they are part of a much bigger undertaking, and occasionally their needs, even the important ones, may have to be sublimated to the greater good.

7. Tolerating failure

Lost battles and failed missions are considered setbacks from which come new tactics and strategies. Often the most remembered battles in military history are those that were lost. Gallipoli is Australia's greatest battleground. The "de-brief" too is a military invention. Generals and commanding officers are rarely written off for singular mistakes or bad calls; they may even be promoted. Making a decision, regardless of the possible consequences, is generally regarded as preferable to no decision. And it is rare a military plan survives the first engagement, and most commendations are given to personnel for taking the initiative in a conflict situation rather than following orders.

8. Attention to detail

Mirror-shine shoes, pressed trousers and properly made beds are military clichés. But instilling habits such as cleanliness, pride in personal appearance, safety, order, punctuality and an organised personal space have a design beyond the obvious utility. Primarily, focusing on the tiniest detail helps avoid the possibility an un-shod horse will cause a battle to be lost. It is designed so an army, navy or air force is in control of the things it can control and certain about the things it can be certain of. It can also assist in developing powers of observation and in training the eye to notice when something is wrong or out of place.

9. There is always a plan

It may not seem like it to the humble foot soldier, but there is comfort in the knowledge there is always a plan, an objective, a strategy. In fact, organisational planning is the sine qua non of the military from the invasion of a country to a passing-out parade. Military planning is being done constantly so the end outcome is the "process of planning" becomes embedded. Military plans are simple and flexible because plans need to be updated, revised, scrapped and rethought as events unfold. A plan is a framework for action, but events and unseen obstacles force changes of plans. Ultimately, the military trains for certainty, but educates for uncertainty.

10. Sharing competence

Military organisations obsessively and ceaselessly educate and train their people at all levels of the organisation. From recruits to senior officers, the military keeps its people in school to update their skills and to learn new ones. Training, therefore, is a mixture of a progressive series of events, while being educational and experiential.