"What was the biggest adjustment for you going from the military to the business world?" Several people have asked me that question, and my answer always surprises them.
"In the military," I say, "every individual has a lot more latitude and authority to act. In the business world, no one can do anything without explicit instructions."
"Really? I thought it would be the other way around," they say.
"That's the popular culture, but the truth is one-hundred eighty degrees the other way. "
Lessons From The Strong Gray Line
Listening to Adam Carolla's awesome podcast series called Take a Knee, I heard West Point graduate and Army veteran Jordan Garrett express a similar view. Garrett is co-author of The Strong Gray Line: War-time Reflections from the West Point Class of 2004. Adam Carolla asked Garrett how the military helped him in his post-military career as a management consultant. (Listen to the podcast for free here.)
Garrett said that he gets compliments for things he thought everybody did. He was surprised that business clients found Garrett's actions unique.
Adam asked for an example.
"In the military," Garrett explained, "they teach you 'commander's intent.' So, we're going to lay out a plan, I'm going to articulate my commander's intent. What that does is it empowers you the NCO or you the lieutenant. If the conditions we described in the plan don't exist and you need to change the plan, and you can change the plan and still achieve the intent, you can do that. That allows you to be proactive and innovative."
Garrett contrasted that military practice with corporate practice. "You see a lot of people in corporate America that haven't been taught that, they've never had the occasion to learn about it."
But surely good managers understand and practice something similar to commander's intent, right?
Wrong. Garrett says, "Even if they're a really sharp individual who's a manager, they don't know how to articulate it and train it in other people."
Civilian America substitutes control and conformity for leadership and accountability. (And not just in business.)
General Patton said something like it before WWII:
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
Leaders Share a Vision
Leadership requires a vision, but do business schools have a vocabulary, a curriculum, for leadership and vision? Or do we try to compensate for leadership by concentrating decisions into very few hands and imposing rules and processes that discourage or thwart ingenuity and innovation?
Real leadership that employs tactics like commander's intent makes the organization anti-fragile. It empowers people to own their own lives. And it instills in people the skills and resilience to survive in the absence of control authority.
For centuries, one of the most effective but underhanded military tactics was to target officers. Killing an officer or two would leave the men lost and confused.
The United States military overcame that tactic through the concept of commander's intent. The commander laid out his intent, his vision, before the campaign. Every person in the unit understood his role, the mission, and the boundaries. If the commander died, his intent lived on inside every man in the unit so that the battle continued right down to the last man.
My experience in 20 years in the private sector as an employee or consultant to dozens of large companies tells me that few business leaders can articulate their intent because they lack a vision of what the business will look like if the intent is realized. It's the blind leading the blind. (There are some remarkable exceptions, but these stand out because they are so rare.)
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Perhaps It's Time for Service
Garrett also pointed out that 99 percent of Americans never served in the military. Which means 99 percent of Americans have no vision, no intent, and no latitude to decide, improvise, and innovate. We are becoming a nation of parts in a machine, each part useless without some outside force operating us. Not unlike the species "homo sovieticus" Mikhail Heller defined in his book Cogs In The Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man.
Or Tocqueville's vision of a future America:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Are we there? Dear God, have we become homo sovietici?
If not, we're close.
Send In the World War II Guys
My old boss, a great guy who spent a few years in the Army during Vietnam, described the changes he saw in business from 1975 to today.
"Back then, you'd go to one of these guys with an idea. He'd ask, 'so you think it'll work?' You'd say, 'It looks like it.' He'd say, 'we better try it then.' And that was it! If it worked, great. If not, we'd try something else."
I asked him when business changed from that to the endless hamster wheel of committees, arguments, doubts, and watering down until the window of opportunity closes and no decision is required, "overcome by events," as we said in the service.
"It was when the World War II guys retired. They knew how to make a decision and leave people alone to execute it."
Some people scoff at the idea of universal service. They say universal service will produce a nation of mindless robots who do only what they're told by authority.
My experience, and the experience of Jordan Garrett and my old boss, says the naysayers are dead wrong. A large majority of the 99 percent who never served are already mindless robots, "a flock of timid and industrious animals."
The only prescription I see is a new generation of the World War II guys. In the meantime, managers can live by Patton's simple rule: tell them what to do, what the finished state looks like, and be amazed by their ingenuity.
For the rest of us, start working on that vision. There's a worthy goal for 2016, right?