Military Leadership and Corporate Business Leadership – Similarities and Differences

By Lee Ellis

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During Lee’s speaking tour in Brazil training hundreds of business owners and leaders about honorable leadership lessons, he was asked the following questions from the local media. Special thanks to Diário de Pernambuco Newspaper.

Question – What is the main similarity between the battlefield and the corporate world? What lessons of the battlefield can be transferred to the corporate world?

Lee – “In the battlefield and corporate world, you have to solve problems and overcome challenges. Likewise, both situations have competitors who are trying to beat them, so both require information, strategies, plans, and good execution to win. The difference is the context and the fact that one is life and death of humans and the other is life and death of the company; but the idea of war is much more serious and so the two must never be confused. Of course these are significant differences, but there are certainly many correlations.

Mainly, you have a mission and people and obstacles to overcome. Both situations require leaders to influence their people to achieve results and meet their goals. In the end, that’s what leadership has to do in civilian life or in the military.”

Question – Is there any difference between the leadership of a general in war and the one of a leading business executive? Are the techniques used to motivate a soldier similar to the ones to motivate an employer?

Lee – “Yes there are some differences. For one, the pressure of accountability is different—at least on the surface. Shareholders, the markets, analysts and many outside people have their eyes on the company and its performance on a daily, continuous basis. Generals have less oversight and are trusted more to execute their assignments. They have spent their entire lives preparing for their battles and of course war is so much more unpredictable than business.”

Question – The military are often associated with rigid hierarchy models with low or no space for the participation of subordinates in decision-making. However, companies nowadays tend to open more space for collective participation, especially due to the advent of the Y Generation. With that in mind, what lessons can the military teach companies?

Lee – “Traditionally, the military has been very hierarchical, but that is changing.  Leaders recognize that the person on the spot often has better information and is in a better position to judge next steps. Also, in the advent of the all–volunteer force in US Forces has meant much more educated and better screened troops. They are more capable than ever before and even though they are very hierarchical during wartime, they operate quite flat. The U.S. military tends to operate by centralized control and decentralized execution.

The one thing the modern thinking companies need to learn from the military is the principle of accountability. You must have one person in charge and responsible, or you really have no one responsible. Responsibility is one of the three legs of the stool of accountability. Without responsibility, you can’t really hold someone accountable and at the end of the day. Someone must be accountable and have ownership for successful execution.”

Question – How did the experience in captivity influence your formation as a leader?

Lee – “In the POW camps our leaders suffered first and most often and the most torture and hardship. They were committed to doing their duty in spite of the heavy costs. They leaned into their doubts and fears to do the right thing and that was a powerful example. We wanted to be like them, so they raised our level of courage and commitment by their example. My goal became to do the right thing regardless of my fears or the risks associated with the situation. That was the most important influence on me and that helped me catch up with my peers who had gained a six year advantage in leadership experience on me while I was away.

Of course there were many other areas, too. For example, I saw that even the strongest leaders usually got input from their people before making decisions. Also, they did not hesitate to consult with other leaders when they had doubts about their ability to be objective in those very difficult situations.”

Question – You’ve mentioned in Leading with Honor that one of the factors that helped you survive the captivity for some many years was the motivation of all commanders in being with you. Could you describe the captivity ambient and comment on how the commanders were able to motivate the troops held captive? 

Lee – “There was a war in the camps as the enemy tried to isolate us, break our resistance, remove our leaders and ultimately get us to join them in making anti-war propaganda. For the first three years I was there (first five years for many of the older leaders), there was torture going on somewhere in the camps. The food was poor and there was no medical care. We were hot in summer and cold in winter. We were locked in dark cells that were like medieval dungeons. Yet we stayed positive and worked as a team.

Our leaders had to lead covertly, but because of our resistance, our captors knew they were leading and so they would pull them out and break them. But the break was always temporary, as they bounced back to resist and lead again. Their leadership will go down in history as one of the greatest examples of courageous servant leadership the world has ever seen. That’s why I wrote the book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton—to tell that story and show how the lessons we learned there could help every business and every family for that matter.”

Question – You’ve also mentioned in leading with Honor the role that values such as honor and courage play in leadership. However, such values do not have such impact on current society as before. How can companies manage to recover them in order to improve management tools?

Lee – “It’s mainly by example and walking the talk. People are watching the leaders, and a good leader can be a powerful influencer. I believe people are looking, desperately wanting to see honorable leaders. Honorable leaders are secure in themselves; and because they have good values and courage, they can do the right thing even when it’s hard and when they suffer for it.”

Question – In developing countries such as Brazil, India, and Russia, corruption and dishonesty are unfortunately often present in the private, public and civilian spheres. Is it possible to have ethics and work normally in companies operating in such places?

Lee – “I would think it would be much more difficult, but it’s still possible. It’s doing the hard thing, and it will be painful and cause suffering.  But if enough honest people band together and encourage and support each other, I think it’s possible. And this small group could change the culture of the country over time. We need courageous leaders with character and integrity to stand up and lead this movement. In the end, everyone will be blessed.”

Question – Broadly speaking, what are the main challenges companies face in the field of people management?

Lee – “It is almost always finding a balance between mission and people (or you call it results and relationships). You have to achieve results to accomplish the mission, but also have to take care of the people and demonstrate that you care about them or you will only be able to lead by fear. Leading by fear is the worst kind of leadership because it denies our basic needs for safety and it is very inefficient.

Ultimately if people have a choice, they will leave a hostile workplace and the good people will leave first. So finding a balance of doing both results and relationships is important. Ironically by personality, 80% of all people are tilted toward one or the other so they are good at one and not naturally good at the other. So they have to learn to do some skills in the one that isn’t natural for them. Even those who are somewhat balanced will normally go to Results under stress because that gets highlighted and rewarded first and most often in the company.”

Question – Does any of the 14 leadership principles you propose stand out?

Lee – “Leaders must have the courage to do the right thing. Courage undergirds a number of other attributes like being authentic, having integrity and strong character, and resilience. But courage is the key; for without it, you will fail at the point of greatest need. One of my leaders told me once, ‘Lee, anyone can steer the ship through the calm waters; the real captains take it through the storms.’ He was so right; facing the stormy seas of leadership takes courage, competence and confidence. They are all important, but without courage, it won’t happen consistently.

Most leaders never have to work in life and death scenarios every day, but there are painful consequences for all leaders when making bad decisions in the context of their work. Without practical examples and guiding principles for being a great leader, you’re like a ship without a rudder. For me, the guiding principle is leaning into the pain of our fears to do what we know is right. That always wins in the long run.”

Question – What is the main message you will transmit in your talk next week in Recife?  

Lee – “Great leaders stand for strong values and build a strong culture around them. The three critical components of leadership are Character, Competence, and Courage –

  • Character is the foundation.
  • Competence is about your skills of leadership and execution.
  • Courage is energy that keeps you doing the right thing, even when it’s feels scary or difficult.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom on this topic. How do you compare the leadership styles and strategies between the military culture and corporate business culture?

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Results vs. Relationships – Finding Your Balance on the Leadership Seesaw

Wounded Warriors® Feature – “Lessons from Vietnam for Today’s Warrior”

2 Comments on “Military Leadership and Corporate Business Leadership – Similarities and Differences

Terence Choo
October 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Great article and sharing. Thank you for sharing this. I really like many of the simple pillars of leadership you wrote about here.

Lee Ellis
October 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for your comments, Terence. As we all know, leadership lessons are generally simple to understand but difficult to live and execute. Best wishes to you in your growth as a leader!


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