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“Business is war,” Kevin O’Leary, the fearsome Dragons’ Den dragon, likes to say. It’s a familiar analogy. We manage crises in impromptu “war rooms” and applaud star performers for “killing it.” I’m not the only veteran to roll their eyes at the borrowed bravado.
But can war really teach leaders anything about business? And — at a time when many businesses are fighting for their proverbial lives — are battlefield lessons actually relevant?
Since leaving the U.S. Army in 2008 as a captain, I’ve served on a successful presidential campaign, debated national security in the White House Situation Room, led startups in Silicon Valley and counseled Fortune 500 CEOs through leadership crises. I’ve also had time to reflect on what I learned about leadership during my eight years in the infantry. That service included a tour of duty with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. How many of the lessons I put in my rucksack, to use Army lingo, translate from the field to the boardroom?
Looking back, I’ve concluded that many battlefield lessons are irrelevant or counterproductive to business. For example, no one should risk an employee’s life for the sake of a mission. I’m wary of trivializing my time in uniform by making it an expedient metaphor for the corporate world.
But there are some leadership lessons I carried back to business life that may be more important today than ever. For leaders grappling right now with economic uncertainty, geopolitical instability and AI-accelerated transformation — where the stakes are often exceedingly high — here are five learnings that may be applicable.
1. Your heart isn’t really with the mission. It’s with the team.
At the risk of being blunt, I’d like to share something. In Afghanistan, I can’t recall a single firefight or patrol where I thought about protecting people back home from would-be terrorists. For me and my fellow soldiers, that wasn’t the motivation. We were fighting — and willing to die — for each other.
In the business world, I’ve found it’s critical to remember that real motivation starts with your immediate team rather than some grandiose mantra or mission statement. That mindset is more common at startups, where the founders are involved and where the culture, for better or for worse, takes root among a small group.
But even the most soulless corporation needs to find ways to build a team culture and bonds among employees at the ground level. If a leader wants people to help their teammates exceed expectations — whether it’s overtime or sales quotas — those team members must feel strongly connected. A shared mission and lived values help, but it’s the relationships built up day by day that matter most.
2. Ruthlessly prioritize impact
One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a West Point cadet was “priority of work.” When a platoon reaches a patrol base where it will spend the night, the leader must communicate the order of tasks for setting up and securing camp: dig foxholes, establish a perimeter, eat, clean weapons and so on. You work through those priorities in order, knowing you probably won’t finish. Besides setting priorities, the leader should constantly revisit them to ensure they’re the right ones, given the mission and evolving objectives.
Former International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield took a similar approach in orbit. His way to prioritize: “What’s the next thing that’s going to kill me?”
All of this seems especially salient in today’s business context, where the pace of change keeps accelerating. Corporate concerns around technologies like blockchain have given way to mania about AI, seemingly overnight. Companies everywhere have been forced into reactive mode, racing to keep up. For leaders, the key is setting priorities and continually reinterrogating them in the light of new information. Ultimately, it’s all about impact management, not time management.
3. Harness the power of healthy paranoia
At Ranger School in the mountains of western Georgia, instructor Gunny Oakes made us practice setting an ambush over and over again. Then we’d do it blindfolded. It felt like torture, but when I had to conduct a real ambush in Afghanistan — in unfamiliar mountains, with the real enemy and my own platoon — I was grateful for that pre-9/11 preparation. Like it said on the wall of our makeshift gym, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”
Generally speaking, companies don’t do enough scenario planning and simulation exercises. For businesses with ties to Russia and Ukraine, last year’s invasion drove home the importance of such war games. Drawing on that lesson, every company that has employees, operations, customers or supply chains in a geopolitical hotspot should be planning for the worst.
No simulation is foolproof or will ever precisely mirror the real world, but that isn’t the point. The exercise usually flushes out some missing element of planning — or, at the very least, builds relationships between people who may have to make decisions and collaborate under pressure. As Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
4. Coordination across silos is an existential challenge — treat it like one
The real test of a military leader is their ability to coordinate multiple stakeholders in pursuit of a singular goal. In fact, modern warfare hinges on the concept of combined arms, where a commander must be able to direct attacks on the ground and from the air, involving artillery, aircraft and troop movements. To do so, they need a common language that all the players understand.
Effective business leaders know that one of the keys to managing an organization is breaking down silos between departments. This may sound rudimentary, but even (or especially) in a world of Slack, Zoom and instant messaging, it’s an existential challenge at many companies. Poor communication costs U.S. businesses about $12,500 per employee each year, with combined losses estimated at a staggering $1.2 trillion, according to a recent survey.
To change that, business leaders would do well to learn from their military counterparts. Communicating in a military setting, which is inherently volatile, complex and ambiguous, has broad application elsewhere, writes retired Brigadier Gen. Thomas A. Kolditz. “Three overarching characteristics of internal communication in dangerous contexts hold true for all organizations: consistent core messages, individualized concern, and the primacy of honesty and integrity.” Ultimately, there’s no real shortcut or hack. Only by prioritizing and driving constant communication across teams can these silos be broken down.
5. True leadership is about giving direction, not commands
There’s a myth that military officers rely almost exclusively on command and control, issuing orders that must be followed. That isn’t how things actually work on the battlefield. One of the biggest military innovations, pioneered by Germany in the 19th century, was mission-type orders. The commander sets the mission — for example, to block the enemy from flanking the west side of the city. Frontline leaders are then given latitude to respond to changing conditions without requesting new orders via the chain of command. The upside is that they’re free to make their own decisions in the fog of war.
U.S. Army officers have that autonomy. “Never tell people how to do things,” Gen. George Patton said. “Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
The parallel in corporate life? I’ve seen time and time again how effective leaders give business units direction and the right incentives. Then, they get out of the way. Micromanaging teams not only robs them of ingenuity, it deprives them of the chance to grow and work better as an organization. Yes, there are the famous outliers — Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Elon Musk — but a better role model is Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who gave his team great latitude to help realize the company’s vision.
For business leaders and the people under their command, are these kinds of military comparisons a bridge too far (ironically, a metaphor borrowed from the failed Allied airborne landings in Holland)? No, I’d argue. In what can be a matter of survival, many companies find themselves on uncertain terrain in a rapidly changing world, with competitive and other threats on all sides. Whatever the battle is, I hope these lessons earn a place in your rucksack.