The Best Lessons from the US Military for Organizations

By Chad Storlie:

The US Military loves to learn.  I remember as a young 2nd Lieutenant, during a particularly snowy January, wandering around some hills in South Korea with a well-worn copy of T.R. Fehrenach’s This Kind of War trying to find old positions from the Korean War to further my knowledge of being an Infantry officer.  Like so many before me, I was another student of the military profession, and I knew that to master my new profession, I needed to learn.  Today in all professions, military, medicine, business, and government, we all seek to learn, appreciate, understand, and improve so we can deliver higher levels of performance.

The US Military as in institution places learning, the process to understand and to incorporate new pieces of information to improve military operational performance, as a central tenant for both individuals and organizations.  The US Military readily excels at this as an institution in both formal and informal educational structures.  Indeed, it is difficult to NOT find a US Military school that seeks to improve warfighting.  However, as an institution, the US Military rarely tries to understand and to discover what should individuals and organizations seek to learn from the US Military?

In the US Military’s quest to learn more from other organizations and military operations, the US Military often fails to see what makes itself distinctive both in terms of the uniqueness of individual soldier professional attributes and institutional performance.  A keen understanding of the US Military’s strengths is central to ensuring that we preserve and improve what the US Military does best.

The purpose of this article is to highlight what makes the US Military unique and valued to organizations in business, education, government and the non-profit arena to name only a few.  As soldiers past and present, we need to appreciate, protect, and enable those activities that make us great and unique as both individuals and as an institution.

The US Military Trains All Personnel Through Their Entire Career

Training for individuals new to an organization, in both business and the military, is not new or unique.  Ask any new employee or a new soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine and they will regal you with their training schedule, new regulations, and the like.  The uniqueness of the US Military really begins to appear about 4 years into a military person’s career when then move from a soldier to a Non-Commissioned Officer.

As an NCO, they are now expected to both manage and lead a small group and they have both formal schools and informal professional development.  In most businesses, employees moves from individual contributor to a management role without any dedicated formal leadership or management training.  Literally, one day I lead myself and the next I lead a team.  Gallup, in a study that appeared in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Good Managers Are So Rare,” found that seven of ten new managers are unprepared for their new roles.  Gallup and the US Military knows that leaders need to be developed and grown – leaders just do not happen.

Additionally, US Military leaders train throughout their career.  Ask a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) about when their last training session occurred and you could get an answer that was years or decades ago.  Ask a General Officer or a Flag Officer from any service the same question, and their last training was most likely months ago.  Training in the US Military is both the foundation for excellence and the foundation for continued excellence – this is what makes the US Military special.

The Combination of Competitive Intelligence Paired with Operational Effect and Assessment Drives All Levels of US Military Operations

Most business organization understand their competition to varying degrees and varying degrees of consistency over time.  For cell phone handset manufacturers, think of Apple and Samsung, they understand their competitors hand set in terms of memory, camera, display size, and the like to an incredible degree of detail.  However, all companies no matter their degree of competitive awareness can learn to follow and to emulate the US Military’s intelligence and operational pairing.

In the US Military, intelligence combined with the nation’s strategic goals and the Commander’s Intent drive operations and support functions.  The US Military is an organization where the fulfillment of goals is pared to a deep understanding of the enemy (the competition) and then a dynamic plan is created and adapted to ensure goals are met against what the enemy can counter.  Organizations usually determine their strategy based on the past, what they have already developed, and then glance at what the competition is doing.  This pairing of the Intelligence-Operations concept is unique to the US Military compared to non-military organizations – this is what makes the US Military special and such a valuable lesson for other organizations.

Commander’s Intent Defines the Elements of Victory in Dynamic, Chaotic Environments

The theory of Commander’s Intent is to provide additional command guidance in order to accomplish the mission in dynamic, changing environments.  This concept that allows for and encourages initiative when a plan changes or needs to be adapted is a cornerstone of US Military doctrine.  Indeed, the concept of defining what success is and what success looks like to allow for individual initiative so a plan can be adapted and then returned to once conditions change is extraordinarily powerful. During the challenges the US automobile manufacturers experienced throughout the past several decades, a key challenge senior leaders had was to get employees to quickly understand and adapt to competitive and engineering challenges.

Central to Commander’s Intent is Boyd’s OODA loop (Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action) that allows for the situational understanding so military personnel can take effective action utilizing commander’s intent.  The US automobile manufacturer leadership struggled with both developing initiative and creating rapid situational awareness.  The ability of the US Military to define success to encourage and allow for initiative when the plan must be adapted to create success is powerful – this is what makes the US Military special.

The US Military is A Force That Seeks to Constantly Improve Its Core Functional Performance

The US Military consistently trains individuals, leaders, and units to accomplish missions that are ever more difficult.  The focus is on constant development and improvement of core functions that support the effective accomplishment of the US Military’s missions.  Marksmanship, the ability to shoot accurately is a core US Military function that has been transformed with new technology, training, and combat tested principles over the last decade. Next time you are waiting to order at a busy restaurant, ask yourself when was the last time that the food ordering process was transformed.  Could you place electronic tablets at tables to allow for ordering?  Could you pre-order your food?  The point is to not be angry with the wait staff, they are doing their best with a bad process, and the point to recognize is that the US Military seeks constantly to challenge, develop, test, and improve core functions that are vital to its performance.

Finally, the core measures of performance do not change.  If the new marksmanship procedures do not allow me to hit the target faster and with greater accuracy, then we go back to the drawing board.  The constant improvement of core functions or performance is a standard not an exception – this is what makes the US Military special.

The US Military is a Transformational Organization

The ability of the US Military to question and transform its behavior through the AAR process, professional publications, and leader development really does not have a peer in business, government, or any other organization.  In the US Military, once an operation of any size is completed both in training and in combat, the entire organization pauses in a formal process to ask, “How did we do and can we do better?”  Additionally, publications, blog sites, and formal education course consistently ask students, retirees, and serving US Military members how can we understand where we have been, where do we need to go, and how do we need to change to accomplish this.

The pro-counterinsurgency and anti-counterinsurgency discussion inside the US Military while it was involved in Iraq and Afghanistan was extraordinary because it showed an institution trying to better adapt and understand how to fight while it was fighting.  We can discuss if the conversation was fast enough, sufficient, or if it could have done more, but the US Military had the conversation.  During IBM’s challenges in the 1990’s as it struggled to adapt to the power of Microsoft and the Personal Computer (PC), there was a startling lack of internal discussion on what needed to be done.  For the US Military, the internal and external challenges of what and how we need to be as a force is extraordinary – this is what makes the US Military special.

The Lessons of The US Military Translate Directly & Successfully To Other Organizations

The US Military is unique through its training, improvement in core functions, combining intelligence that drives operations, employing commander’s intent to drive initiative, and understanding that nothing is static and transformation is necessary, not an if.  When we look at the US Military’s embrace of these core concepts over time, we see an Army that is unique as an institution not just across the United States, but also across the world.  Additionally, for the US Military to truly embrace the concepts that make it great, we need to understand that internal challenge, discussions, and dissent are the norms of any successful organization.

Business trains individuals at a low level, and does not train and test organizations or senior leaders.  Businesses have routine operations that are static, but do not use a dynamic external assessment process paired with the CEO’s goals and close observation of the competition to change their behavior.  Finally, most businesses do not value internal questioning of mistakes or how the organization needs to adapt where the US Military values it at all levels.  Challenging the status quo is what allowed Apple, Google, GE and others to become and remain great – the US Military has done this for decades.  Organizations can and should learn from the Us Military in their training, operations, leader development and transformation efforts.  We also need to remember to cherish, protect, and improve the attributes that make us great.

Chad Storlie is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Lieutenant Colonel with 20-plus years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units.  He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is author of two books: “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University. Follow Chad @Combattocorp.

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Chad Storlie
Chad Storlie is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Lieutenant Colonel with 20-plus years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is author of two books: "Combat Leader to Corporate Leader" and "Battlefield to Business Success." Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University. Follow Chad @Combattocorp.

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