Learning From The Frontline by Lieutenant General Andrew Graham

I have enjoyed recently sessions with the MBA students at Cambridge Judge Business School at Cambridge University examining the relevance and applicability of military leadership practice and command for business, especially in demanding times.  Those sessions persuaded me that if the principle of  “do what you always did and you get what you always got” holds true (and it surely does), there is a risk of truly strategic negative consequences if there is not a significant adjustment to how politicians and business people think about and tackle the issues facing them and us.

Although I have been a soldier for 36 years, my contention is not that adopting military or frontline, practice is a silver bullet. However, it may be relevant in an era when the political, commercial, economic, and security/defense environment is so fast-moving, complex, multi-faceted, and unpredictable that it requires fly-by-wire decision-making, direction, and control from those charged with leading their organizations to succeed. My proposition is that since the notion, principles, and practice of command, together with an approach to being prepared to be surprised, are being tested daily on the front line, some of the ideas may be relevant for business and businesspeople to ponder.



The notion of command is unfamiliar territory for most in business and civil life yet is intrinsic to the military profession. Command is not about shouting orders, telling people what to do and leaving them to it. Command both encompasses and adds an extra dimension to the trinity of leadership, management, and technical/professional competence and expertise.

At whatever level of responsibility from section to Army, and also whether on or off the frontline, at home or abroad, every commander has three responsibilities: to make decisions, to take responsibility for the execution of those decisions, and to lead those around him (and by extension the organization he/she commands) to achieve the outcomes stated in those decisions.

Effective command decisions set a direction of travel for the organization and thus instill clarity of focus, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of shared enterprise. The British military decision-making mechanism ensures that all relevant factors are evaluated in the creation of the operational plan; that intent, priorities, and unity of purpose are communicated through the organization; and that value, in the form of detail, is added at the appropriate level. The process demands the involvement of the commander at every stage and derives its effectiveness from the interaction between the commander, who is the decision-maker, and the experts and specialist branches of the staff and subordinates.

To be effective, decisions must be relevant to the situation.  In his autobiographical account of the World War II Burma Campaign, then-General Bill Slim recounts taking command of the Burma Corps shortly after the defeat on the Sittang River and with the fall of Rangoon to the Japanese imminent. His summary of the shortcomings of his new command relative to its ability to prevail in the environment and against the enemy is concise, acute, factual, and honest. It would have made difficult listening/reading for his superiors, his immediate staff, and his subordinates. Slim knew, as all experienced soldiers, the AAA-rated value of a clear, perceptive, high level but simple and unvarnished analysis of the situation in which he found himself — the real situation both internal and external, and not a rose-tinted picture of the situation as he might have hoped, planned, intended, or wished it to be. Without that analysis the start-point for effective planning would have been flawed, and the chances of balancing the available means (men, materiel, potential allies, other resources) with the achievement of the intended outcome (defeating the Japanese in Burma) through the ingenious manipulation of the ways (tactics, optimizing resupply, alliances, raising morale, etc) would be at best diminished, and at worst, still-born.

So much for the deliberate decisions which set the organization on course. The precept that no plan survives first contact with an enemy is well known and is borne out every day in Afghanistan, where the enemy has a vote and can pick the time and place to exercise it. A preeminent characteristic of the political, security, business and battle spaces of the 21st Century is that surprise is inevitable. The master question for any business or military leader at any level to answer is, “How prepared am I and the organization/team for which I am responsible to respond to a surprise rather than merely to react?”

Both response and reaction are instinctive and reflexive, but while reaction is primarily about speed of movement, with little thought to immediate consequence, responding implies a degree of forward thinking and planning for contingencies and of preparation and rehearsal of possible responses. The ability to respond in the least worst fashion will be enhanced by ensuring a degree of detachment in the leader who needs to be freed from the minutiae of the conduct of the operation or work in hand to think, scan, focus, and be prepared to act. And generating an effective, relevant, response depends on collective activity in terms of the constant gathering, communication, and evaluation of relevant information on the situation and circumstances which are in front of you, on support and engagement from the higher headquarters, and the flanking and supporting organizations to increase the chances of mission success and mitigate or even forewarn of the possible setback caused a nasty surprise.

Taking responsibility for decisions is more than merely taking the rap if things go wrong, or pocketing the bonus/promotion/medals when things go right.  Responsibility implies personal commitment, engagement, and energetic, supportive but nonintrusive interest in the execution of each decision. The most successful battlefield commanders take personal responsibility for issuing clear intent and direction (what is to be achieved), are comfortable with delegation, have spent time developing subordinates and building trust and confidence through the organization, and are active in doing everything possible to ensure the success of those subordinates, and thus of the organization.

The third element of command is that of leading those around you to deliver the decisions once taken. The more senior or complex the level of authority and responsibility, the more diverse the number of those around you becomes, including board members, branch heads, external influencers, the media, higher headquarters, flanking formations, coalition and other partners, and the staff. This is where the personality and leadership qualities of the individual comes to the fore. Generating and sustaining the capability of an effective staff is a key command responsibility, and managing, i.e., leading all stakeholders to assist the achievement of the decisions once taken is a command responsibility no less important than taking the decision in the first place.

In conclusion, the characteristics of the 21st century battlefield — certainty of uncertainty, inevitability of surprise, ruthless and imaginative competitors, international enterprises, and the changing nature/rules of the competition — are planted squarely in the business space. Command, which focuses on the making of decisions and exercising the responsibility for seeing them through, and which is intrinsic to the military profession, is being tested on the frontline. Capitalizing on the personal and institutional experience of those who practice in an arena where there really are no prizes for coming second, may offer some pointers, ideas and expertise of which business could make considered but gainful use.

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