Military leaders are shaped by the nature of the conflicts they face. When they become business leaders, as they often do, their leadership styles reflect the times in which they served. I was reminded of this when I spoke recently with Chris Fussell, the managing director of a consultancy called the McChrystal Leadership Institute.
Until recently, the prevailing view of optimal business leadership has been a “top-down” approach. Top-down business leadership centralizes decision making and requires concerted actions by subordinates who are evaluated by how well they perform against strictly defined duties and goals.
The top-down approach has been strongly influenced by military experience. Militaries everywhere, including the U.S. military, have traditionally followed a top-down model. The types of wars they fought (or prepared to fight) required highly orchestrated activities of tens or hundreds of thousands of people on a battle front. It also required managing highly complex logistical chains, to support the movement of these large armies.
For this reason, 2oth century experience was that when military leaders entered the business arena, their skills were a good match for prevailing conditions. At that time, the world economy was dominated by large companies making and selling complex indusrial products that required strict manufacturing conformity. Success meant achieving economies of scale that would keep costs down and sales high.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, however, the business world was rapidly and irreversibly changing. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and others were disrupting existing business models. Companies based on new technologies in transportation, biotechnology and energy were challenging existing market leaders. Meanwhile, instantaneous communication was changing how people coordinated and interacted around the world. Success in business now required agility. Top-down leadership was often too slow to respond to rapidly changing market conditions.
While this was occurring in the private sector, people like Fussell were coming of age as military leaders. They realized that the trends that were changing business were also prevalent in warfare. Instantaneous communications and the broad availability of technology had created adversaries that used small coordinated groups to act quickly. It was no longer sufficient for the military to prepare to fight wars along a battle front. These adversaries would never fight that way.
What was required were “servant leaders,” people who Fussell describes as having the skills to create an organization that combines strategic oversight with small group agility. Servant leaders provide transparency to subordinates. They don’t prescribe in granular detail the “how” to execute strategic vision, but fully express the “why.”
Subordinates are given autonomy to make rapid decisions in the moment, if necessary, to achieve the strategic goals of leadership. But it is not complete autonomy. Servant leaders require accountability against their expressed goals. This ensures that key values such as ethics and compliance with legal and other norms are honored and that the overall strategic objectives articulated by the leader are followed.
For Fussell, the key to servant leadership is that it is “not enough to talk about it. You have to create a process that drives communication with enough speed and transparency.” This allows groups to form and operate with autonomy, but within a structure of accountability. You get people to work together not by telling, but by showing.
Now an organizational expert helping businesses grow, Fussell regularly sees that the skills he and his peers gained through military service have broad application in today’s rapidly changing economy. He has helped many businesses use servant leadership to make a significant difference.
And in the process, he follows in the footsteps of so many prior military leaders who successfully applied their leadership lessons to business.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.