Rigid, Command-and-Control Leadership? I Don’t Think So!

Some people may say that military service men and women have a difficult time adjusting to the “real” world. They argue that the armed forces breed people who only follow orders and who are dependent on rules and structure. They believe, therefore, that those who transition out of the military are rigid, inflexible, and can’t break the “command and control” leadership style. Let’s get to the bottom of this common myth. Most importantly, the military cannot function in battle unless those under a leader’s command follow orders accurately and efficiently (given that those orders are lawful and ethical). This does not mean that those who follow a leader are without initiative or resourcefulness. Nor does this mean that the leader is inflexible or just barks orders to a mindless group of people in camouflage. On the contrary, most situations demand a leadership style that empowers, motivates, and relies on the independent thought of the individuals being led. A 1998 article written by U.S. Army Colonel Lloyd Mathews in the Military Review reveals that traditional military leadership ideals require that “leaders must always respect the innate human dignity of each subordinate. Leaders must recognize the status of US service members as thinking individuals rather than mindless automatons, giving them opportunity wherever feasible to exercise initiative, shoulder responsibility and employ their native ingenuity in accomplishing assigned tasks.” Military leaders are taught from the beginning of their training program to respect those under their charge. And the general content of recent training sessions in leadership courses like TQM or Covey’s “Seven Habits…” are not anything new. In fact, these ideals and values date back many years. For example, on August 11, 1879, Major General John M. Schofield delivered a speech to a group of West Point cadets suggesting, “that to gain respect and willing obedience from US servicemen, the leader must reciprocate that respect in his manner of delivering orders.” <*SPONSORMESSAGE*> For myself, these were the exact ideals I was taught in my 10+ years in the service; and now that I’ve been out of the military for a number of years, these principles serve as the bedrock of my leadership style in the civilian world. And after helping to transition countless military leaders into the civilian work world, I can say that the most progressive companies seek and value the principles lived out by our service men and women. In fact, many companies teach their supervisors and managers much of what military leaders have already learned and utilized in their military career. This is definitely not command-and-control. Conversely, there are certainly examples from the military ranks of rigid, structured ways of thinking and behavior?this cannot be denied. But one must admit that these sorts of behaviors show up everywhere in society…not just the military. Sure, transitioning military personnel sometimes have a difficult time with the many acronyms, jargon, and the “yes, sir” or “no, sir” responses. But these adjustments are minor and of little significance. Even so, the often-perpetuated and over-generalized “rigid, inflexible, command-and-control” stereotype has no basis for the military population overall. Military leaders are leaders. Period. For companies who want to hire leaders, they need people who can engage the hearts and minds of those they lead. These skills and character traits are imperative for so many reasons including higher productivity and reduced turnover, to name a few. The bottom line is that military leaders make great managers and supervisors. They are good people. References:


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Bill Gaul (bgaul@destinygrp.com) is President and CEO of The Destiny Group, an Internet-based recruiting tool that utilizes the latest patent-pending technology (including audio/visual) for organizations to use to source men and women departing the military services. Endorsed by all of the U.S. Service Academy Alumni Associations, and three times selected as one of the "50 BEST" by CareerXRoads, this online system is the easiest and lowest cost method to reach transitioning military worldwide, without a per-head fee.

Bill's articles are Copyright 2001, The Destiny Group.


1 Comment on “Rigid, Command-and-Control Leadership? I Don’t Think So!

  1. Nobody has ever commented on this article, but I’ll take a shot.

    I work with several veterans who left the services as enlisted soldiers and officers. Largely, it’s difficult to tell they even were in the military unless they had told me or I saw a tattoo. In the two cases I had experienced where the managers prided themselves on their military background, they had command-and-control thinking and seemed adept at getting promotions for themselves and their cronies rather than the interests of the company or other employees at large. One now runs a sweatshop and the other has stayed on with the company as it slowly winds down from receivership and shutdown (and last I heard, he also runs it like a sweatshop where employee benefits have tanked.)

    Having read two management books from Naval officers (one of Turn this Ship Around and the other It’s Your Ship), the authors themselves went on to explain that they were from command and control backgrounds where intellectual initiative was lacking along the entire chain of command and, like a poorly run business, turnover was high. Young professionals rarely made a career of the military but used it as a springboard to get a better education before moving onto civilian life. Both authors didn’t take it entirely upon themselves to come up with a more silicon valley approach but rather had the support of their commanding officers who backed them up against the opposition from other commanders who wanted the old way of doing things or even their own crew implying that command-and-control remains the norm rather than the exception in the armed forces.

    Working in civilian life, the innovations embraced by the captains of these ships weren’t new to me such as allowing educated workers to do their job and report what they were doing as compared to asking permission for everything. This is how things normally work in civilian life except for banks.

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