Lessons from the Generals: Act Resolutely in the Chaos of Crisis (2023)

In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity.
– Sun Tse


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the world todayit can make us feel like we are living under occupation. The coronavirus pandemic has imposed lockdowns on many communities, taking away our freedom of movement and association. It threatens our lives and destroys our economies. In these warlike conditions, the front quickly recedes.Securing our lives to secure our livelihoods. These are two massive fronts that are evolving at an exponential rate, and no one is more experienced in responding to such conditions than professional military leaders. Accustomed to operating under the fog of uncertainty and intense time pressure, military commanders make countless decisions with disastrous consequences, some tactical to win a battle, others strategic to win a war.

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In times of crisis, courageous leadership and decisive action are of great importance. The military command structure, the management system employed by armed forces in major conflicts, is an explicitly established framework for dealing with problems that pose real danger and are escalating at an enormous and unpredictable rate. Designed over millennia to handle the most demanding emergencies in human history, it's a response system that goes well beyond the crisis response team you probably already have in your organization. The current pandemic, with its unprecedented scale, complexity and severity, requires a unique playbook and new operating models. At the same time, you must anticipate the structural changes this will unleash in many industries, presenting significant challenges and opportunities.

If there is one big lesson from the global response to the COVID-19 outbreak so far, it is that we have been too slow: too slow to prepare for the virus, too slow to respond to its spread, and too slow to detect it. block the implementation. The one exception has been the economic policy response: many countries have approved funds at unprecedented speed to cushion the severe impact of lockdowns on communities and businesses.

Still, the number of problems plaguing businesses today is increasing rapidly as the economic shock spreads. After overwhelming healthcare systems, the pandemic is overwhelming businesses. We are headed for an economic shock bigger than ever since World War II, and business leaders struggling to respond can learn a lot from military generals.

There are three key lessons we can learn from military crisis management:

  • Amilitary command structureit can help eliminate confusion and enable faster and better decision making in your organization.
  • Manage at the same timeacross all time horizonsbased on an integratedStrategic Crisis Action Planit is essential to reduce chaos and speed up decisions.
  • Ancientearly warit can help keep your organization focused, motivated, and improve your chances of achieving goals.

Many business leaders have already taken decisive steps to respond quickly and imaginatively to the current crisis. Now they are increasingly turning their attention to planning not only for the days ahead, but also for a prolonged period of uncertainty, and potentially a very different world, in the wake of COVID-19. We interviewed several generals on the subject and learned that the practices and mindsets of military organizations can offer valuable clues for all of these time horizons.

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Military Command Structure: Divide and Conquer

Military organizations are obsessed with providing clarity on who does what and who makes what decisions. The reason is simple: in chaotic situations, it's important to focus on what you do best and clearly delineate your areas of responsibility.

Unlike corporations, which tend to assign crisis response to a single war room or management group, a war command brings together multiple teams tasked with different tasks (Figure 1). While the specific names and roles differ between military organizations, they generally cover four areas:

  • Insight team.This team is focused onfind the truthcollecting information, analyzing internal and external conditions and testing hypotheses.
  • Response team.This team is focused ondelivery resultscoordinating urgent activities and executing command orders.
  • Advance planning team.This team is responsible forCreate scenarios and recommend strategies and measures.. It often works in several sub-teams, each tackling a different time frame or challenge. Together with the relevant decision-making groups, these teams facilitate analysis and discussion, and then make decisions that become directives to the operations team.
  • comunication team.This team is focused onprovide timely informationa wide range of external and internal stakeholders in a consistent manner.
Lessons from the Generals: Act Resolutely in the Chaos of Crisis (1)

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Although military organizations are hierarchical in nature, their decision-making structure is very flat. Subordinate commanders always have a direct line to their chains of command, and while they make many decisions themselves, the command structure serves to support the final decision maker with the information needed to act quickly. The commander provides instructions, communicates his intent to the organization, and then relies on subordinates to make correct judgments based on the information available to him. This level of delegation is beyond the usual comfort level of most business leaders, but in a crisis they must be willing to act on the basis of incomplete information. You must also accept that some of the decisions (both yours and those of his subordinates) will be wrong, but that action is less risky than laziness.

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As former Secretary of Defense General James Mattis put it, “operate at the speed of relevance” by fostering simpler approval chains and a greater willingness to adapt quickly. Especially in times of crisis, the type and frequency of reports must be managed in an agile manner. Understanding what information is relevant, to whom, and when (as the facts are constantly changing) is a key factor in winning the battle.

Consequently, the structure of military command teams is modular and scalable. As new problems arise, new teams are formed to focus on solving the problems that arise. For example, each forward planning team is tasked with addressing a specific task or requirement on a single event horizon, e.g. B. How to ensure a continuous supply of equipment, ammunition, fuel, and food in a specific scenario that poses unique logistical challenges. Each team brings together the cross-functional expertise needed to quickly map and assess options, disbanding once the task is complete.

Make no mistake: while this structure provides an effective division of labor and improves clarity of accountability, it is built agile and efficient, with a forceful propensity to act. These teams perform analysis quickly. Spend a significant amount of time in regular, high-quality updates and dialogue with top leaders to build and maintain organizational trust and support a shared understanding of changing conditions.

Integrated planning across time horizons

Napoleon's second military maxim says: "In drawing up a campaign plan it is necessary to anticipate everything [the enemy might do] and be armed with the necessary means to counteract it." Campaign plans can be changed ad infinitum depending on the circumstances.” Some 150 years later, Dwight Eisenhower summed up a similar idea more succinctly: "Plans are useless, but planning is essential."

Dealing with uncertainty, military organizations develop plans across multiple time horizons, separating thought from action. Consider the actions of the US military (Exhibit 2). There is a clear separation between ongoing operations and planning for future ones. While planning teams are assigned ad hoc to support specific tasks, task forces are embedded within the ongoing organization to develop, maintain, and leverage expertise and provide analysis and recommendations on longer-lasting challenges.

Lessons from the Generals: Act Resolutely in the Chaos of Crisis (2)

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On the fly, there is almost no interaction between these teams. Working groups implement actions based on their experience, and planning teams support management with urgent tasks. In future planning and operations, the role of the planning team is to coordinate and draw on the expertise of the working groups in a much more integrated way. US military doctrine further divides the work between short-term and long-term planning.

In our article "Prepare for the next phase of the coronavirus crisisWe provide more detailed guidance on how to structure advance planning efforts in a non-military context. There are different issues at stake within each time horizon, so we propose to organize planning efforts not just in short-term and long-term intervals, but in very specific time frames (Figure 3).

Lessons from the Generals: Act Resolutely in the Chaos of Crisis (3)

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For example, think about the challenges grocery retailers face today. Along with heroic healthcare workers, grocery retail sales force teams provide critical services we can all count on. They work under enormous pressure, at high personal risk, and often for low wages. Keeping employees (and customers) safe, keeping employee morale high, and creatively solving immediate supply and capacity issues can easily be exhausting tasks for retail management, a pressure that will only increase as more employees ( and family members) are affected by the pandemic.

However, grocery retailers must also think a few weeks ahead and use detailed models to understand likely changes in demand and supply chain disruptions, and to beef up temporary workers. They need to consider how lifting the lockdown will affect demand and how they will need to adjust their supply and workforce once life returns to normal.

So there is a longer horizon. Already facing massive disruption from a variety of forces that are likely to accelerate (e-commerce is a prime example), the retail industry will face new challenges. While some grocery retailers are struggling to meet exploding demand today, they must prepare for the possibility that the current crisis will erode their long-term competitive position against major e-commerce rivals. To mitigate that risk (or, in some cases, make the most of the opportunity), they must act boldly to transform their business models and redesign their ecosystems, including through mergers and acquisitions.

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Application of the principles of warfare to corporate governance

by Sun TzuThe Art of War500 v. Cr. a Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon's military maximsand influential Carl von Clausewitzearly war, there are many proven principles that military leaders around the world have internalized. These teachings are critical to leading great organizations in times of chaos and tremendous challenge, and they cover topics that are critical to strategy and leadership today:

  • Strategic principles:
    • Choose and focus on oneGeneral objective. To achieve a goal in a complex situation, you need a goal that is simple and clear enough for everyone to understand. Activities that do not further the primary goal should be stopped to conserve resources.
    • worry aboutResilienceHow is the crisis unfolding? That means balancing the probability of losses against the achievement of critical objectives. It requires managing risk, protecting high-value assets, and focusing resources on achievable goals.
    • hugoffensive action. Such action implies a vigorous and concise approach to seize opportunities.
    • InjectElements of surprise and innovation.. They can allow you to take initiative, which can be a crucial requirement for success. For example, during the current crisis, new ways of thinking (including breaking some rules) can increase the treatment capacity of health care providers and allow companies to get back to work faster or better serve customers who they need it.
    • accept thisfocus on the essentialsmay demand savings elsewhere. It may not require the physical accumulation of resources, but you must muster enough combat prowess to get the job done at critical points and times.
    • save effortto receivethe fight. Managers must prioritize saving resources as they distribute them among different activities and actions.
  • Management principles:
    • worry aboutMoral. In difficult conditions, this is crucial for success. High morale is characterized by steadfastness, courage, confidence, and enduring hope.
    • detainedflexibility. Unleashing the full force of an organization requires a degree of flexibility to encourage people to think creatively and be resourceful. This can be measured by the speed at which individuals act and react, or how quickly a commander seizes the initiative.
    • financially supportcooperation. Team spirit and training are essential to achieve the objectives. Collaboration is based on three interrelated elements: mutual trust and goodwill, a common goal (or goal), and a clear division of responsibilities.

Times of crisis are the deepest occasions for leadership. When the United States entered World War I, former President Theodore Roosevelt asked then-President Woodrow Wilson to allow him to coordinate the American response. Bitterly disappointed at being turned down, Roosevelt missed an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of leadership. “If there is no war, you don't get the great general; If there is no great cause, you don't get a great statesman,” he said. "If Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name."

This is a time to show that business leaders, like great generals, can empower their organizations to come together. It is urgent to start aAdvance Planning TeamStaffed with some of the best employees from companies who have left their day jobs to work closely with top executives, it will enable executives to make timely decisions across multiple planning horizons. As the current crisis unfolds, CEOs have an opportunity to make their organizations more agile and stronger. By adapting the way you work and embracing the principles of military leadership, you can help ensure your legacy of leadership.


Why is military leadership important? ›

Soldiers will follow a good leader anywhere and under any conditions of battle. While many factors decide the outcomes of battles, leadership is often the most important. Military history provides countless examples of battles that were won or lost because of leadership.

How do you become a lead in the military? ›

You must be ready to make decisions, move the mission forward, and lead by example. Great leaders never ask a subordinate to make a sacrifice that he or she is not willing to make. If we hold ourselves to the same standard that we hold our Soldiers, they will strive to meet or exceed that standard.”

What is the main purpose of leadership? ›

Leadership is a vital management function that helps to direct an organization's resources for improved efficiency and the achievement of goals. Effective leaders provide clarity of purpose, motivate and guide the organization to realize its mission.

What are the 3 importance of leadership? ›

Leadership is important because it inspires, motivates, and sets an example for people to accomplish positive changes in the world. Leaders establish a vision, provide a plan of action, and build strong relationships with their followers.

How important are military leadership traits as a leader? ›

It is vital that Army leaders have both character and competence. In fact, the development of competence, character, and other leadership traits is one of the most important missions we have as an Army.

What does leadership mean to you military? ›

According to the Army's leadership doctrinal manual, Field Manual (FM) 6-22, Army leadership is “the process of influencing. people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while operating to. accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”

What are the benefits of leadership? ›

Successful leaders are able to transform organizations, enhance value creation, create efficiencies and engage their employees to deliver better results. Through leadership skills training, managers can learn how to create a vision for their team and how to inspire others to achieve it.

Why military is important in the society? ›

The key role of the military in the U.S is maintaining peace. It safeguards the well-being of the nation as a whole and more specifically, the American citizens within the nation.


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