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Vol. 3, No. 9
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Military Skills Useful in Business?  

 © Copyright by William A. Cohen 2005

A couple weeks ago I watched the season finale of the hit television reality show, “The Apprentice,” hosted by Donald Trump. For the first time a woman, Kendra Todd, was victorious. Over three seasons, she became the third Apprentice chosen by Donald Trump in the show. Kelly Perdue the second series winner and a West Point graduate also made an appearance along with Bill Rancic, the first Apprentice winner.

“The Donald” Promotes the Military                                                                               Surprisingly to many who have been taught in school, or by the media, or elsewhere, that the military simply produces martinets,  or “command and control” leaders, Trump made several explicit references to the value of a military background for business. Later a television advertisement aired featuring both Trump and Perdue. The advertisement promoted the advantages of U.S. military experience to success in business, and made no attempt to conceal the fact (according to the advertisement) that it was Kelly’s military experience that helped prepare him for a successful business career, and by implication, for winning  the Apprentice competition in which candidates lead real teams of their fellow candidates in accomplishing real business tasks.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump himself is a graduate of the New York Military Academy and Kendra Todd? Well, Kendra’s father was a top gun fighter pilot!

Does Military Experience Provide an Edge?                                                                      To those that have been following management thinking and hiring over the last ten years, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Articles in Fortune MagazineThe Los Angeles Times, and others have all extolled the advantages of a military background for business. Years earlier, Peter Drucker, arguably the greatest management thinker of our time had stated that the first systematic book on leadership, was written by Xenophon two thousand years ago. Just in case you didn’t know, Xenophon was a Greek general, and he wrote on battlefield leadership.  But more recently Drucker stated: “The Army trains and develops more leaders than do all other institutions together – and with a lower casualty rate.”

At an after dinner speech sponsored by The Conference Board, Inc. several years ago, famed CEO of GE, Jack Welch agreed with Drucker in ignoring the Harvard Business School and any other of America’s great educational institutions or corporations, even his own, as doing the best job of developing leaders and enthusiastically. Both Drucker and Welch enthusiastically  acclaimed it to be the U.S. military.

The Magic of Military Experience                                                                                     What’s so magical about military for business? As stated in a variety of business publications, you learn a lot that they just don’t teach you at business school. For example, back in the early 1990’s I wondered about battle leadership and to what extent military veterans in the business world used it. I surveyed more than 200 combat leaders who went on to highly successful careers in industry. This research resulted in the eight universal laws of leadership in 1998. These eight laws are proudly displayed on the home page of The Stuff of Heroes website. In fact, that’s what I call these laws: “the stuff of heroes.”  These laws are no shock to those with military experience. They merely confirm what they had learned in the military. Yet, I was surprised at the resistance that I received in teaching some of these laws to graduate students with experience in the business world.

Take just one law: “maintain absolute integrity.” Almost everyone I surveyed had stated that this was one of the top three actions that a successful leader had to live by. Many said it was number one.  Legendary non-profit CEO Francis Hesselbein, who among other jobs was once CEO of the Girl Scouts of America,  recently co-authored a book on leadership with the former Amy Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki.  She wrote that who you are is the foundation of all leadership.

Yet, many in business with no military background thought such a concept of little value and only theoretical. When I appeared on a talk show and spoke about the need for integrity as a basis of leadership, one executive called in to say: “It’s a jungle out here. If I try to maintain my integrity, I’ll be fired, or at the very least I’ll have no chance for promotion.” Yet, the fact is that research shows that a lack of integrity is one of the primary reasons for career derailment in industry, and failing to uphold this law has completely destroyed major companies even before Enron, Worldcom,  or Arthur Andersen.

More than twenty years ago, a man I know almost lost his company because his accountant, thinking that my friend must be aware of the phony bookkeeping, ignored the fact that a trusted employee was embezzling.  We can only speculate as to who was the more unethical: the embezzler or the accountant.  Sadly, this sort of thing happens more than it should.

The military develops other qualities that are essential for business success. Here are a few:

·        Self-discipline

  •         Leadership
  •         Commitment
  •         Persistence
  •         Moral courage
  •         Acceptance of personal responsibility
  •         Social responsibility for others
  •         Organization
  •         Focus
  •         Duty
  •         Professionalism
  •         Flexibility

As I said, these are only a few. There are many others. And here’s something else that struck me. Although the military’s main mission is to win battles, one doesn’t need to acquire battle experience to develop these qualities.

Great Military Leaders without Battle Experience                                                           As proof, consider General of the Air Force Henry H. “Hap” Arnold.  General Arnold was an unsurpassed military airman. He was the Air Force’s only five-star general.  So great was his influence, that uniform adornment worn by him during his tenure as Air Force commander have since been adopted by the modern U.S. Air Force as part of its present uniform.

Between World Wars I and II, Arnold stuck his neck out and put his career on the line many times for what he believed in. This included testifying, while still a major, in support of General Billy Mitchell at the latter’s court-martial in his fight for air power in our armed services. During World War II, Arnold was Commander of the U.S. Army Air Force. During this period, he had four serious heart attacks, any one of which might have killed him. He was advised by his doctors to retire, or at least to “take it easy.” His response was that his combat aircrewmen risked their lives and faced death every day. How could he agree to do less?

However, despite his many honors and accomplishments, in a military career encompassing fifty years, General Arnold was never in battle. He volunteered repeatedly for combat during World War One, but was told that he was more essential stateside training others for combat.

General (later President) Eisenhower was in the same situation. He volunteered repeatedly for combat during the First World War, but was turned down because of his important job in the U.S. training others. Still, during World War II Eisenhower led the largest invasion in the history of the world, commanding hundreds of thousands of combat troops from many nations.

How was this possible? Neither Arnold nor Eisenhower ever led in battle, but the qualities and skills they acquired in the military helped them lead others in an activity that they themselves had never engaged. Moreover, these skills of battle leadership  would have helped them in their civilian pursuits as well. As a matter of fact, in the case of Eisenhower, they did.  He served first as President of Columbia University, and later as President of the United States Arnold, in poor health died only a few years after retiring from the Air Force.

There are many others like these two. It proves positively that it is the personal qualities one develops in the military, not experience in battle that makes the difference.

You Don’t Need to have been in Uniform to Develop Important Business Attributes                                                                                                                            Clearly, one doesn’t need to have served in the military to develop qualities that make for success in business.  There are thousands of successful business people and managers who have never served in the military.  They have developed these qualities through their upbringing by their parents, through association with those in the military, through other disciplines including sports, religion, etc. and mentorship with great leaders. On the other hand, having been in the military provides a clear opportunity to develop these qualities. It’s like graduating from the Harvard Law School. You don’t need to graduate from the Harvard Law School to be a successful lawyer, but if you have, it helps.

However, before you rush out to enlist in the armed forces, let me suggest some other ways that you can develop these qualities useful in business without donning a uniform.

How to Develop Qualities Useful to Business Success without Enlisting                  If you’ve been in the military, you’ve actually lived it. That makes developing qualities like discipline or leadership a lot easier. However, there is an alternative way to develop these qualities, and to hone them if you have served already in the military.  This is in three steps: read, think, and apply.

Read, Think, and Apply

The Army’s leadership model now is Be – Know – Do. Well, I have another for learning leadership the military way. I’m told that there are 50,000 books published every year. This means that you’ll never read them all, even for one year. But the proper reading program focusing on quality and subject matter rather than quantity can extend your personal experience and help you to develop the qualities you need. And I’m not talking about reading business books, either. Remember, we’re trying to acquire what the military teaches to develop qualities useful for business. So you need to read books by and about the military.

Following Peter Drucker, I’d start with some of the classics like Xenophon’s Anabasisand Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Get through these and then read Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, and then Vegetius who was the most influence military writer from Roman times until the 19th century. Then, you might want to read Jomini and Clausewitz, the two great military thinkers of Napoleonic times. Although they wrote mainly on strategy, you’ll find much on leadership as well.

Finally read some of the modern authors on their experiences such as by Generals Patton, Eisenhower, Schwarzkopf or McCaffrey. Also read what the writings of more junior leaders such as Company Commander by Charles MacDonald and We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway. The first was written about leading a company in combat during World War II. Harold Moore later became a three-star general, but he wrote about his experiences leading a battalion during the Vietnam War when he was a lieutenant colonel.

Don’t just read these books, but engage your mind with what the authors have written. What did they do right? What did they do wrong? Take notes. What principles could help you in business? How would you apply them? Try them in your daily work. Keep a record of what happens. Note what you will use again and what you will discard. Avoid those books that purport to show you how to apply combat to business by “killing” the enemy or such. You won’t get much from them. War and business are NOT the same. It’s the leadership essences we’re after.

Maybe it’s too late for you to don a uniform, but you can still learn a lot and develop those qualities helping lead to success in business on your own from a systematic reading program in which read, think and apply.



Good news for many of you who have written me that they were unable to get a copy of The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership  because it went out of print with the previous publisher.  Through the efforts of my good friend, Heiko Fauss in Germany, and his company SupraSucess, the book will be available soon from and in a downloadable version. The ISBN is 1-905-362-00-5.



“Re-examine all you have been told…Dismiss what insults your Soul.”

        Walt Whitman
1819-1892, Poet