One of the best writers on leadership is one you’ve never heard of.  If I told you a few of the titles you still wouldn’t recognize who I’m referencing.  Yet Peter Drucker, the Father of Modern Management, liked to tell his students that the reason he never wrote a book on leadership was because the first systematic book on leadership was written by Xenophon and it was still the best.  Who was Xenophon?  More about that in a moment, but the point is the best-kept leadership secrets are out in the open, and they rest in one of our oldest institutions.

Xenophon grew up in Athens and was a direct student of Socrates in the fifth century B.C.  As a young man he joined a military expedition from Greece to Persia and went on to become a battle-tested general before retiring to southern Greece and writing on philosophy, history, economics, politics, and other subjects.  Woven throughout his writing is Xenophon’s observations and lessons about leadership.  The systematic book that Drucker mentioned was The Education of Cyrus (or Cyropedia), based roughly on the life of Cyrus the Great who lived over a hundred years before Xenophon.

Xenophon writes about his own initiation into leadership in  The March Upcountry (or Anabasis), which has been classified as military history but is actually an epic of leadership written by a participant who saw good and bad leadership at close quarters.  I first read this book in 1988, and didn’t know what a gem I had.   I’ve gone back since then and learned some important lessons.  One of those is how the military holds some great lessons for leadership.

The military as a learning laboratory for leadership?  The notion is not so far-fetched.  In my interviews with officers who served in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps (2009) and who later transitioned into civilian leadership roles in business I noticed some common themes that went far beyond admirable traits or desirable leadership characteristics.

The military does an excellent job of training and reinforcing leadership in its combat officers.  This is done through recurring education, through reinforcing good disciplines of decision-making, by job rotation and merit-based job promotions, and through reinforcing a culture of honor, sacrifice and service.   William Cohen writes about these in A Class with Drucker (2008).  Together these make a powerful combination for solid leadership development.  The military does not often get the very best raw talent to join their ranks, but their system of rigorous development allows them to produce a disproportional share of the strongest leaders in any sector of society (whether business, education, politics, healthcare, social service or entertainment).

How do they do it?  If you have had experience as a military officer this will all be familiar.  For the rest of us I’ll share a few points.

First, the military takes training seriously.  They operate on two basic assumptions  The harder you train, the better you’ll perform; and everyone carries some degree of leadership responsibility.  Anyone involved in sports understands and agrees with the first assumption.  If you want to perform well and consistently win, you have to train hard.  Businesses today hardly train their people for leadership, either formally or informally.  It creates a huge gap when real leadership is needed.  The second assumption in the military, that everyone has some degree of leadership responsibility, arises from the realities of battlefield situations.  Combat is very fluid; leaders can be killed, injured or taken out of commission in other ways.  Every soldier has to be ready to assume greater responsibility and leadership without notice when the situation changes.  In most businesses today the owner or CEO may wish that every employee was more responsible, or thought like an owner, but the ethos and expectation of leadership is missing from most organizations except at the top.

Second, jobs or roles are assigned based on merit and rigorous review.  The military is a meritocracy, which means the decision to “hire” and promote is primarily based on merit and demonstrated competence, not on personality contests or other forms of fundamentally unfair competition.  There are ongoing performance reviews and counseling, promotion boards, and practices designed to ensure that there is a rich pool of leadership talent to draw from at the higher levels.  If only more companies were so lucky…

Third, the military has a rich and meaningful culture of leadership that sets high standards for honor, character and service.  Individuals don’t always live up to those standards, but through discipline and tradition the standards are not negotiated down.  Culture is articulated and maintained by the leaders of any organization;  morale is an indicator of the health and condition of the culture at any given time.  On both counts the military pays a lot of attention to how well its leaders embody the culture and maintain high morale through example.  Good businesses that are run in a disciplined way do the same.

The best-kept leadership secrets really are out in the open.  The military is certainly not perfect, and even the practices I’ve talked about are not implemented with uniform equality.  However, if you compare them in design and in execution with any other leadership program, you’ll find it difficult to come up with a close second-place contender.

What are your thoughts and experiences with these leadership practices?

  • Share/Bookmark