Lessons have flowed from the military to business and back throughout the history of our country—to the great benefit of both institutions.
Our returning veterans from the World Wars and Korea carried their personal lessons from combat to the work forces of their generation. Those lessons learned from the harsh reality of combat were essential to America’s development as an economic powerhouse.
“It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically and culturally because of its sacrifices,” said Tom Brokaw in his book The Greatest Generation. “It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.”
Our returning Vietnam veterans also incorporated lessons, though with less fanfare. Whether this was caused by the stigma of the war, reduced numbers or changing demographics in society and business is open for debate. In 1980, 59 percent of CEOs of publicly held companies had served in military. Currently, only about 8 percent of CEOs are veterans.
Ironically, many of us who entered the military in the post-Vietnam era spent as much time reading business books as we did reading military history. We were intrigued with the business lessons and case studies on strategy, management and leadership without fully appreciating that many of those lessons had originated from the combat experience of the veterans who preceded us.
Regardless of the era, the spread of knowledge and design between the military and industry has and will continue to be critically important to our economy and our security. Our returning veterans are some of our country’s greatest resources. The importance of knowledge exchange from the military to American business has never been more critical than today and, unfortunately, it has also never been as difficult.
Although the American military has spent more time in continuous combat since 2001 than any time in its history, the odds of meeting or working with a veteran from the current conflicts are surprisingly low. With less than 1 percent of our nation in military uniform—and the changing demographics of an all volunteer force—the average American was 22 times more likely to interact with a returning World War II veteran and seven times more likely to interact with a returning Vietnam veteran than they are with one of our current returning veterans.
This reduced chance of interacting with veterans similarly reduces the casual and personal conversion of design and knowledge compared to the post–World War II era. As important, the relatively low percentage of Americans with combat experience reduces the network of veterans in the workforce to champion new ideas from the unique experience of combat.
Many businesses are currently trying to address the lack of veterans in the workforce through hiring programs. While the programs are well intentioned and greatly needed, our focus should not just include providing jobs to veterans. We need to tap into their brilliance to win in today’s dynamic business environment. It is an environment eerily similar to the one we faced in the fight against al Qaeda.
During the early phases of the current conflict, we tried to defeat al Qaeda using the lessons we had learned over 20 years in the special operations community. However, in early 2004 it became apparent that the enemy we faced was much different than any previous threat to national security. Al Qaeda was culturally difficult to understand, geographically dispersed, organized differently and operated far differently than the terrorist groups that we had faced in the 1980s and 1990s. Our environment—and our enemy—evolved frequently and created a situation the special operations force was unprepared to address. A gap opened between the capabilities of Special Operations Forces and the requirements of the new strategic environment. This capability gap was accompanied simultaneously by a more threatening deficiency: a leadership gap between the skills required of our military’s leaders and the demands of a new kind of war.
Similarly, competition, the speed of communications, complexity and tears in the fabric of our society have created a leadership gap within private industry. Our military needed to fundamentally change in order to effectively address this new threat. By extension, American business needs to change to address the demands of our current business environment. Those leadership skills in private industry that served America so well in the past are still required but are no longer sufficient.
There is both a need and desire by a host of organizations to change the way they operate. Specifically, organizations in private industry are interested in how to best link strategy to execution, how to manage large, complex groups and war game contingencies. But most importantly, they are interested in practical leadership that works in complex, distributed and diverse organizations.
Clearly, there are a number of returning veterans with experience and competence in many of those areas at the tactical, operational or strategic level. But it is a challenge to transfer that experience from the military to business.
We continue to face challenges in our effort to transfer lessons learned. Lessons like:
Restoring the flow of lessons learned between the military and business will take a concerted effort by both our returning veterans and private industry. For veterans, providing insight based on unique wartime experience is a way to give back to our country after leaving the service. The cost we paid to learn the lessons and the need in the current business environment is too high to stay in our comfort zone.
Our hope is that the lessons of the past decade improve business and—as was our experience—inform the next generation of young military leaders. And that those leaders—hopefully operating in a time of peace—turn toward business books for lessons.
Army General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal served 34 years in uniform, including as commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan, before retiring in 2010. Army Brigadier General (Retired) Craig Nixon held several posts in his 29 years of service, including director of operations for the Joint Special Operations Command, before retiring in 2011. McChrystal and Nixon formed the McChrystal Group to address current business conditions by applying lessons learned in combat to private industry. Over the past 18 months, the McChrystal Group has codified these lessons into a leadership system called CrossLead, which has been instilled in Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, the civil sector and a number of government agencies.