by Stephanie Overby

Leadership Lessons from the Modern Military

Apr 15, 20029 mins
IT Leadership

Military methods hold unexpected how-tos for corporate CIOs .

John Carrow, vice president and CIO for Unisys, didn’t learn to be the IT leader he is today as a computer science graduate student at the University of Illinois. Nor was it during the 16 years he spent in IT at General Electric. It wasn’t even during his five years as CIO of Philadelphia, where he helped the mayor turn around that then-bankrupt city. Rather, it was his experience jumping out of planes and working on the ground as a U.S. Army ranger in the Vietnam delta in the late 1960s. “The best training I ever had for becoming a CIO was the time I spent as a gung ho airborne infantry officer,” Carrow is fond of saying.

Although there would seem to be few similarities between IT work and military operations, Carrow says the leadership and communication skills he honed as an adviser to a group of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers who were carrying out mobile operations, raids and night missions are what make him a successful CIO today. “I still deal with a great deal of uncertainty, just like I did back then,” says Carrow from his office at the Blue Bell, Pa., headquarters of Unisys, a $6 billion computer services company. “In industry, you have to have a great deal of self-confidence, you have to be able to lead and motivate not only your IT forces but the rest of the company, and you must have the right resources to support your mission.”

Some military methods have shifted since Carrow was in the Army, yet there is a great deal of military leadership theory that’s applicable outside the uniformed ranks. While command-and-control architecture remains the basis of any military organization, the branches of the U.S. armed forces have become much more flexible in recent years, pushing decision-making authority down to the lowest levels and trying to ensure that each soldier understands the larger mission. As a result, modern military leadership methods can provide valuable lessons for CIOs in any organization.

More Than a Serial Number

Current and former military leaders will tell you it’s a common misperception that the armed forces pay no attention to the individual. They say the chief lesson they learned in active duty was the importance of taking care of people — soldiers, sailors, airmen or civilians. “The military suffers from a B-movie stereotype of hard-nosed military leaders. But in fact, they understand diversity and appreciate people for the talents that they bring to the table,” says Col. Thomas A. Kolditz, head of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. “More than anything, military leadership is about understanding human behavior. It’s about inspiring and influencing individuals.”

Brig. Gen. Robert M. Shea, director of command, control, computers and communications and CIO of the U.S. Marine Corps, says that attitude of putting employees first should serve corporate CIOs as well as it has him during his 32-year military career. “It’s instilled in you the day you walk into boot camp. You take care of your Marines,” says Shea. “Despite all the technology that is available today, it’s still about people. I see an awful lot of parallels between the Marines and industry. There isn’t much that I’d do differently if I left for the corporate world tomorrow.”

A tenet of military leadership is that learning about your people never stops. Lifelong leadership learning was drilled into Atlanta-based American Cancer Society CIO Zachary Patterson throughout the 26 years, 9 months, 13 hours and 6 seconds he spent in the Army. And it’s a habit he finds equally useful in civilian life. “My best advice to any CIO is to get schooled in the art of leadership. Study people,” says Patterson. “And never stop being a student.”

There Is No “IT” in Team

Clearly the military wouldn’t function if it were merely made up of a bunch of self-empowered individuals. As important to the armed forces as the recruitment and retention of top-flight personnel, is the difficult task of creating a team out of diverse people. “The high point of my military career was being able to work with some of the most gifted people in the world and lead them. It was the opportunity to take people from all walks of life and turn them into a team,” says John Watkins, the CIO of South Portland, Maine-based Fairchild Semiconductor, who spent 25 years in the Army serving in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

Watkins has found his training in team-building equally useful since he left the Army for the corporate world in 1995. “It’s a different mission, but I still do nothing more than build teams and lead people,” he says. “It’s no less critical in the corporate world. And what I practiced doing in the military, I’ve made no changes to.”

Watkins learned a signal lesson in the importance of leadership when he commanded a battalion in Fort Hood, Texas, in 1982. It wasn’t just any battalion — it was the worst of all the battalions at the installation: the 11th Signal Battalion, which had never passed an annual inspection. “I said, ’Just give me time,’” remembers Watkins. “I believed they were a great group of soldiers, they just needed some leadership.” Four months later, that battalion got the best overall inspection score of any unit in Fort Hood history. It was the same group of soldiers facing the same challenges. But something had changed dramatically. “What I discovered was a unit that believed it could do nothing right, whose leaders didn’t believe they could do anything right. So it was a matter of getting them to believe in themselves, believe in one another and work as a team,” Watkins says. “And I’ve tried to practice that in every structure I’ve been in since.”

Leaders Trump Managers

What CIO hasn’t wished he could just give directives that would be obeyed, and be done with it? Well, leadership doesn’t work that way — not even in the military, says retired Rear Adm. John Gauss, now CIO of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. “When I first came to the VA, folks said, ’John, this isn’t the military. When you give an order, people aren’t going to snap to,’” says Gauss, who ended his 32-year Navy career as commander of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, overseeing 8,400 employees. “And I said, ’How’s that any different from where I came from?’”

The best military leaders have to learn the fine art of motivation early on. “You have a lot of smart people in the military, and you can’t just order them to take a hill. You have to tell them why they’re taking the hill and get them to want to do it,” says the American Cancer Society’s Patterson.

Maj. Nate Allen, a West Point professor who cowrote a popular Army leadership book, Taking the Guidon, says, “The military is definitely a different environment, but people are people. They don’t want to be managed. They want to be led. They want to understand what they’re doing and why.”

That’s advice business executives would do well to heed. “In the private sector, people are taught to be good managers. But in the military they’re taught to be good leaders,” Gauss says. “While you need to organize things, it’s ultimately more important to inspire people to exceed their own limits.”

Despite the military’s command hierarchy, falling back on rank is a no-no. “If you have to rely on the fact that you’re a colonel to get people to do things, it just won’t work. You can’t rely on the insignia on your collar. You have to be a good leader,” Patterson says. “And it’s the exact same thing in the corporate world. You just don’t happen to wear a uniform.”

Adapt and Survive

Being a successful military leader requires flexibility and adaptability to change — traits that suit IT leaders well too. Unisys CIO Carrow learned the importance of adaptability while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. “The things you practiced in terms of motivation, strategy and tactics didn’t mean much of anything in the live combat situation,” Carrow says. “You can make all the plans in the world, but when you’re in the midst of it, it’s your real-time reactions that count.”

But adaptability doesn’t mean aimlessness. What Carrow and others with military experience have learned is that your objective should never change, whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. “Let’s say in the Army you plan to seize a target. There may be enemy forces, there may be terrain issues, or you may have to cross a river. You figure out how to overcome those obstacles and go after your target,” Carrow says. “The one thing you can be sure of is that the plan will change right away. The rivers may have swollen, there may be more enemy forces than you expected, and you have to adjust.”

Carrow says he’s faced the same type of situation time and again in business. Competitive issues come up, financial situations change, or resource and talent problems arise. “All the plans a company has made may change. Look at what happened on Sept. 11,” he says.

Carrow still recalls being a West Point cadet and walking through a stone archway and seeing the words, “If you don’t progress, you deteriorate.” The statement is as true today as it was when West Point was built, he says. Every institution and every good leader — whether in the military or your company — must keep adapting to new realities.