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May 13, 2008

War and Business: What are the similarities? What are the differences? Jeremy Black makes some suggestions

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter - compares the attributes and skills required of leaders in war and business.

Comparisons between war and business are quite frequent in lectures, not least at leadership conferences, with military leadership and strategy providing obvious sources of inspiration. There is value in this approach, but comparisons should be drawn with more care than is often the case. This is because there are also obvious contrasts.

The most important is not, in fact, killing, as modern militaries spend surprisingly little time doing that. This can be demonstrated, for example, by the Japanese armed forces, one of the biggest in the world. Taking this further, the key military function of deterrence is not shared by business, and no business would devote the resources spent on nuclear weaponry and then not use them. Industrial backup systems do not compare.

Moreover, the degree to which, whatever the situation as far as criminal groups are concerned, the military have a monopoly of organised, high spectrum force within their countries is a key contrast to business, as it means that there is not the effective competition in the provision or projection of force that businesses face in their activities. Terrorist organisations might seek to challenge the military but comparisons are far-fetched, not least in so far as institutional continuity is concerned.

Linked to this monopoly is a clear facet of military leadership that was isolated by Norman Dixon in his instructive book on The Psychology of Military Incompetence. Dixon pointed out that the very bureaucratic factors that led to success in peacetime military leadership, such as worship of the system and being a safe pair of hands, were actively harmful in wartime; and vice versa. This abrupt switch between two different states is not seen in business.

Yet, contrasts should not detract from some valuable parallels in the subjects of military science and business management. A key parallel is the tension in the former over the emphasis on technology, and thus on effectiveness and change through technological enhancement. This is the approach very much taken by those who detected a Revolution in Military Affairs in the 1990s and 2000s, and also by those who saw such a Revolution on some earlier occasions, for example with gunpowder.

Other approaches toward development and capability, however, clash with this one. A key one is the argument that, rather than capability being set in the abstract, not least by the technological proficiency of the weaponry, it is necessary to draw attention to the variety in military and political environments faced by armed forces and the diversity of tasks they are set. This ensures that military forms and methods that may be pertinent in some cases may not be effective in others, and may indeed detract from effectiveness.

This task-based account of military capability has obvious applications in business management, as it leads to a requirement to focus leadership priorities and training very much on specific needs in particular conjunctures. Far from a "borderless world", or isotrophic (equal at every point) surface, profitability thus is in a dynamic relationship with changing circumstances, or, looked at differently, is endlessly redefined. Linked to this, there is a need to abandon systemic models and advances in favour of an approach orientated on fractured markets - geographical, social and cultural.

This means that coping with uncertainty becomes a key method, and indeed goal, in both business and military training, ethos and operations. For both business and military, this coping has to be more rapid than that of opposing organisations, a process which is referred to as getting inside the decision loop.

To imagine a system without risk is inappropriate as that means an over-determining organisation. Such an organisation will not confront, first, the uncertain nature of its environment and, secondly, the way in which the organisation must create a capacity to conceive of multiple solutions if the first tried does not produce the anticipated yield. Instead, a rapid action-reaction ethos and method is necessary as an integral part of the system, whether business or military. This may not be the lesson in terms of inspiring charismatic leaders that some seek, and indeed advocate in leadership classes, but such leaders can only operate if they also have and use intelligence. This is an underrated capacity at present, not least because of anti-Úlitist currents in culture as well as left-wing assumptions, even policies, that are frequently based on a denial of differential ability.

Yet the need for intelligent (as opposed to charismatic) leadership cannot be pushed off onto the task of able staff officers and their business equivalents. Those at the top also need to be planners and with the informed scepticism that comes from appreciating that alternatives have to be considered, and even at the very moment that the dimension of morale cannot lead to public discussion of such an option.

To this end, it is not necessary to serve in the armed forces. The key requirement is to be able to think, in order to replicate the mental dimension of coping with uncertainty and planning, in terms of a purposeful goal illuminated by an informed scepticism about capabilities and methods.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade, A Short History of Britain, The Holocaust, and The Curse of History.

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