Check yourself against more than 50 leadership lessons from the military

In the field of leadership, we can learn a lot from the military. I wrote about it before. I have the pleasure of working with two people that are military trained, and there is something special about them. Self-reliant, structured, disciplined, and always fit. They are part of the leadership qualities needed in the future.

We have failed as leaders

I was talking to Kim Korn during the week. The co-author of “Infinite possibility”. We agreed that leadership has failed us over the last 50 years. Most leaders, most CEOs have been criminally neglecting their duty to humanity. We have all refused to accept the consequences of the business model that we applied. We have failed as leaders. We have lost all moral authority. We should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. We f*cked up the planet, and we are leaving a terrible legacy for our children. It is time for more “do or die” leadership with a sense of urgency around climate change, people, purpose, legacy and leaving this world in a better place.

Do or die leadership

It is never too late. And if you don’t, you will be forced to, very soon. “Ministry of the future”, “Humanocracy” and “Zeronauts are just a few books you should read if you are in any doubt. You will be held accountable. In this life and the next. It is time for do or die leadership. Literally. The type of leadership they teach you in the army.

The Habit of Excellence/ Why British Army Leadership Works

A contact on LinkedIn recommended “The Habit of Excellence, Why British Army Leadership Works”. An excellent book on leadership. The army provides a career-long education in human nature, the power of leadership, and the extraordinary lengths to which people who share a common purpose and identity will go in service of their mission. 

Life and death

The army is an organisation often several steps removed from most areas of civilian life. The institution and those who serve in it are asked to take on responsibilities involving combat, mortal danger and the use of lethal force. Soldiers are required to accept the contract of unlimited liability, accepting the risk to their own life inherent in carrying out their duties. With agonising moral dilemmas around life and death: their own, their comrades’, their enemies’ and those of the civilians who are increasingly enmeshed in modern urban warfare. There is no place in today’s army for the gifted amateur.

Extreme work environment

The army requires the scope to train, manage and deploy its people in the best interests of national defence and the individual well-being of every serving soldier. This entails making demands, accepting risks and imposing discipline in ways that would feel alien or unacceptable in many working environments.

The army as a source of leadership insight

The tension between civil and military explains the relevance of the army as a source of leadership insight. There are three areas of context that define and are distinctive to Army leadership: the nature of a profession that involves combat and the use of lethal force; how leadership and management intersect with the idea and exercise of command; and the location of leadership within the regimental system, one which fosters a deep sense of ethos and tradition. The nature of the profession of arms lends additional urgency to many key leadership requirements. 

Leadership development

Ethical dilemmas around life and death are not unique to the profession of arms but are given additional complexity and urgency in situations when weapons are being carried on both sides, and lives may need to be purposefully taken. This explains the heavy emphasis that the army places on leadership development, ensuring that every leader has a conceptual, practical and historical understanding of their role, the theories that underpin it, and the skills required to perform it. The most important elements of leadership are timeless. The art of influencing and inspiring people to achieve what is needed defines leadership in all areas of life.

Leadership principles

Leadership is concerned with getting people to do things willingly. Leadership is the ability to make comrades follow you. Leadership is a fundamentally human endeavour. Leadership is building trust and cohesion, achieving a balance between control and delegation, and delivering results in the face of adversity. The ability to appreciate the requirements of human nature. The power and ability to set an example to subordinates. The determination & intensity of purpose. To be optimistic and enthusiastic. To look after your teams’ comfort and welfare. To be a friend as well as a leader. To focus on fitness & endurance. To instil courage. To be cheerful. Leadership is a habit. So is excellence. Leadership is best understood as a human endeavour whose central concerns are to influence the individual and mould the collective in service of the ultimate mission: a combination of character, knowledge and action that inspires others to succeed. Leadership has four fundamental qualities—courage, initiative, willpower and knowledge.

Leadership is an art

Leadership may be underpinned by theory, but in practice, it is an art. The art to take an understanding of the context, define what needs to be done and determine how that can best be achieved, all without losing awareness of the actual and perceived effects of decisions.

Check your leadership abilities:

The book makes a lot of interesting points for leaders to ponder. Check yourself against these:

  1. Tradition is a cornerstone of Army leadership. Everyone who joins the army to become a leader is also joining a tradition – of the organisation as a whole and their regiment in particular – that stretches back for decades and centuries. What is the tradition in your organisation?
  2. Reliance on the ‘individual genius’ of a leader is not sufficient. How reliant are people on you?
  3. Over-direction by superiors must be avoided. Are you over directing?
  4. Mission Command philosophy encourages responsibility to be delegated where possible to the lowest level. How good are you at delegating to the lowest levels?
  5. Initiative and boldness will be at a premium. How bold are you?
  6. The move from transactional leadership (control, process and incentive oriented) to transformational leadership. How transformative are you?
  7. The importance of team building. The army must bond teams together with a cohesion that will enable units to work effectively even amid the chaos, fear and confusion of combat. And they must operate while respecting the strict chain of command that defines the army and also going beyond it – recognising that the duty to lead is shared across all ranks, not limited to those with command authority. How good are you a team building?
  8. The importance of a strict ethical code. Have you defined the ethical code of your organisation?
  9. The profession of arms takes its members into extreme circumstances that test their courage, cohesion, moral compass and stamina to the limit. How “fit” are your teams?
  10. Command is the position an individual holds, denoted by rank and the authority they exercise in practice. How much are you in command?
  11. An effective commander: provides answers when required; manages processes when necessary; and leads collaboratively when needed. How collaborative are you?
  12. Tribal leadership: the success of any organisation arises from the culture and leadership of the tribes. Have you mapped the tribes in your organisation?
  13. Leadership culture stretches across all ranks, ages, and experience levels: from the largest grouping to the smallest unit. What is the leadership culture in your organisation?
  14. Unless an army is focused on higher ethics, it risks moral bankruptcy. Are you focused on higher ethics?
  15. The values and standards are the primary tools for achieving this, ensuring that every member of the British Army understands what is expected of them, the responsibilities they carry and the boundaries they must work within. Have you defined the values and standards of the organisation?
  16. Courage is doing the right thing on a difficult day. How courageous are you?
  17. It’s a waste of time to articulate ideas about values and culture if you don’t model and reward behaviour that aligns with those goals. What is your reward system?
  18. When decisions must be made rapidly, and with imperfect information and action taken in the face of risk and danger, high levels of trust are a prerequisite for success. How high or low are the levels of trust in your organisation?
  19. Mission command is founded on commanders’ clear expression of intent and the freedom of subordinates to act to achieve that intent. How good are you are expressing intent?
  20. Effective leadership does not arise from the pursuit of rank, status and the perception of power. Would people pick as the captain? 
  21. These social bonds, the preconditions of success for any leader, can only arise when leaders embrace the opposite mindset: that they can most effectively lead people by first seeking to serve them. Are you a serving leader?
  22. Do those you serve grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?’
  23. This drumbeat of daily interactions sets the tone. How do you interact with people?
  24. A leader must be not just an exemplar but also a custodian. This custodianship role applies to all the values and standards but is most obviously manifested in the maintenance of discipline. How do you maintain discipline?
  25. Encourage a culture of collective pride in the pursuit of high standards. Do you?
  26. You must know every single one of your men. How well do you know your people?
  27. A leader’s responsibility and duty of care to individuals is crucial to both their welfare and development. Caring also has a strong bearing on the collective and is a cornerstone of operational effectiveness. Do you care for your people?
  28. Know the leader-follower relationship. Followership may be less celebrated and understood than leadership, but it is no less essential to the success of any organisation. How many followers do you have
  29. A leader who goes easy in training is not preparing their people, nor likely to win their trust. How well do you train your team?
  30. A leader becomes a mentor and coach to individuals. Are you?
  31. Leadership is to sacrifice control in order to command. Do you sacrifice control?
  32. Working as an instructor is a revealing process that, for many, plays an important part in their leadership development. Have you delivered training? 
  33. When faced with a significant paradigm shift, those who know the most about a subject have the most to unlearn. They know too many things that are no longer true. Are you capable of unlearning
  34. Individual and collective behaviour on the battlefield is conditioned by the prior development of character during times of peace. Do you select and train your team on character?
  35. Climate sets expectations and can also condition behaviour. How is the environment in your organisation? 
  36. The climate of a unit is contagious: high standards are self-perpetuating, leaders must express clear intent about the standards they expect and how they plan to operate. What standards do you set?
  37. Every rank holder in the British Army has the responsibility for developing the leadership of the people below them. How is your leadership programme?
  38. If you look at real conflict, it’s not your weapons that win the war. It’s not your equipment. It’s your mental ability to sustain yourself under stress. How is your mindset?
  39. Once a team has been brought together and appropriate roles assigned, authority must be delegated to enable speed of action. Do you assign authority?
  40. It is the job of leaders to promote institutional learning both during long campaigns and in their aftermath but also to recognise the limitations of what can be learned from experience. How do you capture learning?
  41. For the army’s leaders, the challenge is how to assimilate the torrents of technological, social, economic and environmental change that surround them and calibrate both the direction and speed of organisational change. How adaptable is your organisation?
  42. Leaders must also become change agents. Are you a change agent?
  43. You need to create a climate that fosters experimentation. Have you?
  44. Look at problems through first principles. What are the first principles?

Some more questions

  1. Do you know the people under your command? 
  2. Are you serving them effectively and supporting their needs? 
  3. Have you communicated intent and established clear freedoms and constraints? 
  4. Is there mutual trust? 
  5. Have you delegated to the point of discomfort? 
  6. Are the needs of task, team and individual being held in balance?

Multidisciplinary teams

To tackle an opportunity, the organisation forms and empowers a small team, usually three to nine people, which includes all the skills necessary to complete its tasks. It has become intrinsic to the army’s modern approach to leadership, an approach that, when applied effectively, acts as a force multiplier for trust within teams, swiftness of decision and action, and the empowerment of leaders regardless of rank, age or experience.


The army – in common with all the Armed Forces – must in many ways reflect and represent the society from which it recruits and whose security and defence is its reason for being.

Organisation structure

Faced with constantly changing technology, consumer preferences and market expectations, the most successful companies rely on values to provide grounding, continuity and direction. They also ensure their values are tangible, incorporating them into the design and structure of operations, making them relevant to employees’ everyday work.

Intelligent disobedience

Today’s army is one in which ‘intelligent disobedience’ is the norm. The army is able to balance the benefits of a strict hierarchy with freedom for small units and individuals, offering the combination of control and flexibility, planning and initiative that modern military operations demand. With the challenge of centralised intent and decentralisation of execution. 


Regiments effectively operate as decentralised bases of administration and organisation, with their own distinctive identities, histories and cultures. Regiments exercise this power through multiple layers of influence on those who join them: an emphasis on history and tradition, carrying a legacy that demands to be matched; a distinctive identity and a way of doing things that set standards to uphold; All these factors – made tangible by symbols ranging from the regimental colours to the cap badge, to the events to mark the anniversaries of battle honours create a sense of loyalty and identity. They see themselves as a tribe with a common purpose.

Mission command

Selection of the aim is the defining principle of any operation. Mission Command is designed to help operations proceed with speed, agility and self-direction across the chain of command. In this system, commanders work independently but not autonomously – their freedom to operate is directed and limited by the nature of the overall intent, the resources allocated to them, and their position within the chain of command. For Mission Command to work, followers must have the confidence to use their initiative, even if it risks failure, and to challenge or even countermand their commander when the situation calls for it. It is a challenging philosophy that demands high levels of trust, tactical awareness and emotional intelligence, an approach that stands and falls on the ability of leaders to create the right conditions for it. It is entirely consistent with the philosophy of Mission Command for a subordinate to disobey their superior’s order if their awareness of an unfolding situation shows it would be a mistake to follow it.


Complex circumstances demand clear guidance about how leaders of every rank might act. When the fighting force is smaller and technological superiority relative to adversaries cannot be guaranteed, there is an even greater premium on the quality of people and leadership. In the increasingly technological, multidimensional and contested contemporary operating environment, the timeless abilities to think clearly, act ethically and lead confidently are as crucial as ever, if not more so. Principles such as courage, loyalty, discipline and integrity have been fundamental to Armed Forces of every stripe throughout history. Every war is different, but there is much about warfare that does not change, as an enduring contest of wills in which the maintenance and destruction of fighting spirit lie at the heart of success and failure.

Leading by example

By showing respect, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment in small, everyday ways, individuals develop the habitual behaviours that will help them in the most testing moments on operations. It is the role of leaders to exemplify and teach the Army’s Values and Standards. This is conscious and unconscious: leaders can set a deliberate example when they know they are being observed; they will also provide one through their actions in moments that may not seem significant but rarely pass unnoticed. Leaders must set an example of ethical and morally robust behaviour.


The defining advantage of values-based leaders is their ability to build trust, which in turn transforms the scope and effectiveness of leadership in action. While those of equal rank must trust in each other, confident in the capabilities of the soldiers to their left and right. With only occasional exceptions, trust produces better results than would be achieved by streams of directives, endless reviews and layers of bureaucracy.’


Culture is a thousand things a thousand times. The army faces a combination of friction, uncertainty and sometimes chaos. Only discipline can maintain the cohesion needed to overcome these challenges. Discipline begins with collective adherence to basic regulations. Self-discipline of this kind is the higher, more potent form: a vital contributor to the individual pursuit of excellence and the collective pride of a platoon, company or battalion.


Leaders must be the ultimate guardians of these traditions and legacies, ensuring that every member of a regiment knows its history, its greatest achievements, past failings, and the particular standards that are expected. Custodianship of culture and tradition is no less important for young organisations but potentially more difficult in an environment such as a start-up where the employee base grows rapidly, and institutional memory is primarily vested in the company’s founders and their initial team. Customer preferences may change relentlessly and require an organisation to adapt. Culture can provide the anchor to help it maintain its core strengths and the compass to evolve them.

Know yourself

The cost of leaders lacking in self-awareness can be considerable in any professional environment. Knowing yourself – which we define here as a combination of self-awareness, self-improvement, and self-care is a prerequisite of the leader’s ability to serve others effectively. Leaders will embrace self-awareness within healthy limits, avoiding introspection that seeps into self-doubt.

Leaders are readers

With a canon of military history, theory and experience that extends back thousands of years, reading is one of the primary self-development tools of any soldier or officer. ‘Any commander who claims he is “too busy to read” is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way. Reading in this context is professional and not recreational: analysing the relevant experiences of past soldiers and commanders to learn their techniques, understand their theories and internalise their lessons from experience.

Know power

Leader interactions are power exchanges. There are five bases of social power:

  1. Reward power: the ability to give reward and the expectation of it. 
  2. Coercive power: punishment for failure to conform and its anticipation. 
  3. Legitimate power: the right to exercise power via a recognised position of authority. 
  4. Referent power: power arising from the desire for affiliation with a group or its individuals. 
  5. Expert power: power arising from real or perceived expertise and superior knowledge.

As with most organisations, these forms of power all exist in parallel to some degree in the Army context.

Objective definition

The common-sense idea that corporate or military missions require a guiding purpose and a focusing objective is much easier to agree on than actually achieve. In the army, defining this is the first and most important priority in the success of any operation. From the intent, formulated and concisely stated by the commander, flows a scheme of manoeuvre (when, how, and with what resources a force will achieve the intent) and the main effort (the key activity and concentration of forces to drive success). Setting end-state parameters in this way are critical to task definition and success.


As management responsibilities become more complex, so does the network of relationships. In this regard, the military is no different from business in the premium it puts on the ability of leaders to network, building relationships with individuals both inside and outside the organisation, people who can provide insight, guidance and intelligence.

If you are the CEO

They must fulfil what the management scholar Peter Drucker defined as the essential role of the CEO: to be ‘the link between the Inside, i.e. “the organisation”, and the Outside – society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion.’ To answer the key questions: “What is our business? What should it be? What should it not be?”. The senior general must be the most versatile leader in the army. Senior leaders have to be a source of clarity and confidence in the uncertain environment without making promises they do not have the power to keep. They must be chameleon figures, as adept at advocating in the political sphere as they are when communicating at the soldier level. One of the most demanding responsibilities is to balance the resulting equation between risk and reward, often when faced with contrasting perspectives from above and below.


Leaders cannot alter the context they are working in, but they must still be proactive about finding ways to achieve their intent. It’s about crafting your intent in a way that’s easy to communicate and a format that’s designed to be communicated. Having the soft skills to communicate. To suggest rather than tell is fundamental. The most senior leaders will often find their irreplaceable role is to communicate and win permission for a plan that has mostly been devised by those below them. It will not be enough for leaders to set the example of what is meant by courage, respect or integrity. They must also be the communicator and translator of what these mean across different contexts and individuals with different outlooks.


What is delivered on operations is the product of what has been practised during peacetime, in barracks and on training exercises. Training is also not simply a matter of learning; it is, above all, establishing an identity with the group who carry out their skills collectively. Everything that needs to function smoothly in the operational environment, from mission planning and tactical deployment to management of casualties, must be honed on exercise if it is to be relied upon during operations. Training must develop a team’s psychological as well as physical, and tactical muscles.


‘Four Cs’ model of coaching effectiveness points to the related outcomes of competence, confidence, connection and character as the signifiers of coaching effectiveness. A framework that could equally well apply to the military as to high-performance sport.

The future

This balance between past and present is a constant consideration for the army’s leaders in war and when preparing for future conflicts. Is recent experience a reliable guide for the future, or simply a reflection of the unique circumstances of a particular operation or campaign? What combination of emerging needs and rising threats should be given priority? How can the limited pool of resources available to the army at a given time best be organised and deployed? An effective Army must be equally responsive to changes in geopolitics that shift the contours of the threat landscape; changes in society that adjust the expectations of those the army both serves and recruits. An increasingly volatile, technological and fast-paced environment raises the question of what kind of leaders the organisation will require in the future, the skills they will need, and whether these differ fundamentally from those of the past and present.

The future is like wine

Imagining the future is like making a fine wine. It needs sufficient time for debate, synthesis and second-order thought. Operationally, the future is not a linear progress of things yet to come but a matrix of existing developments maturing and new ones emerging. New threats are not necessarily analogous to new technologies. The failure to adapt to what is already familiar can be as dangerous as the inability to foresee what has not yet occurred. For the army, like any large organisation, the question of what changes is multifaceted: encompassing how to adapt in the present to known factors, how to prepare for ongoing shifts that have been anticipated, and how to maintain readiness for what cannot be foreseen.

Three horizons

Leadership must be capable of thinking, planning and acting across three-time horizons in parallel – taking care not to overemphasise any one dimension. They must avoid the trap of living only in the present and distant future, forgetting the critical middle ground of ideas that are nearing viability. Leaders must juggle these different time horizons in an operating context that is fast evolving – one defined by fluidity in the identity of adversaries, the nature of their activities and the tools at their disposal.

Climate change and war

Equally important are economic, demographic and environmental trends. Empirical research has quantified the impact of global warming as a 14 per cent increase in intergroup conflict for each standard deviation increase in temperatures (of which there are expected to be between two and four by 2050).

Gen Z

Equally, some surveyed attitudes of Gen Z – those born after 1997, represent particular challenges to an organisation based on rank, hierarchy and command authority. In these contexts, an institution like the army that has traditionally stressed service before self and the primacy of team must find an accommodation between these enduring philosophies and the growing emphasis on autonomy, self-direction and personal values at work. Values-based leadership will be more critical than ever in an environment where people expect to share values with their employer and may choose between job opportunities on this basis.


Focusing first on what would not change – the company’s core purpose and values – makes it easier to ask the organisation to take on what I knew would be fairly dramatic changes elsewhere. Whilst much of the focus for the future British Army is on technology, AI, cyber and space, always remember that what we do is, at its heart, a human endeavour, and our soldiers are that beating heart. One thing that will not change is the essential function fulfilled by command authority in military leadership: providing direction, clarity and accountability in situations where lives can depend on these things. It is still to unite a team of people around a common purpose, set freedoms and constraints, forge an effective climate, and challenge and inspire individuals to do their best work. Read “Principles“.

Key questions

  • What is the value of hierarchy in an environment that demands a more regular rhythm of decisions in real-time?
  • How does command adapt in a more fluid operating context and to meet the needs of people who expect more independence in their working environment?

New leaders

The future is perceived as one where leaders and their teams will face more complex problems. In a faster-moving context requiring increased delegation of authority, a breadth of skills will be needed. It needs a new kind of leader – one who initiates conversations that question, rather than reinforce, the status quo [and who] seeks contrasting opinions and honest disagreement. In US Army leadership doctrine, the requirements for character now list empathy and humility alongside the more accustomed attributes of discipline, values, warrior ethos and service ethos.

Psychological safety

As a major research project by Google into the characteristics of high-performing teams found, empathy and emotional intelligence may be the master skill of team builders in the modern environment. Top of this list was psychological safety. Teams that ranked highly on this dynamic showed improved retention levels, brought in more revenue and were twice as likely to be highly regarded by senior executives.


A learning organisation wrote the late economist and management academic Professor David Garvin, is skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights. Adaptability cannot just be an individual trait, but must also become an organisational virtue, hard-wired into institutional systems and processes.

Universal lessons

The book ends with the universal lessons:

  • Leadership is, at heart, a human endeavour whose lessons apply to almost any field of life.
  • The first of those universal lessons will always be about service, the leader’s duty and commitment to others.
  • Every leader is just one individual with restricted time, limited awareness and personal shortcomings.
  • The multiple forms of example that a leader provides through their everyday behaviour do a more important job of communicating intent and influencing people than any written or verbal communication.
  • A working life filled with hard problems demands moral courage: the ability to make good decisions rather than easy ones and the willingness to confront difficulties rather than duck them.
  • A leader who reinforces their personal integrity through displays of moral courage will forge bonds of trust and respect, just as surely as one who fails to do so will see their authority undermined.
  • By consistently working at t communicating vision, offering support, providing challenge – leaders can instil the habits of a cohesive, confident, self-reliant team.
  • Their responsibilities encompass the need to uphold the legacy of the past, to meet the needs of the present and to set the conditions for success in the future.
  • Good leaders have a bias to action and a tendency to reflect.
  • Every leader, of whatever age and role, remains a lifelong work in progress. For those curious and humble enough to seek them out, the most important lessons always lie ahead.

The book reminds me of “Dare to care“. But then with the hard edges. It is simple; excellence, character, discipline, principles and ethics. The rest you can learn. Add legacy.  We need to become better ancestors.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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