Why business needs military skills

Those in the military are able to focus on longterm goals despite uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty and embracing the future are attributes the corporate world needs.

The world around us is changing at an incredible pace – the graph is not linear, but exponential. Advances in technology threaten to outpace the ability of individuals and organisations to keep up. Some, like professor Stephen Hawking, are concerned that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence within a few decades. And the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane recently pointed out that 99 per cent of all the information ever created has been generated this century.
More than ever before, we need business leaders who don’t just deal with the challenges that this landscape throws up, but anticipate and embrace them. A long career in the US military taught me three crucial things, relevant to the military and business alike:
First, you have to understand the “why” of any organisation in order to both adapt and remain true to its purpose, culture and values.
Second, you will have to keep changing at increasing speeds to stay ahead of future surprises.
Third, the key to success is not systems, effective management or new technology, but the qualities of the people you entrust to lead the change.


As a US Marine Corps general, I was proud to serve in Iraq and on other operations. But I am also proud of what I achieved at home, helping the Marine Corps adapt and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.
The development and deployment to Afghanistan of an unmanned cargo helicopter – a project which demanded from my team remarkable vision, innovation, persistence and speed of execution to rethink what was possible – is a good example.
Businesses need leaders who can see and understand the future, and who can develop and execute the strategies necessary to ensure that we are ready for both what we think will happen and what may blindside us. The key to our future is men and women with the proven ability to adapt and innovate. These people will come from a range of disciplines, with skills that are not always taught in business schools or corporate training programmes.


Those with successful military leadership service can be a key source of talent. They can lead adaptation and innovation across all sectors of society. They already understand the importance of an organisation’s values, ethos and culture. These are the channels through which the lifeblood of a company flows – and are where change and development take place. Businesses would do well to focus on people who can maximise them. To be more optimistic than Hawking, these individuals could be the key differentiators as artificial intelligence reaches par with human capabilities.
And the nature of their work to date also means they understand and embrace the future – and have the qualities and skills to shape it. They have demonstrated the ability to be bold, take informed risks, focus on long-term goals, and deal with uncertainty and complexity. They have also shown initiative in the absence of direction, and have successfully met challenges while dealing with the unexpected.
As change continues to accelerate, these leaders will need to be empowered to use their initiative to lead change – something which may not feel natural in many organisations, especially those that have become successful through outdated management models.
The corporate world must now focus on educating future leaders, using a combination of learning and practical experience to teach the art and science of leadership.
George Flynn is an executive consultant with Skarbek Associates. He was previously a lieutenant general in the US Marine Corps.

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