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What Can Business Leaders Learn from Military Cultures?

July 13, 2019

There have been plenty of parallels drawn in the past between military and civilian leadership – at least in an industrialized Western nation context. However, we North Americans have the tendency to perceive that the world begins and ends on our continent, and that other cultures don’t matter very much.

When I read the fascinating article emailed to me some years ago from the other side of the world, the wheels started churning. Written by Novel B. De Atkine, a retired U.S. military colonel, who has extensive experience in Middle Eastern issues, I started thinking about the business applications. Before we get into that area, let’s take a quick look at some of Colonel De Atkine’s key messages and conclusions.

The title of his December 1999 article (yes, folks, it’s now a 20 year-old article), which appeared in “The Middle East Quarterly” Why Arabs Lose Wars.

Now, I can just imagine some of you rolling your eyes, especially since so much has happened since then. The many events over the past two decades don’t need to be be enumerated.

Including culture in strategic assessments has a poor legacy, for it has often been spun from an ugly brew of ignorance, wishful thinking, and mythology.
– Norvell B. De Atkine

De Atkine’s angle was to explore how culture has influenced military leadership in Middle Eastern countries. To underline his argument about culture being largely absent from military strategic assessments, he points to how the U.S. army in the 1930s assumed that because Japanese culture didn’t possess a creative capacity that the country wouldn’t be able to advance in technology. Another example is Hitler’s belief that the United States was a “mongrel society,” which later came back to haunt him when America entered World War II in full battle dress.

The mistake made throughout military history is to either underestimate an enemy’s strength by making incorrect assumptions about its culture (the Vietnam War comes to mind), or viewing the enemy through one’s cultural norms. To use organizational learning language, this is the same as perceiving an enemy’s capabilities using one’s established mental models (our sets of assumptions created through our personal beliefs and experiences).

De Atkine states: “It is particularly dangerous to make the facile assumptions about abilities in warfare based on past performance, for societies evolve and so does the military subculture with it.” One example he gives is how the Israeli military underestimated the Egyptian army’s performance during the 1973 Yom Kippur, based on its poor efforts during the 1967 Six-Day War.

He then explores the relationships between enlisted soldiers and officers in Middle Eastern militaries. Noting that perhaps the biggest weakness in Arab military training is leadership development he adds, “Most Arab officers treat enlisted soldiers like sub-humans.” The lack of effective leadership is the result of two key factors:

1) a well-defined class system that is almost caste-like;
2) very weak non-commissioned officer leadership training.

A significant social and professional divide exists between enlisted soldiers and officers in Arab armies. In contrast, the NCO (non-commissioned officer) plays a vital role in Western militaries, serving as the bridge between commissioned officers and troops. Indeed, I’d add that this role is similar to the role of middle managers in organizations, those people to whom employees seek out to stay informed, launch complaints, and to receive feedback on work performance.

So what does all this mean when it comes to how cultural assumptions influence corporate leadership and strategy?

Think back to the 1960s and 70s when Toyota, Honda, and Datsun (now Nissan) were entering the North American automotive market. For those of you too young to recall, the quality of these three Japanese manufacturers was absolute crap. Honda Civics were rust buckets, Corollas were flimsy. I remember in 1972 getting out of one of my pal’s new Datsun when I accidentally bumped my foot on the exterior chrome molding. The entire strip fell off.

However, the Japanese, as history as shown, were focused on building solid cars, though it took several years. And while this took place, the Big Three automakers in the U.S. slept. Senior executives assumed, as De Atkine explains in a warfare context, that the Japanese didn’t possess the innovative and technological capacity to make robust motor vehicles.

Let’s look at a more recent example in the same industry: Hyundai. I well recall the junk (not an exaggeration) this Korean company produced in the 1980s and even into the nineties. Yet Hyundai is rocking and rolling as one of the world’s most reliable (and stylish) automotive brands, but based on affordability.

Much criticism has been directed towards the quality of manufactured products from China. A lot of it is well deserved. However, China, like Japan and South Korea, is steadily moving up the value chain, outsourcing low-end products to poorer countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, and focusing on value-added manufacturing and producing higher-end goods. Yet the North American assumption persists that what comes out of China is mainly poor quality. Witness how fast China has progressed in a few short years in the electric vehicle (EV) market (see above photo of Qiantu Motor’s K-50 EV due for production in 2020).

Cultural assumptions are dangerous, exceedingly so when placed in a global context where a brutal street-fight is underway for market share. Such assumptions lead to laziness on the part of management, which assumes that the future will replicate the past. Those in senior leadership positions who “get it” and continuously strive to maintain a creative tension on their employees to be creative and to be open to change will reap the rewards of stronger corporate performance.

It’s about leading people towards a shared vision, one in which each employee understands their respective role, and where they are given the leadership space to self-empower and to make a concrete difference to their organization.

To create the incentive to think seriously about future strategy, you have to create a deep sense of restlessness with the status quo. You have to help people understand that current success is very impermanent.
– Gary Hamel (Author, Professor, Thinker)

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