From BDUs to Pinstripes

Former coalition forces deputy commander Lt. General Sir Robert Fry believes the real leadership lessons business can learn from the military aren’t necessarily those that are being learned.

September 14 2010 by Jennifer Pellet


Sir Robert Fry, formerly of the Royal Marines and deputy commanding general of coalition forces in the Iraq war and now executive chairman of global business consultancy McKinney Rogers, believes there are transferable leadership lessons from the military to business. They are just not the ones most people tend to focus on. The leadership lessons, say, of Joan of Arc, or Genghis Khan, to borrow from the familiar tropes of popular business literature, are only useful if you wish to retake castles from Burgundians or conquer Asia. This isn’t helpful if one is trying to sell more computers to Wal-Mart.

Before joining McKinney Rogers, Sir Robert was a vice president of Hewlett-Packard, where he ran its $1.5 billion Mideast defense business. He remains an advisor to HP and a number of other companies in defense and banking. The challenges of bringing two disparate teams together to fight a war are not dissimilar, he reckons, from two previously competing organizations that must work together as a result of a merger or acquisition.

Before business, he completed a military career that included posts at the highest level of strategic direction and deployed command. In 1997, in the rank of brigadier, he became the director naval staff in Britain’s Ministry of Defense, after which he took over command of 3 Commando Brigade and was deployed to Kosovo. Four years later, he was appointed commandant general of the Royal Marines and became commander, U.K. amphibious forces, a year later, and headed the UK maritime component of operations in the Gulf. His final operational tour followed in 2003 as deputy commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq, where he served under current U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey (See CEO2Gov Summit) and was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit. He is a visiting professor at Reading University and a visiting fellow at Oxford.

As Sir Robert said in a UK interview, “The advantage that someone from my background has is that compared to being surrounded by the Taliban, it doesn’t feel that dangerous. Nothing that I do is ever going to be as difficult as that, which is profoundly emancipating.” CE’s J.P. Donlon recently caught up with him in McKinney Rogers’s New York office.

Which leadership lessons are most transferable from the military to business and which ones are not?

Let’s first focus on what is different. In business nobody is killed, even though it doesn’t always feel like that when reputations and livelihoods are at stake. Second, soldiers only fight part of the time. They spend an awful lot of their time preparing to fight. CEOs do business all the time. They constantly face the business operation before them.

One of the things that soldiers try and do is fight one fight and plan another fight and do the same simultaneously. That is a trick that I have not seen played that well in business. The reporting culture of American corporations, which places a huge emphasis on quarterly results and the verdict of the Street, often focuses them only as far as the end of the next quarterly reporting period.

Hence, excellence in tactical execution frequently succeeds at the expense of strategic vision. Many businesses don’t have any narrative that links those two things, allowing everybody at intervening levels of execution to know their part in fulfilling the overall vision. This is something that we as a company try hard to create—a narrative that joins the CEO’s vision to the way that the guy on the shop floor does his job and either knows or doesn’t know the part he’splaying in trying to fulfill that vision.

Give us an example.

Let me offer a military one first. In 2006, I spent quite a bit of time with General Casey in Baghdad during what was probably the worst time in the whole of the Iraq engagement. It was after Fallujah, and by every measure it seemed that things were getting worse. But it was also the first time it began to be possible to see that we might prevail. The reason for that is that Al Qaeda had been the subject of relentless attack by General [Stanley A.] McChrystal’s special forces group, which consisted of both American and British forces. This campaign, of which little has been written, was the most relentless and singular military operation that I’ve ever seen in my military career. It broke Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In doing that, it created the condition where the Sunni, who were forming the resistance to the Iraqi central government, and who if nothing else were realists, began to see that their affiliation with Al Qaeda was leading them nowhere. If they didn’t shift their political ground, they would be left entirely politically isolated. So that’s the point at which the Iraqi resistance began to seek reconciliation.

Once the Sunni began to seek reconciliation, that then empowered the [Nouri al-] Malaki government to actually begin the containment of the radical elements within the Shiite population, which was his own natural constituency. But he was unable to control them until such time as he had potentially an alternative political constituency, which were the Sunni refuseniks.

The highly focused and specific application of military capability against a highly defined target—Al Qaeda—was only possible because there was a complete narrative through the engagement strategies into all of the players who were involved at the time. The Sunni, who were alienated, saw that their current position was a dead end and sought political accommodation.

In business, I recall that the work we did with Diageo helped revive fundamentally moribund brands like Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff. These languishing brands were given a focus and purpose and their entire structures were revivified. Johnnie Walker managed to retain its lead ahead of the market ever since.

How was this done?

We use the technique of mission leadership, which is about taking a vision and testing that vision. It’s no use just plucking something out of the air and saying, “This is what we’re going to do.” It has to be associated with a resource available to discharge it. And it has to be inspirational.

But once you’ve tested it and you make the judgment that this is something that can be achieved, it’s then about going through the process of mission analysis, which starts with the CEO. This is what I need to achieve. It then goes to the sequential layers down through the organization where you need to work out—I don’t tell you how to do this, this is your responsibility to work out your own mission analysis and see what you need to do in order to support my vision and support laterally the other people who are contributing towards that process.

This cascades down through the organization. You then have a clarity and a unity of intellectual purpose within the organization.

How can CEOs best achieve mission leadership to close the gap between tactical excellence and strategic vision?

It starts with self-knowledge. A leader must provide an aiming point for the organization to proceed along. He’s the only person that can do that. And it’s got to be rooted in the capability and capacity of the organization. From this point, he must go through the process of mission leadership and mission analysis, to examine what he needs to achieve in order to set the preconditions for everybody else.

One of the things implicit in the whole idea of mission leadership is releasing the competency right through the entire organization. A controlling CEO who sits on the top of people and is only satisfied when he feels that he has governance over everything that lives and breathes in his organization is the direct antithesis of the sort of man that we’re trying to create. That man is limiting the ability of his people and his organization. He’s not releasing them.

And one of the things that I’ve always felt instinctively, that the best thing to do to people is to establish a head mark for them, establish limitations and reasoned freedoms. Ensure that what you’re asking them to do is commensurate with the resource that you’re providing them to do the job.

Now, clearly, it’s not as simple as that. There’s got to be a process of business review and a degree of scrutiny. But what that should be is the lightest possible touch. And I’ve always found—and I hold as an article of faith—that actually releasing people’s abilities is one of the best things you can possibly do.