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3 Lessons for CEOs in Deploying Military Leadership Principles

The greatest lessons on leadership come from real life, starting at home, and culminating in one CEO’s case in the Marine Corps. In between, schools from kindergarten through law school played roles but nothing compared to the Marines’ principled wisdom, distilled over centuries and taught by drill instructors in the Officer Candidate School and the Captain instructors at The Basic School.

Marines understand that leaders are made—not born. So they take whatever rough stuff families and schools provide, like me, and put them through a leadership crucible. Preparing for war may not seem appropriate for civilian life or business, but it is. Here are three indispensable rules for combat leadership that translate well at our company of 300.

First: Be mission focused. Be what? Be focused — see one thing as your goal. For example, in telecommunications, there are a number of ways to generate revenue. Our mission is to unlock remarkable value from IP networks using software and courageous co-creation. We do one thing, and do it well – and that’s helped us become one of the nation’s leading communications technology companies with steady growth over the last four years.

Words fail to encompass the richness and texture of a “mission” but that is what a business must have to drive it relentlessly forward, in unity, and in the face of fog and friction. Mission is what unleashes talent, motivates, and binds us together.

Second: Take care of your people. If pursuing the mission at any and all costs leads to burnout, to unnecessary resignations and high turnover, accomplishing the mission will not mean much to your company nor will success last long. Mission comes first but the health and creativity of people for the long haul comes second.

We’ve enacted very specific and aggressive work/life policies to abide by this principle. For example, we pay all of our employees’ health insurance premiums; require people to leave the office at 6:00pm, encourage them to take 90-minutes at lunch for exercise, and treat vacation as protected time for time alone, or with friends and family. This is not corporate altruism. This is corporate investment, short term and long term, aiming for the richest possible return—an empowered, free and productive company accomplishing its mission.

Third: Distinguish between strategy and tactics

One of the greatest lessons the military teaches is the ability to differentiate near-term tactics and longer-term strategies. Understanding and acting with a strategic perspective in mind helps you to discover tactics that make sense.

When I was going through basic training, we talked about a process called the OODA loop. It stands for Orient, Observe, Decide and Act. It’s a process for evaluating a situation and making a concise decision without a great deal of internalization and analysis. There is no room for “analysis paralysis” – you may be working with a smaller degree of information than if you waited, but it’s the swift pace of decision-making that allows you to grow an innovative, disruptive company.

For example, we launched a new wireless line of business in November 2011 on the simple premise that Wi-Fi was available at home and at work enough to power our smartphone’s calling and texting most of the time. We were the first team to offer a smartphone that used its native dialer and SMS client over Wi-Fi, and as a result were able to offer unlimited data, talk and text for a low cost. We didn’t have any firm data about this market’s potential; only the sufficient understanding of our surroundings and changing environment to move forward.

Disruptive? That word describes our strategy. We launch disruptive services, each designed to challenge the status quo. But to be a challenger, you must be quick and decisive tactically. It’s part of your main competitive advantage and must be learned by your team.

It’s been said that leaders are generally remembered for one of two things: the problems they caused through indecision or the ones they solved through immediate action. The decisive leader must to go out on a limb. It’s not easy, but out there is often where the fruit hangs.


The wise or would-be-wise take whatever lessons learned from the military and run to markets. From history we learn that no two leaders are alike and that we can learn from their successes and failures. Take for example Col. John Richard Boyd, USAF, one of the greatest tactical fighter pilots in history, who helped to design planes like the F-15, and then formulated the maneuver concepts used now by the Marine Corps in its Warfighting doctrine. Boyd started out a master tactician, graduated to creative design, and finished as a grand strategist. Industry and business learned a lot from Boyd, sifting through the implications of his disruptive concepts. His biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram is a superb unvarnished read.

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David Morken is the CEO of Bandwidth, a Wi-Fi centric mobile communications technology company based in Cary, NC.





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