Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership

Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership

Eric Chewning, David Chinn, Elizabeth Young McNally, and Scott Rutherford | McKinsey

Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership

Eric Chewning, David Chinn, Elizabeth Young McNally, and Scott Rutherford | McKinsey

“Mission command” and other military principles can guide policy makers and business leaders thrust into crisis.

"Forget the metaphor: in the most fundamental sense, dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is not like waging war. The enemy is a virus, not armed combatants, and countries around the world are in the struggle together.

Yet certain analogies apply. COVID-19 is also deadly, and leaders in all organizations are making life-and-death decisions quickly, under intense pressure and with incomplete information. The scale and complexity of the situation is greater than any one person can comprehend or manage, and the stakes are high. Leaders are having to make consequential decisions that will affect the lives and livelihoods of their employees for years to come. Military leaders operating in the fog of war know all about that. Moreover, the military is skilled in managing a variety of crises—from fighting wars to organizing emergency responses during natural disasters.

Having served in militaries and worked closely with them, we have a keen appreciation of the strengths of their leadership. We also recognize that the military culture is unique, characterized by a shared sense of mission, values, and standards; by unquestioning adherence to authority when required; and by extensive training and procedural practice. Even bearing these differences in mind, however, government and business leaders can learn lessons from the best military practices.

In this article, we offer six lessons that have proved valuable in the military context and that adapt well to other kinds of organizations.

Account for the human factors

Militaries recognize that morale, unit cohesion, mental health, and family stability affect performance. The stress of a sudden crisis will exacerbate preexisting personnel issues, as well as create new ones. As a result, militaries have developed institutional mechanisms to address these challenges. You may recruit the service member, but you retain the family.

Often too the end of the crisis is the start of a new set of challenges; most military units see an increase in mental-health issues after, not during, a combat deployment. Business and government leaders should prepare for these challenges as well. For a large portion of the workforce, the pandemic will be the most stressful period in their lives. Financial insecurity, health concerns, changes in the patterns of family life, isolation—all have made the past few months a daunting experience that will certainly linger as economies restart and enter the “next normal.”

Plan, plan some more, and watch for escalating problems

Military leaders are obsessive about planning: they know that the battlefield is always an uncertain environment, so they continually test their ideas. General (and later president) Dwight Eisenhower once quipped “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” To prepare for war, military leaders put together teams of planners with diverse backgrounds and expertise, drawn from different organizations (and, if the effort is an international one, different nations). The process of rapidly integrating and iterating these perspectives goes on constantly.

Often, there will be two teams of planners—one focused on contingencies in current operations and the other (the plan-ahead team) thinking about the requirements for future operations. This approach not only creates better plans but also ensures that the people responsible for execution share a common understanding of the assumptions, objectives, and contingency options. Business and government leaders also need to plan extensively and at all levels and to examine possible contingencies—something many are now trying to do amid the rapidly developing COVID-19 pandemic.

Plans must often be redrawn as circumstances change. Modern militaries think that war requires management at three levels: strategic (national priorities), operational (regional operations), and tactical (specific battles and engagements). Rapidly moving events will affect each of these: for example, a tactical crisis can escalate to a strategic one, and national priorities can lead to tactical engagements (as happened in US and UK military operations in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11). In a broad way, business operates similarly: for example, the loss of a specific account (tactical) may hurt a business unit’s annual plan (operational), which may cause a company to reevaluate its portfolio (strategic). Leaders therefore synchronize their planning cycles and assumptions to account for rapidly changing economic circumstances. They constantly reassess and refine plans and actions.

Use the principles of ‘mission command’ to achieve ultimate empowerment

There is a popular misconception that militaries are defined by top-down decision making: officers supposedly make decisions and troops do what they are told. Any force, naturally, has hierarchies and rules, but this style of leadership hasn’t been the norm in the most advanced militaries since the end of the 19th century, when the Prussian general staff developed the concept of “mission command.” At its core, mission command is about empowering officers to seek action in line with the intention behind the order and not the order itself when it cannot be executed. That requires flexible structures, well-defined intent, and trust."

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Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership, Eric Chewning, David Chinn, Elizabeth Young McNally, and Scott Rutherford, McKinsey & Company, 2020