Anyone responsible for guiding a large corporation should be actively recruiting retired military officers. And here’s why.
Commanders are proven leaders. They’ve typically mastered the interlocking skills of how to resource, equip, and train an increasingly large number of troops for combat. Lieutenants start out guiding a platoon of 40 soldiers. Next comes leadership of a company, equaling four or more platoons. The units keep combining, and the number of troops keeps growing.
At the top, the numbers are staggering. For instance, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1993-97), Gen. John Shalikashvili sat atop all branches of the U.S. military, then totaling 1.7 million active-duty personnel. As SACEUR, the military head of NATO (1992-1993), he directed a mind-boggling 2 million troops, 2,300 tanks and 5,200 warplanes from 16 countries.
What enables leadership at that level? Using Shalikashvili’s career as an example reveals a wide range of skills in high demand at any Fortune 500 company.
For one, military leaders dedicate their careers to learning how to master complexity. For artillery officers like Shalikashvili, this includes keeping track of an eyebrow-raising number of variables—like powder temperature and projectile weight; compensation for tube wear, the effects of nonstandard weather conditions, and even the earth’s rotation; the resupply of ammunition, fuel, and rations; as well as working together in support of other combat units.
Yet leadership requires the ability to simplify complex tasks, which the military often does by setting standards and communicating them clearly to others. These skills are especially prevalent in the Army. As the largest service branch, its core strength lies in putting boots on the ground. It’s also the most diverse—in terms of education level, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. And on average it has the youngest, and thus least experienced, members.
The gravity of the warfighting trade also engenders the skill of precision. For example, fielding nuclear weapons, Shalikashvili’s focus particularly during his early career, requires constant vigilance, setting rigorous standards, and enforcing strict discipline. One crisis, one accident, or even one failed inspection has typically resulted in commanders all along the chain of command being relieved from duty. “In the field of tactical nuclear weapons,” explained Lieutenant General “Dutch” Shoffner, once the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, “when you ask an important question you expect a specific answer. And people trained this way take that attitude into other areas of their professional life.”
The military also often affords officers the opportunity for creative leadership. As the two-star commander of the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis in 1987, Shalikashvili oversaw a “high technology test bed” tasked to integrate three brigades—one heavy armor, one light infantry, and one “experimental mechanized”—into a new type of fighting force. This meant designing a division over 10,000 soldiers, building the actual organization, designing and procuring equipment, and both creating a corresponding doctrine and training soldiers how to fight under it.
And finally, while the Patton leadership style is popularized in movies, it is far from the norm. “You can’t be a designer of confrontation within the U.S. military,” noted Jack Walker, once the youngest general officer in the U.S. Army, “It just won’t work.”
The best officers use their power sparingly. “The strongest people don’t need confrontation or anger—but [instead they] know their stuff, their position, and when necessary will not budge,” notes former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who worked closely with Shalikashvili in the 90s. “Confrontation leaves scars—which over a long-term relationship can leave scar tissue that gets in the way. Shalikashvili did things in a way that people don’t have to lose. He created goodwill.” Walker agreed: “Shali wouldn’t get too strong … until it was really necessary.”
Putting all these diverse skills together can result in astonishing leadership ability. Take Shalikashvili’s command of Operation Provide Comfort. In the aftermath of Gulf War I, some half a million Kurds became trapped along the deadly mountain border between Iraq and Turkey, with 1,000 refugees dying per day. It was an unprecedented crisis, and it created an unprecedented response: Without any pre-existing agreements to provide institutional structure, over 35,000 soldiers from 13 countries and volunteers from over 50 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) came together—many of whom had never worked together and even had outright distrust of each other.
Under Shalikashvili’s leadership, in a mere 90 days, the task force was able to first stop the dying and then managed to move the Kurds peacefully back into Iraq. No wonder Chief of Staff of the Army General Gordon Sullivan would later liken Shalikashvili to the great jazz improvisational artist Dave Brubeck: highly trained in the classical approach but able to operate successfully, almost magically, in new conceptual territory.
In sum, retired military officers offer a wide array of leadership skills—including, but not limited to, understanding complexity, setting and communicating standards, precision, and creativity. Recruiting among their ranks is a low-risk, high-reward approach to injecting experienced leadership into the upper ranks of any large organization.
Andrew Marble is author of Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili’s American Success (University Press of Kentucky), the first-ever biography of Gen. John Shalikashvili. Marble has a PhD in political science from Brown University, an MA in law and diplomacy from Tufts University’s Fletcher School and a BA in East Asian studies from Middlebury College. Heis outreach editor for the Taiwan Journal of Democracy and a reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. For more information, visit andrewmarble.com.