Leadership in business - Lessons from war

18 August 2015

18 August 2015 by Duncan Cochrane-Dyet

It probably goes without saying that the foundation of the success of our Armed Forces is leadership, at all levels. The army trains its officers at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where leadership is taught formally.

Odd then that we in the business world do not place the same emphasis on leadership as a discrete skill that can be developed, and disregard the huge and beneficial impact that effective leadership at all levels can have. There is virtually no formal leadership training, although this is starting to appear as a component in management courses. An important distinction however between those two skills.

So let’s look at what the British Army is teaching now. There are 5 themes, underpinning what leaders are and what they do:


Leaders are responsible for everything that occurs in their organisations. Even when a task is delegated or when something that takes place is not the direct fault of the leader, they remain responsible. The decisions and actions of leaders resonate; through their behaviours they set the moral framework of their organisation.

‘My Lord,If I attempted to answer the mass of futile correspondence which surrounds me, I should be debarred from the serious business of campaigning... So long as I retain an independent position, I shall see no officer under my command is debarred by attending to the drivelling of mere quill-driving from attending to his first duty, which is and always has been to train the men under his command that they may without question beat any force opposed to them in the field.’ Field Marshal Wellington, 1812 


There is a strong human tendency to adopt the characteristics and behaviours of those around us, particularly those we respect. This is ‘example’, happening sub-consciously and potentially against our will.  Leaders are role models. Their values will be judged and assimilated by those they lead.

‘The Squadron Leader called for me on the radio. I ran back to where I thought his position was. On my way there I met the Squadron Sergeant Major;Sir, The Squadron Leader’s after you’‘I know, I’m going to find him’‘You’re going the wrong way Sir’‘But that means he’s ahead of me’‘He’s the Squadron Leader, Sir. The clue is in the title.’ From that moment, I realised what was required of me.’Troop Leader, Afghanistan


So much depends on the judgment of, and decisions taken by, leaders. It is equally applicable to those in recruitment, training, procurement and planning. This demands a ruthless pursuit of excellence. Excellence provides example; ‘example’ is pivotal.

'In itself the danger of a doctrine is that it is apt to ossify into dogma, and to be seized upon by mental emasculates who lack virility of judgement and who are only too grateful to rest assured that their actions, however inept, find justification in a book, which if they think at all, is, in their opinion, written in order to exonerate them from doing so.’ Major General JFC Fuller


No leader is ever quite as good as they might be. Self- analysis and study is a continual process that requires humility and a willingness to recognise mistakes and take remedial action. We must challenge convention to ensure that we do not continue to do what we have always done, and so get what we have always got.

'Think to the finish.’ General Allenby, 1907


This self-evident facet of leadership is something applied to all decisions, be they formal plans or daily human interactions. At times judgement is the application of intuition; at others a deduction born of analysis.

‘A risk is a chance you take; if it fails you can recover.

A gamble is a chance taken; if it fails, recovery is impossible.’ Field MarshalRommel


All of us can extract something from military leadership, and bring it to our present business. Even if some of us have to work on it a little…

‘Sir, when you get to your regiment, your troops are going to follow you out of pure b****y curiosity.’ Colour Sergeant Carter, Instructor, to 2nd Lt Cochrane-Dyet RMA Sandhurst 1989

Get in touch with our expertsEnquire now