Should a Business Be Run Like an Army?

“You make me look like the bad guy,” Carl told me.

We were having drinks after a long day’s work. Although we implemented a strict rule against talking about work after work (and especially when drinking), we were drinking … so we ignored our rule.

The problem, Carl explained, was that I was too complimentary toward the company’s middle management.

“You want first-class service for our customers,” he correctly pointed out, “and yet you are telling our managers that you love what they do – even though they are making mistakes.”

He was right. That’s what I usually do: I make sure that I say more good things than bad, so the bad will be listened to.

“But then when I tell them what they’re doing wrong, they tell me, ‘But Michael says I’m doing fine.'”

I could see his point. Some of his employees, like children, were not averse to pitting one authority figure against another. If Carl tells them, as he wants to, that he’s not satisfied with their work, they think (or say), “But Michael Masterson is happy with it.”

“If we want things to get better, we have to run this business like an army,” Carl said. “Our job is not to be nice. Our job is to get the work done.”

On that point, we are agreed. But our differences in management style are unlikely to change, because they are each based on a different management philosophy.

Carl’s model is, as he says, a military one. The military management system achieves a high degree of precision and performance by converting otherwise unruly young men (for the most part) into automatons that will do exactly what they are told – even if it jeopardizes their own safety or (as we’ve recently seen) violates ethical codes of behavior.

It’s not easy to get people to perform like that. The best way to do so is to put them through a period of physical and psychological abuse sufficiently extreme to break down their egos and eliminate any sense of individuality.

What’s good about the military model is that it produces extremely loyal and responsive soldiers. If you want your people to do exactly what you say exactly when you say to do it, the military model is the best one.

The problem with the military model is the same problem that armies face when they use it. Soldiers are trained to take and execute orders, not to think for themselves.

Soldiers work best when they get orders that make sense. So long as the generals know what they are doing and the chain of command works well, the army will do well. But when the generals can no longer figure out how to win the war and the communication systems begin to break down, the military model becomes a liability.

It begins to work against you for the same reason it worked for you: Nobody questions the orders. Once the orders themselves get foggy or misguided, the army quickly loses ground. Since it relies on top-down problem solving, it has no effective way of fixing problems with solutions that make sense – solutions that come from the bottom.

This is why formal armies find it nearly impossible to defeat localized resistance. The local fighters are able to change their tactics at will to suit their intuitive sense of how things are going.

They don’t need to wait for orders.

I don’t like the military model for business, because I don’t want to be a general. I don’t want to take on the pressure of having to solve all the problems, iron out all the details, and answer all the questions that inevitably come up. I want my managers to develop their own problem-solving skills so they can run the business themselves as soon as possible.

In other words, because I don’t want to be in charge, I prefer a management system that teaches people how to manage themselves. For me, that’s a program that involves enough positive encouragement to “win their hearts” (as a friend so aptly put it). Because only when their hearts trust my intentions will their minds be open to learning.

The model that achieves this is something like a coach/athlete model. I am not going to be running the race. The athletes are. I want them to believe in themselves so they will have the confidence to train hard and eventually win.

They need to trust my judgment. But when the games begin, it will be they … not I … who will be doing all the work and making all the split-second decisions. They must be ready to succeed, not me.

My goal is to develop independent profit makers and problem solvers. To achieve that goal, I must begin with a capable person. Rather than tear his ego down, I need to boost his confidence and let him know that I care about him.

I do this by giving him as many compliments as I can – and by making them sincere, specific, and frequent. I need to pay attention to his strengths and weaknesses. And I need to identify his special genius and let him know that I appreciate it.

By letting him know I believe in him, I ignite a spark of self-confidence that can fuel his growth. Since I want to develop an independent problem solver (and profit producer) rather than a soldier, I need to develop, first and foremost, his sense of individuality and inner strength.

Obedience and loyalty are the hallmarks of good soldiers. Confidence and creativity are the hallmarks of problem solvers.

Both management systems work. The question is: What kind of worker do you need?

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]