Mutual assured destruction

As we prepare to turn to our discussion of what managers really do in organizations, we have found it useful over the past few weeks to first try to broadly clarify what it is, indeed, that organizations do.

In “Managing Leadership” I wrote that it is generally ill-advised for civilian managers to look to military commanders as models for their own behavior (this caution applies especially to their misuse as guides to the pseudo-practice of “individual leadership”). While there are many significant reasons for this, they are beyond the scope of this discussion, so we will confine ourselves here to noting that they revolve around the exceptional and profoundly unique factors that drive a military commander’s thinking and behavior – factors which do not exist outside the military sphere.

As it happens, though, many of these reasons are also precisely those that make military organizations especially well-suited for such examination. And in that spirit we have been looking at the foundation military maxim regarding the relationship between command and organizational purpose: the commander’s primary responsibility is to the mission, and only secondarily to the welfare of the troops.

We observed last week that civilian organizations, particularly since 1960, have developed a concern for the welfare of their employees that may, at first glance, appear to be stronger than this maxim would suggest is the case in the military. And yet, as we’ve also noted, dedication to the welfare of the troops is universally acknowledged as an almost omnipresent force in the military, felt from every direction and at every point, even as all units and their members firmly acknowledge that it does, indeed, come second to mission accomplishment.

So, how do we put all of that together into something that makes sense at all, much less that we can use to help drive our conversation about the real role of managers in civilian organizations?

The answer is really simplicity itself: organizations cannot and do not come in to existence in order to provide for the benefit of their employees. If they attempt to, the effort will inevitably be exposed as fundamentally unsustainable and will fail both their own and their staff’s interests.

Oddly – and sadly – enough, even the military is often pressured to get this the wrong way round, But in the end the fact must be honestly confronted that the military operates in an environment where idle fantasy is an early casualty. Ideas about how to organize and operate military units gain no traction from how “progressive” or “enlightened” they might be deemed by those consumed by such things. These ideas are subjected to a relentless and unforgiving triage process that weeds out the nonsense without delay, without ceremony, and without a second thought.

What survives is what works. What works is what is employed. And much of that has stood the test of time impressively enough – some, in fact, for millennia. One of those is the maxim that the commander’s first responsibility is to the unit’s mission, and only secondarily to the welfare of the unit’s troops.

So, again: how do we put the two together?

What we’re going to see is that these two instincts are not really inconsistent at all, but are actually intensely mutually reinforcing. We will look at that next week.

Thanks for stopping by – hope to see you again soon . . .

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