Military and Corporate Business Leadership Models – Embracing The Difference


Wednesday, April 10, 2019   / 06:57PM / By Rear Admiral Akinsola M Johnson, (Rtd) / Header Image Credit: MA Johnson


Being the text of a paper delivered at the Nigerian Institute of Management Executive Training for Membership Admission Programme for National Defence College (NDC), Abuja, on 8 April 2019




In the past 5o years, leadership scholars have conducted more than 1000 studies in an attempt to determine the definitive styles, characteristics, or personality traits of great leaders in the corporate world.[1] None of these studies have produced a clear profile of the ideal leader. Thank goodness. If scholars have produced a “template” leadership style, individuals would be forever trying to imitate it. They would make themselves into personae, not people, and others would see through them immediately.


With respect to leadership, there are too many theories out there. There is no single prescription for leadership and no prescribed style for success in leading. In 1999 alone, more than 2000 books on leadership were published, some of them even repackaging the biblical Moses and Shakespeare as leadership gurus. Like beauty, leadership seems to live in the eye of the beholder and while we may recognize it in action, it is difficult to supply a universal description. The concept of leadership appears to be driven by myths; for instance, some say “leaders are born, not made;” others are of the view that “leaders must be charismatic and have unblemished private lives;” while a few say “leadership is management by another word;” there are those who believe that “leadership is for generals, corporate business leaders and politicians.” Yet, history, experience and observation contradict such glittering generalizations.


At one time or the other, you must have heard, read, and perhaps seen  a highly intelligent, highly skilled business chief executive or military top brass who was promoted into a leadership position only to fail at the job. And you may also know stories of generals, admirals, air marshals, or captains of industry, with solid but not extraordinary intellectual abilities and technical skills who were promoted into similar positions but performed well in office. You may be wondering how an intelligent and highly skilled person fails when assigned leadership responsibilities. It is because of the phenomenon known as leadership. “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomenon on earth.[2] Leadership is key to the success of the military both in peace and war, and to the survival of the corporate business not only when the business environment is friendly but also when you have a dysfunctional atmosphere.  It is against this background that the lecture will discuss ways of embracing the difference between the military and corporate business leadership.

The scope of the lecture will cover conceptual definitions, and this will be followed by origins of modern military and civilian interest in leadership. Next, we will discuss the similarities between the military and the corporate business, before delving into the differences between the two entities. This will be followed by a discussion on selected cases before considering ways of embracing the difference in leadership between the military and the corporate business.



The key words in the topic are military, corporate business, and leadership.



The term military is simply “the armed forces of a country.” But due to the composition of the audience, the military, on a broader scope will include the police and other paramilitary organizations in Nigeria involved in carrying out security responsibilities. These organizations provide security to the country and funded through tax payers money, but controlled by the federal government.



Corporate business is “a form of business operation that declares the business as a separate, legal entity guided by a group of officers known as the board of directors.”[3] A corporate structure is perhaps the most advantageous way to start a business because the corporation exists as a separate entity and distinct from its owners. A corporate business is owned by shareholders who share in profits and losses generated through the firms operations, and have three distinct characteristics: Legal existence, limited liability and continuity of existence.



Leadership is of no less interest within the military and its relevance is not limited to the corporate world. So we will see leadership from the military and corporate business angles. There are many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.[4]  From the military perspective, the Defense Leadership Centre’s definition of leadership is:

“Leadership is visionary; it is the projection of personality, and character to inspire people to achieve the desired outcome. There is no prescription for leadership and no prescribed style of a leader.  Leadership is a combination of example, persuasion and compulsion dependent on the situation.  It should aim to transform and be underpinned by individual skills and an enabling philosophy.  The successful leader is an individual who understands him/herself, the organization, the environment in which they operate and the people that they are privileged to lead.”[5]


The key elements of this definition are: Vision, projection of personality and character, and inspiring people.


Let us also consider the definition of leadership espoused by John P. Kotter, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School, on leadership and change. Kotter defines leadership as “the development of vision and strategies; the alignment of relevant people behind those strategies and the empowerment of individuals to make vision happen, despite obstacles.”[6] In other words, any leader worth his salt must have a vision, articulate strategies to achieve the vision, muster brains not brawns to actualize strategies, and empower followers by creating opportunities for them even in the face of economic obstacles.



Until the First World War, British military leaders were largely drawn from a social class defined by membership of the aristocracy or landed gentry.  According to the military historian, Gary Sheffield, the relationship of the Edwardian officer and soldier reflected the sort of ideal country in which leaders had the responsibilities of ruling, guiding and helping those in their charge.[7]  When so many of this officer class were killed in the campaigns of 1914-15, their places in the British Army were filled by men raised up from the ranks who had some education or had shown courage and raw leadership in battle.  They were taught the rudiments of ‘officership’, then based on the prevailing concept of paternalism, and donned the mantle of the ‘officer-as-leader’ and ‘temporary gentleman’. 


Respect for them was bestowed by the fact of their rank, regardless of their origins but had to be sustained by setting a personal example, putting their men before themselves, and leading from the front as officers were expected to.  Such a lesson, that leaders could be made, had been learnt in the United States during the American Civil War (1861-1865), a half century before the British experience, when the mass armies of that age could only be supplied with sufficient leaders by trawling every strand of society. 


Civilian interest in leadership derives obliquely from studies of management stimulated by the expansion of industry and the advent of mass production in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Never before had civilian organizations matched the size and complexity of armies and navies.  Leadership as such was not an initial concern until first explored within the context of understanding motivation and little or no attention was paid to the experience of military leadership as it was believed the setting was so different.


Within the armed forces a greater understanding of the qualities of leadership was provoked by experience of leadership failure in battle amongst those selected as officers early in the Second World War. Traditional selection methods based on personal qualities, social background and education were inadequate and a radical solution was adopted of inviting the contribution of psychologists, with evident success.  Their influence on selection processes in every industry continues today.  Beyond initial selection and induction training, however, there has been a lack of curiosity within the armed forces and the public service as to the research and lessons learned from civilian studies into the art of leading and the science which supports it, although within recent years this has begun to change.[8] Over time, the corporate world has produced outstanding business leaders who have successfully managed firms worth trillion dollars. We will discuss this later but let us look at similarities between the military and the corporate world. 



Today, leaders in the military and corporate business face tremendous pressure to meet short term targets and solve functional problems. In the military and corporate business world, you have to solve problems and overcome challenges. In fact, what is common to leaders in the military and the corporate world is courage, competence, and character. Character is the foundation; competence is about your skills of leadership and execution; courage is the energy that keeps you doing the right thing, even when there are challenges.


Both military and corporate leaders have competitors who are trying to beat them. So both require information, strategies, plans and good execution to win. The difference is the context and the fact that one is life and death of humans and the other is life and death of the company. The idea of war is however, much more serious and so the two must never be confused.


A wartime military needs competent leadership at all levels of command. No one has yet figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led. Of course these are significant differences, but there are certainly many correlations. Mainly, you have a mission and people as well as obstacles to overcome. Both the military and corporate business require leaders to influence their people to achieve results and meet their goals.


Negotiating is also similar to the military and corporate business leaders. Negotiations in any contemporary society affect all aspects of individual and collective life. Whether in the military or corporate business, negations are in constant session. In fact, you can negotiate anything- war, businesses, alliances between nations etcetera. That is why some scholars refer to the world as a “giant negotiating table.”



There are very few differences between the military and the corporate business.



The military is a large, complex and non-profit organization while the corporate business is established for profit.



Budgeting is another area of difference between the military and the corporate business. The military does not have to worry about where the money is going to come from after budgeting to make a change. But this is not the case with corporate business leader. The corporate leader bothers about sourcing for funds to implement the firm’s budget. Certainly, there could be a budget constraint for both leaders, but how to get funds is a big difference.



Is it easier to manage change in corporate business than the military? In the corporate world, firms just simply layoff their staff and pay them appropriate benefits if the business is not doing well. Managing change in the military can be a profound matter because of bureaucracy. For instance, when you decide to close a repair depot or a dockyard, what are you going to do with the staff? There may be differences in scale and scope but the military and corporate businesses deal with these issues. A need for change may come. Or it may not come. But you need to prepare for it. When it comes you must take a decision. You must “estimate the situation.”



Most of the differences in styles or methods of leadership can be related to differences in cultures. The basis of the military culture is the oath taken that puts mission accomplishment above life itself. The expectation of personal sacrifice is key. In the corporate world, loyalty is to the owner of the business. In the military, fundamental allegiance is neither to boss nor to the unit but to the Constitution. The culture of the military continues to place more emphasis on personal character than on personal expertise.



There is a big difference between the military and the private sector in corporate governance practice. Corporate governance is the “collection of mechanisms, processes and relations by which corporations are controlled and operated.”[9] According to Mark Goyder, “governance and leadership are the yin and yang of successful organizations. If you have leadership without governance you risk tyranny, fraud and personal fiefdoms. If you have governance without leadership you risk atrophy, bureaucracy, and indifference”.[10]


The military has the presidency, members of the defence committees of the National Assembly (NASS) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) interfering in the day to day activities of the military. In the case of the paramilitary, you have the Ministry of Interior. For instance, the MOD headed by the Minister, and ably assisted by the Permanent Secretary and other directors’ form the broad spectrum of those who form the corporate governance structure of the military. The NASS also performs oversight functions. Some of these individuals are politicians while others are bureaucrats. So you can see the predicament of the military in corporate governance.


In corporate businesses, the shareholders elect the board of directors who in turn determine the Chief Executive Officer, approve the overall strategic direction of the corporation and monitor its operations. Although, corporate businesses are subject to shareholder constituencies, such influence is far from the direct impact of the NASS over the military. It may probably be unfair to equate NASS oversight in managing the military with that of a corporate board as it oversees the direction of a corporation.


If you have had the rare privilege of working directly with members of defence committees of the NASS strictly under the laws which controlled your activities, you may have to do things which you may not necessarily agree with. On the other hand, if you had problems you could not cope with, members of the defence committee in the NASS may be available to make adjustments so that you do not get into trouble.


For the corporate business, transparency and accountability are very key as shareholders, the markets, analysts, and many outside people have their eyes on the firm and its performance on a daily basis. Corporate governance is important to any business. The same may be applicable these days to the military in Nigeria as some formations are generating funds through the public for goods and services provided.



Working habits differ between the military and the corporate businesses. In the military, there is a saying that you are to work 24 hours. With this idea, one is gradually damaging his or health. The corporate business do not do that as a matter of routine. A military personnel can change appointment after every 2 years, but a civilian working in a corporate business may not have that opportunity. The civilian goes on every day for the next 25 years without changing jobs every 3 years.


No matter where you are, your most important resource is the people who work with you. You must place a lot of emphasis on the morale, welfare and well-being of not only your staff but their families. If any of your staff has problem at home, he or she is no more useful to you anymore. This is a big issue with the military. Why? Deploy a military personnel for 3 months and he may end up spending one year without communication with his family for months and he cannot go on leave. It is the job first. Yes, the job comes first. But that does not mean the military commander must not respond to the needs of his personnel and the family. To say that the job comes first and everything else is second is not the best way to work as a commander who wants the best from your men.



There is a saying that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Military leaders and corporate business executives are doers; they execute. Knowledge is useless to both leaders until it has been translated into actions. But before springing into action, the executive needs to plan his course. The action plan is a statement of intentions rather than a commitment. It must not become a constraint. It should be revised often, because every success creates new opportunities. So does every failure. The same is true for changes in the business environment, in the market, and especially in people within the enterprise- all these changes demand that the plan be revised. A written plan should anticipate the need for flexibility. Planning in the corporate business can equally be frustrating. Looking ahead reliably more than 3 years would be stretching one’s luck. For instance, if you build manufacturing capacity too soon, you have got idle capital sitting on the ground. If the plants are built too late and you cannot supply your customers it affects your company negatively because it takes time to design and build these plants.  


Generals will plan for battles when they are going to war. Planning in the military is much more difficult to determine than it might be for corporate business because of political actors-presidency, NASS and the MOD.  How does the military lead in ways that position it for the future while also meeting current demands? Strategic Thinking, Strategic Acting, and Strategic Influencing are essential skills to adapt, innovate and succeed well into the future.


Without an action plan, the general may become a prisoner of events in the battlefield. But as you plan, there may likely be constant interference from political leadership in order to attain the military objective of the war.  Let’s take a 10-year transformation plan of any military organization. You may be surprised that at the end of the tenth year, you might have barely achieved only 50 percent of the plan because of cut in defence spending, and change in technology, among other problems. So changes in defence directions will affect your plans. And without check-ins to reexamine the plan as events unfold, the military may have no way of knowing which events really matter and which ones do not. There is no way you can plan for the future, let alone prepare for it, if you do not know your business.




Two cases are selected for study in this lecture to enable us generate new ideas and perhaps, carry out an in-depth investigation of an individual, group, time-period or event. This is an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other. For this lecture, the cases selected for study are: History will Credit Shinseki and Rapid Growth Impacts Negatively on Compaq. Let us start with Case One.




Case One, titled History Will Credit Shinseki is about General Eric Shinseki who was the former US Army Chief of Staff. He had a plan to transform the US Army to a lighter and more deployable force. “He could not achieve the innovative but controversial transformation plan to make the US Army more strategically deployable and mobile in urban terrain. He also implemented the wearing of the black beret for all US Army personnel. Prior to Shinseki implanting this policy, only the US Army Rangers could wear the black beret.” So when the black beret was given to all soldiers and officers, Rangers moved to the tan beret. One may not be far from the truth by saying that General Eric Shinseki had problems with changing an organizational culture of the US Army.


The General, according to reports, had conflicting clashes with the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, during the planning of the Iraqi War over how many troops the US would need to keep in Iraq for the postwar occupation of that country. He recommended “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” But his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, rejected his proposals in strong terms and from that moment, the influence of Gen Shinseki on the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined. You may say that Gen Shinseki was unable to convince his political boss about his plan. So is this a case of incompetence, insubordination, or lack of communication? Or was General Shinseki mislead by officers on the staff? We will address these issues during the question-answer session.  




Basically Compaq, as a computer firm, failed due to lack of understanding of the market. The company had talented staff coupled with competitive advantage over its competitors. Before its failure, she made the Fortune 500 companies in the USA. The firm expanded more than necessary in size. Can this be an example of tactics without strategy? The firm was unable to align strategies with shifting environment. The company had excess inventory and there was unexpected price competition which saw the company’s profit wiped away.                   


Key Takeaway      


The takeaway from these cases is that both the military and corporate business leaders must constantly design ways and means of survival (strategy) in the environment they operate, in addition to having carefully planned actions to enable them attain their goals (tactics). You may recall Sun Tzu’s philosophy that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, while tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” While leaders face tremendous pressure to meet short term targets and solve functional problems, businesses fail because of so many reasons. Failure can be rooted in bad management, misguided leadership, strategic failings, market changes or bad luck….. Or a combination of all these factors.




Although, there are differences between the military and corporate business leaders. The military and corporate business of the 21st Century have a lot to learn from each other. The military may benefit from a wider understanding of how the corporate business leader thinks and vice versa. The main differences between corporate business and the military are centered on organizational culture and how to align people to achieve their goals. What are the qualities of people recruited into the military? What are the attributes of those to be employed into the corporate world? They are not the same because the corporate business is established to make profit and remain in business irrespective the business climate. While the military is to defend the nation from land, sea and air against external and internal threats. What is the culture of both the military and the corporate world? The quality of people and the culture of both the military and the corporate business may not be the same. But one desires that they are the same for national development.


For both the military and corporate leaders to accomplish their missions, they need to have the right people in the right places. This is the biggest challenge in a nation like ours where many people are not pro-industry because the standard of education has significantly dropped. Yet, you need qualified staff. You need talents in leadership positions who understand that both the military and the corporate businesses are contributing to the economy of the country.


So recruiting people with leadership potential is very key, that is, people who are achievers and it is equally important to manage their career patterns. In the corporate world, there is no quota system because these are organizations whose purpose in business is to make profit and to remain in business among other reasons.


Reward system must be improved. You need to take care of the people and show that you care about them.  If you do not take care of your good staff through a reward system, the good staff will leave first. This is very common in the corporate world when the economy is good. In the military, the good officers and men do not leave frequently even when they are not satisfied with the condition of service. When those in the military do not like a leader they endure and still work together in order to achieve organizational goals. That is not to say that military personnel cannot retire voluntarily if they wish. After all, serving in the military service is voluntary. 



In conclusion, you need to be who you are, not try to emulate somebody else. You do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a leader. But with reasonable level of common sense and professional competence, you can be made a leader. Though, you can discover your potential right now, it may not be too late. All of us have the spark of leadership in us, whether it is in the military, business, or any organization. The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.


Drawing inspiration from some leadership scholars, great leaders must stand for strong values and build strong culture around them. They take responsibility for decisions. Leaders must lead by example and walk the talk. People are watching the leader and a good leader will be a powerful influencer. People are desperately wanting to see honorable leaders. Honorable leaders are secure in themselves; and because they have good values and courage, they can do the right thing even when it’s hard and when they suffer for it. Trustworthiness, of course, remains the essential medium in any leadership situation. Great leaders and good cultures have a remarkable similarity across the broad range of organizations, be it military or corporate.


Both the military and corporate business leaders must create appropriate corporate culture. Organizations create a corporate culture where people value strong leadership and strive to create it. We need more people to provide leadership in complex organizations that dominate our world today. We also need more people to develop cultures that will create leadership. Institutionalizing a leadership-centered culture is the ultimate act of leadership.


In both the military and the corporate businesses, leaders must have the courage to do the right thing. Courage is the strong base for a number of other leadership attributes like being authentic, having integrity and stronger character and resilience. Courage is key; for without it, you will fail at the point of greatest need. Both the military and the corporate leaders must embrace their differences.


Finally, permit me draw inspiration from the author of a book Leading with Honor,[11] “anyone can steer the ship through the calm waters; the real captains take it through the storms.” Facing the stormy oceans of leadership takes courage, competence and confidence. These three attributes of leadership are very important, but without courage, either you or the organization you lead will not achieve its goals.


Thank you for your rapt attention.


MA Johnson Rear Admiral (Rtd)

Abuja, April 2019                                                                            



About The Author 

Michael Akinsola Johnson, Rear Admiral (Rtd), MIoD MNIM CEng FIMarEST MBA ; Johnson had a distinguished career as a naval engineer, a weapons electrical specialist, until 3rd October 2014 when he took to writing and consultancy services. He can be contacted via . Kindly follow him on twitter via @akinsolajohnson  


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·         [1] Bill George et al, Discovering Your Authentic Leader, A Harvard Business Review Book, 1999, p163.

·         2James MacGregor Burns, Political Historian Leadership, (Harper & Rows: New York, 1978), p2.

·         3See accessed on 12 March 2019.

·         4 Bernard M Bass, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, State University of New York, Bass and Stogdill’s Book of Leadership, 3rd Ed, (Free Press: New York, 1990), p11.

·         5 Defence Leadership Centre.  This definition is not the last word on the meaning of leadership which remains a work in progress.  However, it does provide a foundation on which to build understanding.

·         6 John K Potter, on What Leaders Really Do, A Harvard Business Review Book, 1999.

·         7  G D Sheffield, Leadership In The Trenches, (Macmillan Press: London, 2000), pp 4 and 5.

·         8 As part of a series of studies designed to develop a strategy for leadership training, Brigadier Ian Rodley’s unpublished thesis, Leadership Development in the British Army, 1996, carried an extensive review of various theoretical models and examples of contemporary methods of leadership development taken from the civilian sector.  An investigation into the requirement for improving leadership within Defence by the Modernising Defence People Group, “Sustaining the Leading Edge: A Report on Leadership Training and Development,” April 2000, also leant on ideas from civilian writers and theoreticians.

·         9 accessed on 14 March 2019.

·    10 Mark Goyder, Living Tomorrow’s Company-Rediscovering the Human Purposes of Business, Gower Publishing, England, 1995

·         11 Lee Ellis, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton, Freedom Star Media, 2012.


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