Strategy advice: Thinking out of the box requires getting your head out of that box

Strategy advice: Thinking out of the box requires getting your head out of that box


By Michael J. Hennelly, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest columnist

Management scholars, for the most part, ignore the world of military strategy and military strategists return the favor. Mention the value of management concepts to an Army officer and the likely, knee-jerk reaction will be some derogatory comment that usually incorporates the phrase “McNamara and his Whiz Kids.” As if one isolated example from fifty years ago encapsulates the value and relevance of an entire field of study.

How do I know that military thinkers ignore management thinkers? Because I looked at three years worth of the U.S. Army War College quarterly Parameters (2014-16). During that time, there were 12 issues of Parameters and they contained substantial reviews of 180 different books. Exactly one of those books was written by a management author. I find this lack of intellectual cross-fertilization to be surprising because the fields of military strategy and corporate strategy share a substantial number of issues of interest: outsourcing (think of private military contractors), organizational analysis, disruptive innovations (think of drones), ethical leadership, strategic leadership, organizational culture, to name but a few.

As someone who served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, taught in two different MBA programs and taught strategic management at West Point for seven years, I can state with assurance that the fields of corporate strategy and military strategy have much to offer one another. In other words, management thinkers have come up with ideas that provide insight into military problems.

The corporate world spends a great deal of time thinking about the professional development of executives and it is estimated that the field of executive education is a $70 billion industry. There are those who think that Army generals over the last fifteen years of war have demonstrated a mindset that is more tactical than strategic. Anyone interested in how organizations can get their leaders to change their mindset can benefit by examining how the corporate world has approached this issue. Over the last few decades, CEOs have found that their boards have new expectations: They expect them to have a global mindset, a digital mindset, and a mindset that understands corporate social responsibility.

Reflecting on corporate lessons of executive development clearly shows that the task of getting leaders to evolve and grow extends far beyond the classroom. Growth as a strategic leader primarily occurs in developmental assignments that hone strategic thinking. The task of developing strategic leaders is more difficult than it first appears because it will only occur if Army leaders were willing to promote officers with non-traditional career paths. This decision would require Army leaders to change basic assumptions and cultural values that they use to guide the officer personnel management system.

Historically, military leaders value the idea of leadership far more than management. They associate the concept of management with narrowly defined technical functions such as “logistics is management” or “weapons procurement is management.” In reality, the task of managing, defined as the entire spectrum of activities from initial strategic plan to mission accomplishment, encompasses a much broader range of competencies than leadership. It is understandable why military leaders prize leadership but most of what happens in organizations to make them effective and competitive is management. Influencing people to achieve goals beyond the limits of one’s authority is leadership. Everything else — strategic planning, developing resources, ensuring effective implementation of strategy — is a management activity. One of the reasons why George C. Marshall was a principal architect of victory in World War II was because he was a brilliant strategic manager. The story of the frantic, global expansion of the U.S. Army in the early days of World War II vividly illustrates many concepts of strategic management and the example of Marshall demonstrates the value of the study of strategic management for senior officers.

Military historians have noted, “mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.” The concept of strategy is too important and too complex to be approached with tunnel vision. An awareness of corporate strategy provides diversity and depth to military strategic thinking but it will require many people in the Army to change their ideas about officer professional development. This is not a task that can be accomplished by simply changing the curriculum at Army schoolhouses. It can only accomplished the same way change always happens in organizations. People become motivated to accept change when it makes them more competitive for promotions and desirable assignments. They are motivated to accept change when senior leaders model and communicate the importance of this new approach to strategy. They become motivated when the culture of their organization evolves and values this new approach to the study of strategy. As one last example of the relevance of the field of management, I should point out that I didn’t invent the specific change management techniques listed above. They came from management scholars who specialize in the topic of organizational change.

Military leaders have traditionally been slow to incorporate new fields of thought. The idea that economic concepts have strategic significance only began to resonate with military leaders in the 20th century. It wasn’t until after World War II that military leaders saw the relevance of the field of sociology (largely through the pioneering efforts of scholars such as Morris Janowitz). Now in the 21st century, the field of psychology demonstrates its relevance by spearheading discussions on such topics as resilience and grit. It is past time that we recognize the relevance of the field of management to the military world.

Mike Hennelly served in the U.S. Army for 21 years where he qualified as an Army Ranger and certified as an Army strategist. Later, as a civilian with a Ph.D in strategic management, he taught strategy to MBA students at two different universities and then spent seven years teaching strategy and leadership to cadets at West Point. Since retiring from West Point, he provides seminars on strategic leadership to executives of some of the world’s largest companies.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense