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The Business of Leadership

29 May 2020
Green standing pegs surrounding a blue standing peg

In the future land force, close working relations with industry and the Australian business community will be more important than ever. Comparing the way military and business organisations work is a useful task for understanding organisational culture, and looking at how each organisation approaches leadership is a good place to start.

I became interested in this comparison as I observed a recent leadership seminar with a class of mid-career business professionals. This was a group of energetic and clever people who were emerging leaders in the private and public sector. There were equal numbers of women and men and all were post-graduates with at least ten years’ professional experience. We were a guest lecturer team of three Army officers: a current full-time member, a current part-time member and a recently separated full-time member, who is now working in business.

Nick Jans, who ran the seminar and who has been studying the organisational culture of the Australian Army for fifty years, says that leadership has three distinct elements: leadership, leaders and followership. According to Jans, the Australian military model, which he calls a ‘networked hierarchy’, not only enhances followership but ‘broadens the capacity of all within the network’. As a result of this insight, I wondered whether one of the cultural differences between military and business leadership might be how each organisation recognises followership.

At the beginning of the seminar, the business participants were asked to call out words they associated with ‘leadership’, ‘military’ and ‘military leadership’. The results were revealing. First, none of the terms in the ‘leadership’ list and the ‘military leadership’ list matched; however, four words from ‘military’ and ‘military leadership’ were the same. This suggested to me that the participants perceived military leadership to be more about being military than being a leader. The second thing I noticed was that while the words associated with ‘military leadership’ emphasised the leader as a controller, the words describing just ‘leadership’ suggested the leader was a facilitator. Perhaps this suggested that the idea of control in their own business workplaces was unacceptable to their organisational culture.

My third observation was that in the two lists relating to the military, there were words that evoked positive and peaceful concepts. It was encouraging to see the notion of a military organisation as a ‘force for good’ (implying a flexible and generalist aspect to the military organisation), but that seemed inconsistent with the idea that military leaders themselves were perceived as being culturally different from business leaders.

Viewing the lists through basic leadership models, perhaps the participants perceived military leadership as more trait based, and general leadership as more adaptive. However, leadership theories by themselves don’t explain why the lists were so different, so I returned to the idea of followership.

Followership requires a group of other people—colleagues, staff or subordinates—who follow willingly for a reason. Sometimes that reason is reciprocal reward and certainly—transactional leadership practices are more clearly identified in leaders who manage staff than those who don’t. But who do we identify as Great Leaders? I would argue that Martin Luther King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mahatma Gandhi may spring to mind before (say) your last boss. These weren’t managers of people, but individuals who inspired others to do as they did and follow their example. These are known as transformational leaders and their followers may not be as visible, or as accountable, to them as transactional leaders. Measuring followership can be difficult, but is it easier in a military organisation?

Certainly, followers in a military force are visible and, to a certain point, compelled to follow the leader. Arguably, everyone in the ADF follows someone—even the Chief of the ADF follows the Minister of Defence—and so we can presume a shared willingness to do so. We also enjoy a dynamic nature to the leader-follower relationship which rotates leaders and followers regularly. Poor leader? No problem, just wait two years! Through regular rotation, follower judgement is swift and follower feedback is clear for ADF leaders.

The language used by the business leaders arguably describes their own experiences. They saw their own leadership responsibilities as focussed on ‘people’, ‘teams’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘authenticity’—all suggesting a desire to develop followership. However, the inclusion of the words ‘difficult’, ‘complex’ and ‘questioning’ under the leadership heading, but not on the military leadership list, would suggest that their perception was that military leaders do have it easier!

So, what are the implications for Army? As an organisation that consists of only leaders and followers—there are no lone wolves—our practice of following has been developed alongside our practice of leading. Our years of disciplined followership have developed effective teams, helped us evaluate our leaders, and made us value our own contribution. Our organisation is hierarchical, but we are judged more by our followers than by our bottom line or a board of directors. And we can go from the top of a small team one year, to the bottom of a large team the following year. I guess we make good followers, even at senior levels, and that is something business leaders can only admire!

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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