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Life During Wartime: What the Generals Can Teach Us

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“The fog of war” is a phrase that may or may not have been uttered by Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. But those four words have had a lasting legacy in and out of military usage, often being invoked when events are confusing, reliable information is in short supply and there is much to lose.

Not surprisingly, it’s a phrase that has come to mind as organizations around the world battle against a deadly foe, COVID-19. True, you’ve never clashed with Napoleon’s army, but as you’ve struggled to learn just what’s going on with your suppliers in Asia (or in the next state) or worried over the health and welfare of your people, “fog” and “war” have probably sounded pretty accurate.

Like a battle foe, “COVID-19 is also deadly, and leaders in all organizations are making life-and-death decisions quickly, under intense pressure and with incomplete information. The scale and complexity of the situation is greater than any one person can comprehend or manage, and the stakes are high. Leaders are having to make consequential decisions that will affect the lives and livelihoods of their employees for years to come. Military leaders operating in the fog of war know all about that.”

That’s the assessment of a new McKinsey and Co. article, “Lessons from the Military for COVID-Time Leadership.” McKinsey’s writers distill six military best practices to help business leaders lead during this campaign:

  • Account for the human factors — By now, everyone knows that it’s people who are doing the heavy lifting here (whether in hospitals or warehouses) and those people (and their families) who are facing the biggest risks. Indeed, for many people everywhere, this might be the biggest trauma of their lifetimes. As a leader, you forget about them at your peril.
  • Plan, plan some more and watch for escalating problems — McKinsey quotes another smart general here — Dwight Eisenhower — who said “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In other words, be ready to change your plans as events change, but you’d be a fool not to prepare for what’s ahead. You can start by applying what you’ve learned in the past couple of months.
  • Use the principles of “mission command” to achieve ultimate empowerment — This is where your boots on the ground (or socks in people’s home offices) feel empowered to make the best decisions possible when those plans (to borrow another old military phrase) are “FUBAR.”* “Business leaders need to ask themselves if their employees have that level of capabilities and freedom of action: If the videoconferencing system goes down or a major supplier can no longer deliver, will their employees sit around in paralysis or devise ways to keep moving?” McKinsey asks in its article. “Do employees have the training to react and take appropriate decisions?”
  • Communicate succinctly and create a single source of information — Keep your message simple, repeat it frequently and establish a single, trusted source of information. Unfortunately, an example of how not to do it comes courtesy of another general.
  • Hurry carefully — Zen-like in it’s clarity, this means that taking 10 minutes to think about or discuss an idea is probably a good idea before you execute on it.
  • Do not expect or demand perfection — Yeah, we live in a Six Sigma world, but there will be times when you’ll have to accept that “good enough is good enough.” By all means, take that 10 minutes advised above, but don’t procrastinate while you seek perfection. At this moment in time, you probably won’t find it anyway.

We’ll leave you with this bit of wisdom from McKinsey & Co.’s authors: “Everyone wants to have the perfect team, the best experts and plenty of time. Perhaps the most important lesson from the military is that you almost never have these happy conditions, so constant change and evolution are needed to outmaneuver the opposition. Leadership up and down the ranks, adaptability and a clear understanding of the mission make the difference.”

*Our word choice, not McKinsey’s.

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