Military Mindset in Business

An executive at one major company where I worked was overhead to make the remark “The reason we like to hire guys with a military background is because they know how to take orders.” That statement now seems even more telling on other levels that have become apparent through life experience.

First of all, it openly acknowledges what those of us who have worked for major companies have known or at least suspected; that critical thinking and creativity are often far less valued than obedience and loyalty. Why? In simplest terms, employment decisions are often based on traits that are useful to make the job of management easier:

  1.  Obedient people are much easier to manage and control.
  2. Loyal people tend to overlook the shortcomings of the organization and its bosses, so helps to keep any dirty laundry “in house”.

Both are motivated by shortcomings in management theory and practices that have been largely accepted as a standard operating procedures at many companies for at least the last hundred years. One underlying assumption is that management members are less (or not at all) accountable to those beneath them in the organization’s hierarchy, but rather only to those above them, or others who will assist them with reaching their own goals. The good of all others, including employees, the organization, and society at large, are incidental to this mindset.

The second aspect of this statement is the recognition that military personnel have been trained to subsume their own self interests in order to achieve a higher goal. If presented a goal by those above them in the chain of command, the embedded instinct is achieve the goal at all cost, including personal sacrifice. This is obviously important within a military organization for which the ultimate goal is national defense or other outcome deemed necessary. If each soldier is worried about saving his skin rather than achieving the overarching goal of military conquest, maintaining a disciplined fighting force is exceedingly difficult. The means to create this selfless operative is through a form of behavior control that begins with the experiences in basic training, and is then reinforced throughout the organization for the duration of military duty. However, after military service, it is not clear how or if this form of “mind control” is switched off within the psyches of exiting military personnel. If ex-military personnel are valued for their loyalty and obedience by civilian employers, it is reasonable to conclude that this trait still exists upon exit from military service. [1]

To understand the transference of this military mindset into common business management practices, I did some informal research several years ago into the origins of modern management theory. My personal motivation at the time was simply to understand why companies continue to operate with ideas that have been largely refuted or discounted by findings in motivational psychology, cognitive science, and operations theory. A secondary benefit intended was to learn about those management practices that have been found to be successful over long periods of time, without the negative effects found in many “traditionally” run businesses.

What I discovered was unsettling at the time, since it contradicted much of the training in management that I had been given up to that point. But it also confirmed the intuitively obvious – that directive management (often called theory X) was not based on sound research and tested theories, but was simply an adaptation of the military model. The mostly likely reason was that many business leaders were recruited from the ranks of military commanders, many of whom needed new jobs when their military service ended after recent wars. The approach they brought with them was the expectation that they were right (simply because they were the “leaders”) and their commands were to be followed without question. Thus the military model of business leadership was in part due to the assumption that it worked (since we won the war) and also because it was effective and efficient, at least in the short term.

However, one glaring deficiency in this adaptation of military ideas in a civilian environment is that most civilians are not necessarily trained to be unquestioning robots (despite efforts of our public education system, which was also based on a military training model) as are military inductees. So many civilian personnel get tired of being told what to do without any opportunity to question management decisions and offer alternatives. When the economy is robust enough to support it, people are likely to try to find other jobs with more favorable working conditions. Especially among the ranks of professionals who have more alternate employment options, there tends to be a migration toward companies that allow self-directed achievement of goals rather than directive management of their activities. Presumably over time the companies that maintain high expectations, along with encouraging individual initiative, tend to attract the best and brightest in their field, thus predicting that these companies will be more successful over the longer term.

On the other hand, companies who tend toward directive management practices will tend to have more employees over time who are passive followers rather than free thinking innovators and mavericks. This can potentially work out well when the company produces a well defined output, such as industrial products in mature industries that are either standardized or highly regulated. These companies may not need to be continual innovators due to the cautious culture that exists within regulated environments, which tend to resist significant changes due to risk or cost factors.

The bottom line, according to worldwide trends, is that directive management practices based on the military model are on the way out, quite ironically, even within the US military, which has come to understand that risk management in a dynamic battlefield environment requires the skill, knowledge and judgment of the individual soldier.

Maybe it’s time for businesses to again learn from what the military has been discovering and embracing recently! Freedom is a good thing!


[1] For all who have served in the military or been through boot camp, this is not in any way intended to be derogatory! The practices of military induction and indoctrination have been used for thousands of years because they are known to be effective to change the mindset from civilian to military life. The same principles and techniques are routinely used throughout modern society in other organizations besides the military, such as corporations and religious groups!


About Hoosedwhut

Engineer - by education, training, and career experience. Philosopher - by inclination and choice. Amateur psychologist - by instinct and necessity. Amateur theologian - by birth into two distinct worlds...
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