Leadership in military and civilian life

In a question and answer session at Manchester Business School, with an audience of military officers and business leaders, Admiral Lord Boyce explored his leadership experiences. He described leadership as the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can. He identified decision-making and communicating as general competences essential to effective leadership

Q: There are a multitude of ways in which leadership has been described and defined. How do you see it?

MB: I can tell you what it seems to be from my experiences. I like to say that leadership is the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can.

Q: What key differences have you experienced working in military and non-military environments?

MB: There are obvious differences. In military life you are trained to lead, and also on how to be led, until the principles become ingrained. I mean training, not education. You train for leadership, as you would train for a Marathon. Also, the military conditions are different. You need to be able to depend on colleagues for your mutual survival. Decision-making has more life and death consequences than in most other professions. But there may be need to show initiative when you may be in a position to consult more widely in civilian life.

Q But there are similarities [between military and civilian leadership]?

MB: I would say there are general core components of leadership. Two of them concern decision-making and communications. Good decision-making requires skills at assimilating information and applying analytic ability. These skills often have to be combined with decisiveness. Effective communicators have to demonstrate clearly and convincingly the logic of their approach. I must also mention strength of character, the ability to delegate and show initiative.

Comment from audience: We used to teach delegation to business leaders. Now there’s less emphasis, more on ’empowerment’. Perhaps we should revisit the importance of delegation skills …

Q Why are Women held back in leadership in the military? I left for that reason.

MB Times are changing. There is a very senior officer I can immediately think of in the navy for example, but she has succeeded on merit, not because of equal opportunities.

Q One of the most popular current television programmes is “The Apprentice”. From watching the programme there is a perception that successful leadership is developed through bullying. Do you believe you have to be aggressive to be a good leader?

Not aggressive. Historically you can point to contrary examples. One of my favourites is Shackleton. No, Not at all aggressive. I don’t watch much television, but what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t advance far in the Military today with that sort of bullying style. You would not get past Major, Lieutenant Colonel, maybe.

Q: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

MB: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats! [MB is a cross-bench or independent Peer]. Collectively though, it’s an excellent system. It wouldn’t work so well if there were elections when a constituency would vote for everyone. That would be different.

Q What do you look for when on an interviewing panel to select for a leadership position? Do the characteristics differ across different environments?

MB: Again there seem to be some general points you are looking out for. The successful candidate for any leadership job will be able to communicate clearly, show imagination and vision. The answers to interview questions give a pretty good indication of how honest he or she is being. Of course you have to do your homework. The references you get are a great help too.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give an officer taking up work in civilian life?

MB: Something that surprised me. Perhaps it should not have. You will meet far more individuals who seem to have no concern beyond their own self-interests.

Also you realize you have your own [military] jargon, you will have to learn another dialect to be accepted. And there is a lot of stereotyping about the military mentality.

There’s another difference worth mentioning: [Corporate]directors are increasingly becoming legally responsible for the conduct of their company. This is becoming more widespread, applying to charities and trusts as well as PLCs.


I am indebted to course director Jed Drugan of Manchester Business School for inviting me to participate in this event. My Q and A notes are reconstructed as faithfully as possible, but capture only part of the wide-ranging conversation. For those interested in following up the points raised in the discussion, I have added a few comments.

1 Leadership has been notorious for its multitude of definitions. There are even theories of why there are so many definitions. Lord Boyce has offered his personal perspective, and one close to the classical one from Stodgill with its characteristics of leadership as an act or process influencing others to achive some goal. It is also close to Yukl’s operational definition of leadership as influencing to understand and agree what is to be done and facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared goals. I assume that the Admiral’s characterization of leadership has been tested in many experiences in his distinguished naval career, and then in a range of political and corporate roles.

2 Cat herding. This cropped up in a recent taxonomy of leader/follower relationships by the British theorist Keith Grint. He suggests one of several versions of situational leadership, which result from different levels of commitment to community goals from leader and group (followers, subordinates, team members etc). The cat herding (cross bench independent mavericks) according to Grint will specialize in independence of spirit but arguably unproductive conflict.

2 Shackleton. An interesting leader in the ‘great explorer’ mode. His biographers (such as John Adair) suggest his leadership was consistent with MB’s perspective of leadership as inspiring others to achieve what they might otherwise have believed impossible.

6 Responses to Leadership in military and civilian life

  1. Christine says:

    Hi there, I read your post on delegating and business management in the military and thought I might mention a book to you.
    “If You Want it Done Right, You Don’t Have to Do It Yourself!” by Donna Genett is a very helpful book that deals with the power of effective delegation.
    Please contact me if you have any questions about the book.

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks Christine. Any comments on this (or other such books) welcomed.

  3. Tudor,

    The military attributes that Boyce describes sound like those that the pre-WW2 German general staff talked about. Yet, for both Boyce and the German general staff, there is a certain naivety — which Boyce admits in his “self-interest” comment — that results from operating in an environment defined by boundaries that are tighter than the real world. This is what Hitler exploited: he was a creative leader who preyed on the soldiers’ general naivety outside their boundaries, and led them astray. My point is that the military mind is “trained” — as Boyce says — but not “educated”. Thus it is good at “management” but not “creativity”. In the corporate world, sometimes “management” is good, but sometimes “creativity’ is good in a leader — it is horses for courses, depending on the company and the company’s circumstances.


  4. Tudor says:

    Hi Jeff

    As ever, you offer a well-reasoned point. Only thing I’d add is that the speaker was shocked at the utter self-interest he found on entering business circles, and was contrasting it to the (‘trained’?) sense of duty to the wider group in his military career. You may have noticed my lack of enthusiasm of poor military commanders in recent posts, but I have had some contact withenormously impressive people with military backgrounds who have made excellent corporate leaders.

    PS Someone suggested Prof Einarsen of Bergen might be interested in your writings. He is helping in an international movement for well-being (and presumably ethical leadership) in the work place.

  5. Tudor,

    One issue is the definition of the “wider group”. Is it the military, or is it the country? There are many instances (a recent one in Australia, I suspect but cannot demonstrate, involves a certain Private Kovco — those who are interested can do a internet search) where the military “wider group” takes priority over the country “wider group”. And, then there is the humanity “wider group”! Hitler used the idea of helping the “military wider group”, the country “wider group”, and the humanity “wider group” (anti-Bolshevik) to get the German General Staff to go along with him. So, is “self-interest” so bad? I do have my own answer to this question!!


    I am not decrying the idea that ex-military people can be excellent corporate leaders,

  6. Tudor says:

    Some fair points. The current Turkish situation comes to mind. Heir to Ataturk is charismatic, and very influential ….

    And self-interest. It’s the rock on which economic theory seems to be based, but lacks explanations of ‘higher’ motives.

    Glad you pointed out your last comment,

    best wishes


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