Covid-19 is a peacetime issue requiring a military grade type of response to bring structure and order to a chaotic and stressful long-term situation
Stuart Tootal led the first UK battle group into southern Afghanistan in 2006, before spending a decade in several global leadership positions at Barclays. He has worked with over fifty FTSE250 companies on the theme of leadership in adversity and is the bestselling author of ‘Danger Close – Leading 3 PARA in Afghanistan’. He is now a founding partner in Matero Consulting. Set up in 2019, Matero fuses military decision making with commercial acumen to drive clients’ change agendas.
A former chairman of General Motors once said, ‘business is much like war.’ – In dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, companies are facing an unprecedented peacetime issue, which has many of the characteristics of a battlefield: fear, uncertainty and extreme risk liability all prevail. Having led a battle group in Afghanistan and as a global head of a large corporate during times of crisis, I believe that there is a compelling argument for businesses to leverage military experience in their responses to the full-spectrum implications of the Coronavirus.
The Similarities between the Combat and Commercial environment – We face a foe, albeit a health-related one, which is like an enemy in combat. The Coronavirus inflicts loss with multiple impacts on people, both physically and psychologically, as well as on systems and processes. As in combat, teams are forced to disperse for survival, supply chains are vulnerable to disruption making command, control, communications and information critical. It also requires people to have faith in their leaders, how they plan and lead the task, as well as faith in their teams and organisational ethos, behaviours and culture.
Success in combat rests on having a tested construct of flexible structures, principles and processes to make order out of chaos, withstand the shocks and privations of battle to achieve objectives and win. It requires people to overcome fear and to operate collectively under stress with unifying mission purpose and delegated empowerment, if an organisation is to respond effectively to rapidly changing situations with tempo and precision. An army’s approach to selection and maintenance of strategic aims, its culture of collective organisational endeavour and empowered execution to adapt to dynamic circumstances at pace, offers a highly relevant learning perspective and a framework for firms seeking to prevail in the Covid-19 commercial environment.
The Coronavirus crisis magnifies the already existing similarities of the operating conditions facing the combat and commercial environments. The rapid proliferation of non-traditional disruptive actors, dizzying spiral of technology and increasing growth of regulatory, media and conduct scrutiny reign in both domains. While business has spent just over a decade attempting to adjust to this exponential change since the 2008 financial crisis, the military have adapted and evolved its response over 150 years of battlefield experience. Recognising that ‘no plan survives first contact’ with the realities of execution, in 1870 the Prussian General Staff began teaching its junior commanders to ask themselves if a battlefield situation had changed and necessitated deviation from the orders they had been given. It empowered them, by equipping them with agile decision-making principles, processes and tools to use their initiative to achieve the intent of a mission by pivoting appropriately and seizing fleeting opportunities in highly fluid battlefield situations. It is a mission command approach that has been adopted by all successful armed forces ever since.
The Right Tools and Mindset – The dramatic impacts of the Coronavirus raise the question of whether companies have the right operating principles, process and tools in place to deal with the extent of this crisis and succeed in the face of adversity. Most businesses are set up relatively well to absorb and deal with low-frequency events, such as the credit crunch or terrorism. Impacts tend to be time-bounded; SARS and Swine Flu are examples, and their end marked a return to business as usual with the closing down of war rooms and crisis management teams. The advent of this crisis is necessitating organisations to shift to a war footing for the much longer-term, which is likely to become the ‘new normal’ and BAU going forward.
There is a myriad of difference between business and the military, but it is a misnomer to think that in the latter getting things done is about rigid adherence to discipline and hierarchy. In combat, command and leadership structures become incredibly flat, as a young soldier does not risk his or her life because of rank and orders. They do so because they have faith in their leadership at all levels, in the way they plan a mission or task and are wedded through mutual trust to their immediate sub-unit and wider unit ethos. The mission command approach is also highly collegiate and harnesses the diversity of thought and motivation of the whole team.
Agile and Adaptive – Like the crisis we face today, in Afghanistan well-laid plans and assumptions did not always withstand first contact with the realities on the ground. Imperfect information, faulty intelligence, shock events and stress were common. However, the standardised formulaic, well-practiced, but highly flexible decision-making, planning and execution drills of mission command provided the means and the handrails to adapt and adjust with pace and precision. We prevailed in adversity because we could respond, pivot and generate a high tempo cycle of activity of decision making, planning and execution that was far faster than the opposition. We might take three days planning a complex battle group mission involving over 2,000 people and a complexity of airspace management several times busier than a large international airport. But in a crisis, we could launch the same number of troops, aircraft and supporting systems from a cold start in forty-five minutes.
The process was grounded in absolute clarity in communicating mission purpose, the outline concept of operations and a one team approach. Running as a single narrative through the entire organisation, everyone knew their part in the plan and was empowered to achieve it. If a gap emerged or disruption occurred during its execution they were trained to step up and fill it. People hoovered up additional responsibility and there was no frozen middle or obsession with delegating everything upwards. The process was also highly collegiate, there were no silos. Mutual trust was a given. People embraced accountability and operated within a defined culture and leadership framework of actions and behaviours within the conduct of strategic intent. Purpose drove performance and permission to challenge, made for better decisions, as it harnessed the best idea in the room and was explicitly coded into the organisational DNA. The processes of mission command operated at all levels, from a colonel with two decades of soldiering experience to a twenty-one-year-old lance corporal, which demonstrates that it is an approach that can be readily taught and ingrained at every level of an organisation.
War is a risky business; we made mistakes, but when we did, we collectively sat down and learned from them together. As a result of rigorous and transparent after-action reviews we continuously improved our performance as a team, as every event was considered as an opportunity to learn and evolve. Even with a tolerance for mistakes, tempered by learning, our decision making was also auditable, bred transparency and was robust enough to withstand the scrutiny of the Coroners’ Courts, where reputational damage or criminal prosecution could have been the outcome when I had to account for actions in which people lost their lives..
Reflecting on the experience, it begs the question of the extent to which senior business leaders believe that their companies are readily equipped and trained to face the organisation-wide impacts of Covid-19. Do they feel that they have the right systems, processes and appropriately trained people in place to triumph in the face of adversity? To do so will necessitate a systematic all-levels leadership approach, which can respond and adapt quickly with a mission focus that can take its stakeholders, people and customers with them on a journey that will be fraught with uncertainty and risk. As on the battlefield there will be two types of organisations in this new commercial landscape: those that prevail and those that fail.
To avoid being in the latter category, companies need to do six things:
Based on a depth of commercial experience and combined with behavioural science and extensive research, Matero Consulting was set up in 2019 to fuse the partners’ corporate and consultancy experience with the military pedigree for decision making, planning and empowered mission focused execution. Called MECCAR, Matero has developed a blended methodology backed by principles and tools to deliver agile, collaborative, mission focused execution in a disruptive environment where decentralised authority, tempo and innovation are essential for clients who want to think differently, move at pace and achieve effective change.
MECCAR: Mission Purpose, Empowerment, Collaboration, Communications, Agility, Right Behaviours