What Leaders Can Learn From the Rules of Combat

Hugh L. McColl, Jr. is the retired chairman and CEO of Bank of America. An ex-marine officer in the late fifties, his business leadership style was and continues to be swashbuckling, colorful, and intense. Wall Street analysts characterized him as a no-holds barred tactical genius that lead the bank as its thirty-nine year old president with 172 offices and 28,000 employees (called NCNB) to one called Bank of America with over 5,000 offices and almost 200,000 employees when he retired in 2001. After retiring, he formed McColl Partners that was last year acquired by Deloitte. In the ‘70’s I had the privilege of being one of his “lieutenants” as he referred to his senior bank officers.

At the time I saw his “never-got-out-of-the-military” approach as a cultivated eccentricity that perfectly fit his forceful, highly competitive personality. Employees were his “troops” carefully chosen to “take the hill” or “crush the enemy.” He kept a hand grenade on this large desk. Sales calls were “planned attacks” and the executive conference room was called the “war room.” As a former Vietnam infantry unit commander, I was allowed to tease McColl as being a pretend soldier since he never saw combat. While McColl was never in harm’s way on foreign soil, he was clearly no pretend warrior.

I now believe McColl was ahead of his time in recognizing that the rules of combat can teach us much about effective leadership. Granted there are a gazillion books drawing business parallels with the practices of Patton, Powell, Eisenhower and Bradley. But, the rules of combat (cleverly authored by Logan Graves) offer special insights for leading in today’s competitive world.

1. The easy way is always mined.

There is an adage that goes “only dead fish swim with the current.” While fish and leaders obviously “swim” in all directions, the path of the current does not govern their choice. Great leaders keep an antenna up for influences that might seduce them into abandoning what they know to be right and effective. It is not that they are infatuated with unnecessary toil; rather it is their belief that enduring endeavors are constructed on substance. They would rather take an early courageous stand of “no” than later be forced to whisper a deferential “yes” on their knees.

2. No combat-ready unit ever passed inspection; no inspection-ready unit ever passed combat.

Great leaders are fans of pragmatics, not parade. Their ‘function over form’ orientation enables them to race past preoccupation with ceremony and appearance to outpace those mired in minutia and convention. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion was the brilliant revolutionary war leader whose combat unit frequently embarrassed the British Redcoats by using avant garde tactics. (Marion was the inspiration for the movie, The Patriot, with Mel Gibson). The British soldiers fought with orderly precision and methodical execution; Marion from trees and bushes. The British wore bright red uniforms; Marion’s Brigade donned camouflage. Creatively engineered tactics enabled Coronal Marion’s small, severely under-resourced unit to repeatedly defeat a well-supplied enemy who had many times more troops.

3. If the enemy is in range, so are you.

When I was teaching guerilla tactics at the Army Infantry School in the late 1960’s, there was a large statute in front of the school with an infantry officer leaning forward as if in a run. The caption under the statue read, “Follow me.” I came to learn that leadership is not about “copy me” role modeling; it is about influencing followership. Great leaders nurture the leadership in each of their followers. It is not a parental model; it is a partnership model, one of shared vision and inclusion. In an eyewitness account of the battle for the Alamo in 1836, a journalist wrote of Davy Crockett, “He animated his men to duty.” Leadership is about animating others; and, animation is a door only opened from the inside.

4. All five-second grenade fuses are three seconds.

Great leaders are prepared. They do their homework and are ready for the test. General George Patton soundly defeated German General Erwin Rommel in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When asked his secret of success, Patton pronounced, “I read his damn book!” Great leaders know their courage is strengthened by preparation. Dancers do rehearsal, soldiers play war games, planners create what-if scenarios, and product makers use dry runs. Granted, everything cannot be pilot tested. But great leaders know that mastering the unexpected comes through forethought. While they abhor “paralysis from analysis” (to quote Tom Peters), they know that their choices are too critical to rely on a shoot from the hip approach. While Hugh McColl sometimes appeared impetuous, those close to him knew he was very rarely unprepared.

5. Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes.

Great leaders are intensely competitive—with their own standards of excellence. “Beating the competition” is not their internal driver, rather it is “delivering the goods” better than their adversary. Like the Road Runner’s amusement with the myopically obsessed Wile E. Coyote in the Warner Bros. cartoons, leaders view their opponent as a part of the context of the contest, not its content. While never oblivious to where they are in their relationship with others, their energy is fueled by an internal intent to excel, not by a malevolent motivation to defeat. They focus on their vision and goals rather than on their opponent and the scoreboard.

6. If you’re short on everything but the enemy, you’re in a combat zone.

Great leaders are willing to buck the tide. Too many leaders today have been inundated with the many ways they can infringe on the sanctity of good public relations. As they have been instructed to act like a leader, they have been informed to think like a lawyer. Some have learned to surrender to unrealistic demands (under the banner of some cause) when their consciences scream for acting on principle. Such timidity has bred caution when in the presence of controversy. Too many leaders would rather lose sleep than lose face. The combat zone of today’s world of enterprise is fundamentally about trust—customers, employees and community. When character is in question, it requires leaders who make value-based decisions grounded in character and courage, not convenience and compromise.

7. There is always a way!

Finally, great leaders demonstrate boldness. Some are quiet in its expression; some, like Hugh McColl, are noticeably spirited. But, there is never a doubt that their zeal comes from a commitment to a promising vision. Boldness is a passionate choice based on a commitment to a future state. It is not reactionary, like rebellion; it is deliberate action. Boldness is pro-action at its finest, a step toward the light. It is born of a noble reach beyond the mediocre of the moment and the ordinariness of the status quo. Great leaders have a deep belief in a valued dream that serves as the compass for their courage and an inspiration to associates to “take it personal” and “find a way.” “Before you can inspire with emotion,” said Winston Churchill, “you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.”

The selected “rules of combat” were authored by Logan Graves. Other rules can be found at www.intercom.net. McColl Partners was last year acquired by Deloitte.

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