Fast action, empowered leaders win battles in war, business

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Fast action, empowered leaders win battles in war, business

By Mark Hamstra - 11/07/2018
Acting quickly and decisively often yields advantages in battle, as long as communication is clear and the team has been well trained — lessons that also can be applied in the business world, according to former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who spoke at the recent Emerson Group Industry Day conference in Philadelphia.

The retired U.S. Army general recounted his experiences at the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991 in Iraq, where as a young captain he led a decisive, lopsided tank battle against Iraqi forces. McMaster’s nine-tank unit destroyed 50 Iraqi tanks, 25 armored personnel carriers and 40 trucks, and suffered no casualties.

“I was always a proponent of acting quickly,” McMaster said. “It forces the enemy to react.”

Through the history of combat, he said, leaders who were hesitant were usually the ones who lost. He detailed several effective executions in battle that can be applied in the business world:

  • Leaders need to have clear vision of the situation, and need to “be there” with their teams in terms of understanding the reality they face;

  • Every member of the team must actively develop opportunities that the whole team can then execute;

  • The team needs to be trained to operate under uncertainty, and with concurrent activity;

  • Develop a proficiency in fundamental tasks so they can be executed routinely, even under stressful conditions;

  • Know your competitive advantages and maximize them. “If in a business, you have an advantage, make sure you are deploying that advantage,” McMaster said;

  • Don’t panic. There will be setbacks in war and in business. “Stay calm and work through the difficulties,” he said;

  • Foster shared understanding of the information flow. Well-trained troops communicate horizontally between each other rather than up the leadership chain. Poorly trained troops constantly tend to be asking for direction from commanders and waiting for the boss to direct the action.

  • Devolve responsibility downward and encourage initiative. McMaster said he continued the assault in the 1991 Battle of 73 Easting even though that was not part of the original plan because he recognized the opportunity at hand. “If we had just followed the plan, I think it would have been a much different outcome in the battle,” he said. In the battlefield, decisions have to be made by junior leaders, because tight central control of operations is neither possible nor desirable. These junior leaders must be well trained to do the right thing, and then trusted to act independently; and

  • Once you gain an advantage, consolidate your gains and follow through so you maintain the initiative and the advantage.
    In a question and answer session, McMaster said his experience both in the military and as a history teacher prepared him well
    for politics.


“The military gives you a broader experience than you might think,” he said, citing his experience building multidisciplinary teams, for example.
In his work at the Pentagon, McMaster said he focused on the mission and the people that worked for him, seeking to foster an environment where people felt empowered to make decisions.

As the National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump, McMaster said he advocated much of the foreign-policy direction of the administration, such as taking a stronger position against North Korea and China. He believes many of the alliances the United States has with other countries are “stronger than ever.”