My first business partner taught me something very valuable: The worth of captains and lieutenants in the military, which you can extend to the business environment. During the Cold War, NATO had a significant disadvantage in the number of forces it had versus the number that the East Bloc possessed. It was a widely held belief, however, not only among NATO leaders but also military academics, that the two sides were very evenly matched and in an actual battle the western forces would hold their own or prevail despite the numbers.
Even now, you see many of the forces that oppose the west (such as ISIS and al-Qaeda) score large successes against much better-equipped opponents. Part of this success can be attributed to the power of local commanders in these forces.
Midlevel officers make the difference
The strength of NATO’s mid-level officers was credited with closing this gap. While Eastern Bloc mid-level officers were taught to blindly follow orders from their superiors, or suffer harsh consequences, Western mid-level officers were given great autonomy to make battlefield decisions without waiting for direction or even contravening standing orders that were overtaken by events. By having strong leaders who had the independence to make decisions, western military forces were at a competitive advantage. (And let’s not forget, Captain Kirk never got into real trouble for crossing into the neutral zone and the Federation regularly beat up on the more militarized Romulans and Klingons.)
Closest to the battle
One of the reasons mid-level officers can be so effective is that they are the ones closest to the battle. They are getting data in real time and seeing what is actually happening. They understand the morale of their troops as well as that of the enemy. They can identify weaknesses as soon as they appear as well as notice changes in the enemy’s approach.
Conversely, those back at headquarters are only getting a subset of the picture. The human mind can process a lot of data from multiple sources, so the mid-level officers on the front line are synthesizing and prioritizing this data in real time while the generals are only seeing the data they have asked for, not necessarily the other elements influencing the battle. If they have neglected to ask for key data points, they may be missing major developments.
Fog of war
Related to being closest to the action is mid-level officers are best able to deal with the fog of war. The fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. As German General and strategic genius von Clausewitz said, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” Given the uncertainty, it is impossible for generals to plan and chart a course of action. Instead, it becomes incumbent on the mid-level officers to deal with the fog of war and make the best decisions possible given the information they have. If they are not given the latitude to make decisions without executive orders, the army can follow strategy and tactics built on incorrect information.
Everyone has great generals
You also want build true competitive advantage by focusing on generals. The US, Soviets, Chinese, and Europeans all had great generals. They went to the best military academies. They have learned the keys to building successful strategies. Thus, no army gained a significant advantage over the others simply by having good generals. Instead, the opportunity to create a real gap with other militaries is with the mid-level officers, where recruiting and training the best can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
What it means for business
Now that you are tired of military history, why should you care about mid-level officers? Everything that has made NATO and other militaries successful by empowering mid-level officers applies to growth companies:
- Mid-level management is much closer to the consumer and production than senior management. They know what is going on in the market day-to-day and can translate it into successful tactics. They do not have to wait to over-analyze the information; they can make immediate decisions that reduce costs or increase sales.
- Business is never as orderly as it is in MBA textbooks. Just as there is a fog of war, there is a fog of business. Three quarters of what companies do is steeped in uncertainty and those closest to the action can see through the uncertainty first.
- Most successful companies already have smart C-level leadership. Where you can gain an advantage over them is by cultivating great mid-level management that can independently make decisions that benefit your business.
Great companies are not great because of the strategy of its top leadership, be it Jack Welch or Bill Gates, but in the way they allow the mid-level executives to thrive. By recruiting and fostering great mid-level leaders you will out-perform your more hierarchical competitors.
- The most successful militaries are successful because of the quality and independence of their mid-level officers.
- These officers can best see the situation and make quick decisions to capitalize on it.
- Businesses can replicate this success by fostering and recruiting great mid-level leaders.