Battlefield lessons for the modern workplace

Written by: Pilita Clark
Published on: 12 Jul 2022

battlefield lessons
© Kenneth Andersson

I cannot remember exactly how old I was the first time I held a gun, but I was almost certainly in my teens, growing up on my parents’ farm.

What I do remember, vividly, is the physical shock of firing a rifle. The deafening bang. The juddering recoil, and the sickening, split-second fear that I could have somehow fired a bullet into anything from a faraway cow to my foot.

I think of this when I read about one particular aspect of the brutal war in Ukraine: the city workers who have taken up arms against invading Russian forces.

There have been reports of a 46-year-old architect, a 52-year-old marketing researcher and a 35-year-old historian. Most are like the 41-year-old accountant who booked herself and her husband into a Kyiv shooting range for his birthday. She had never fired a gun before in her life.

The abrupt militarisation of these white-collar workers, and the thought of how they might be faring against seasoned Russian soldiers, is distinctly lowering.

But rather than dwell on the extent to which urban civilian life can prepare one for a sudden military career, I found myself wondering about the reverse last week: could military experience improve working life? As it turns out, there are plenty of grounds that it can, particularly when it comes to the efficient use of time.

We all know about KISS — Keep It Simple Stupid — a design principle widely used in the US armed forces. But how about what military professionals call BLUF?

It stands for Bottom Line Up Front, meaning one should put the most important stuff first in any report or email, as well as what needs to be done about it. That way, the message gets through as quickly and easily as possible.

Alas, too many of us have a tendency to write highly non-BLUF messages, especially on chat apps such as Slack. My own go like this: “Hi — you there?” or “Hi — I have a question.”

This requires the recipient to waste time writing back something like “Yes” or “What?” when it would clearly be faster if I had said what I wanted in the first place.

The armed forces display admirable clarity on another vexing fixture of the workplace: the job title. Military ranks, once you get the hang of them, immediately show where one is in the pecking order. Everyone understands that a general outranks a captain, who is senior to a sergeant, and so forth. It is also relatively easy to figure out what each title means.

How much simpler life would be if every large internationally-oriented corporation borrowed from this book. Too many are littered with associate vice-presidents, executive managers and other titles that confuse more than they clarify — for insiders and outsiders alike.

The military is of course no slouch at creating workplace confusion itself, not least on the matter of acronyms. The UK Ministry of Defence lists hundreds of them in a document that runs to more than 370 pages.

It is supposed to help people understand their AAS (Advanced Automation System) from their LBO (Log Book Office), but obviously it would be better if people used plain language instead.

Saying that, we have the military to thank for some unofficial acronyms that have enriched working life for decades. I am thinking of SNAFU and its close relations FUBAR, TARFU and FUBB. (Google them if you need to.)

There are many more serious benefits to be had from a stint in the military. The focus on professional training. The leadership qualities that come from being put in charge of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment — and lives — at a young age.

Some research suggests chief executives with a military background also perform better under pressure and are up to 70 per cent less likely to commit financial fraud than civilian peers.

Yet the military CEO is a vanishing breed in many countries. In 1980, 59 per cent of big US public companies had one but by 2006 the share had dropped to just 6 per cent.

The opposite may be happening in Ukraine. It might emerge from this war with a new generation of veterans who will enhance future workforces for decades. Yet ultimately, even if this happens, it will be a very small gain made at a cost that this country should never have been forced to pay.

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