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  • Writer's pictureFrederick King

3 principles of modern leadership that project managers can learn from the military

Before I go into the three principles, I want to make one thing clear upfront. It doesn't matter what you think of the military or the Federal Armed Forces of Germany (Bundeswehr). This article is about modern leadership and leadership principles.


Maybe you are confused right now: "Modern leadership and the military"?


Don't they contradict each other?


My answer is "No!" And I'll explain why in the article.



The Bundeswehr is very different in its military leadership from the images you might have in your head of the U.S. Army or other national armies. And that brings us to the first leadership principle:


1. "Leading by goal" (The Bundeswehr calls it “Auftragstaktik” which is equal to mission-type tactics).

While the Bundeswehr and the Israeli military rely on Auftragstaktik, the US and the UK rely on command and order. In the command tactics, if the soldier cannot execute his order exactly as given, he must consult his superior. In civilian life, we call this micro-management. Every step is monitored and must be carried out exactly as specified.


In the Bundeswehr, there are mission-type tactics. The soldiers are guided with structured orders and goals, as well as left and right guardrails (for example, international humanitarian law and our national laws). The soldiers know exactly what they are allowed to do and what they must watch out for. If the soldier encounters an obstacle, he does not have to consult with his superior on whether he is allowed to go left or right. He tries to implement the order with the intent, which was given to him.


Translated into project management, this means: The executive gives his employee a clear assignment with goals. Besides, the employee is given a time limit and the required resources. The executive trusts his employee and does not lapse into micro-management. The employee is free to decide how to carry out the task.


This can be used in project management by the project manager. All project team members must know the project goals, the project tasks, the project scope, and the other specifications to implement the project successfully. In addition, they need all the resources to perform their tasks.


While performing their tasks, project team members work autonomously and independently. Only when you encounter an obstacle, so that you can no longer conduct your task or achieve the goal, the second principle follows.


2. Escalating decisions

When an employee encounters a problem and can't find a solution to it, he can ask his project manager for help. Naturally, he delegates the problem upwards because he is stuck or is not allowed or able to make the decision himself (e.g., due to budget constraints).


In this form, hierarchy in the organizsation works, because problems are escalated to the next manager level with more responsibility. The latter has more decision-making authority and can make the decision or escalate it upwards himself if his authority is insufficient too. As a result, decisions are made quickly. Long committee meetings are thus ideally avoided.


The prerequisite is that the organizational hierarchy works and that the decision-maker is able and willing to make decisions. I have experienced the opposite in practice: Weak executives followed by an entourage of two to four employees coming into a meeting because they are afraid to decide anything on their own.


Unfortunately, I see this more and more often in practice: meetings and committees are inflated by too many participants. As a result, responsibility is spread over many shoulders and decisions are delayed.


Nevertheless, the leadership principle works very well in the Armed Forces. Once the superior knows about the facts, the soldier is relieved from his duty to report any issues or risks. It is thus in the soldier's own interest to report problems, risks and changes in the situation as early as possible.


The leadership principle can also work in the civilian economy if there is enough trust between both parties. Unfortunately, due to poor corporate cultures, and lack of transparency and communication, this is rarely the case with large corporates today.


Often, the principle of fear or inconsequence prevails. In the former, employees say nothing because they are afraid of the consequences. In the latter case, employees say nothing because they know that nothing will change anyway. They prefer to keep their mouth shut and wait until the storm has passed. This leads us to the third leadership principle in the military.


3. Leading by example

The military leader is expected to behave as he or she expects the soldiers to behave. While many take this for granted, this is not always the case in corporates.


I have met many "leaders" who say "A" and do "B." Employees lose trust when this happens. Ultimately, it becomes a vicious circle that can poison entire teams and even departments if everyone only does "B" because it is modelled from above.


Consequently, the first and second leadership principles also fall into this case, since there is no longer any trust between the manager and the employee. Ultimately, it develops into a vicious circle that ends in a bad corporate culture in which none of us wants to work. This is one of the main reasons why employees change companies.


I would like to add the following food for thought:


Hierarchies and hierarchical structures are not worse than other forms of organization and leadership. Often it is the executives, who do not take responsibility, who do not make decisions, who do not support their employees or who fall into micro-management.


Particularly as a project manager, there is a danger of adapting the project culture to the corporate culture. This inevitably has an impact on the success of the project. Therefore, I can only advise every project manager to consider a modern leadership of the project team, to build up a healthy project culture and, if necessary, to break out of the vicious circle of bad corporate cultures.


Food for thought for all project managers: If you lead your project with fear, you don't have to be surprised if project risks are reported very late, nobody makes any decisions and nobody voluntarily takes over further project tasks. Who wants to take on more responsibility in such a project environment?


Unfortunately, too many companies still measure the success of their employees by "who makes the fewest mistakes".


Who wants to make decisions in this kind of environment? Who wants to take risks if they do not have any benefits?


Finally, a project management best practice: If you as a project manager or project member ever experience that decisions are not made, you can proceed as follows:


  1. Address the consequences of what will happen and by when, if a decision is not made: What are the consequences on your project in terms of time, quality, and budget?

  2. If you are already sure that no decision will be made in the project steering committee, you can prepare appropriate slides for the annex (and present them ad hoc if necessary).

  3. Document your objections and the consequences accordingly: a. In a steering committee, note this in the minutes and make sure it is well documented. b. In my e-mail inbox I always have a "CMA" folder, i.e., a "Cover my Ass" folder. In this, I save e-mails to and from the client on the consequences.


Do not forget: Address, Point out consequences, and Document.


This is how you protect your project team and yourself as a project manager. It is your job to protect your team and yourself from the incompetence of all stakeholders.


I am not a big fan of pointing fingers at others. At the same time, I am not a fan of people not doing their job. Executives have chosen to be executives. They are paid for the extra responsibility.


If nothing happens for a long time after the documentation, the project risk may spread. The project may even have to be paused. Since this has financial consequences, you can show what the financial impact will be in the long run on a timeline. As the executive's bonus may be affected, this may force them to take action.


If that doesn't help either, there's one more option I'd advise only consultants to do. As an external consultant, you can leapfrog the hierarchical level and draw the attention of further executives to the grievances in the project.


Why do I generally tell internal employees not to do this?


You point the finger of incompetence at your superior. Thus, this can always bring disadvantages to your professional career. Most of the time, the only thing that helps is to stay calm... Unfortunately...


What do you think? To what extent are these modern principles of employee management?

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