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Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Faculty Director of the MIT Leadership Center.

Standing and delivering

Let's be clear that even though support for our military leadership has grown, support for leaders in general is quite low. As is true in tough times, people crave leadership but right now they are disappointed in the talent pool. Who wouldn't be when some of our most trusted leaders have been found lying, cheating, and looking out for their own interests?

In the recent past we have been spectators to stormy soap operas and Greek tragedies playing out on the leadership stage. Enter John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Hamid Karzai, and those Wall Street executives who take millions in bonuses while unemployment soars. It makes Marie Antoinette's famous "Let them eat cake" seem like a mild disconnect with the populace. Even our charismatic President seems caught up in a web of partisan politics and lobbyist demands.

So what do military leaders bring to this dismal stage? First, in an age when problems can rapidly deteriorate into crises, military leaders bring action. They know how to assess a problem, lay out a strategy and tactics, and then deliver. When others seem steeped in a quagmire of inertia--Where is that banking regulation that is supposedly on its way?--military leaders are marching into battle. They act.

Second, it is the nature of the military, especially in an all-volunteer service such as ours, that people in it make a commitment to others. Servicemen and women literally give their lives to protect each other and us. Perhaps leaders from other sectors need to think about that. When in the midst of ego enhancing maneuvers and serving the highest bidders, perhaps other leaders can ask how would this look on the battlefield? Where is the accountability and responsibility to others?

Third, military leaders know how to learn. They have elite schools, ROTC, and leadership development (in the classroom and on the job) for all. There is a thorough debrief after each operation and military historians look for lessons learned over time. These organizational processes mean that what is learned in one battle can get transferred to the next.

The problems we face right now; wars, a fragile economy, global warming, starvation, and political unrest, are large and they are scary. People are looking for people who are competent and trustworthy. They seek leaders who can paint an accurate picture of the world as it is now and how it can be - leaders with the ability to assess, decide and act in a way that can mobilize many. And while the military is not perfect, and some of what they do does not transfer to other contexts, the notions of action, serving others, and continuous learning are good lessons to learn.

By Deborah Ancona

 |  November 4, 2009; 2:45 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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