Fit for the battlefield and the boardroom

The Life: What can chief executives and managers learn from former military leaders and strategists? Plenty, according to Stephen Bungay.

"The dangerous thing," says Stephen Bungay, "is if you get one of these charismatic types who's full of themselves and let loose on the strategy." Courtesy Stephen Bungay
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Stephen Bungay, a military historian and former consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, argues that business executives could learn a lot from leadership styles and strategies of some former army commanders. Mr Bungay, who is the director of the Ashridge Business School's Strategic Management Centre in London, speaks to The National ahead of a visit to the UAE this year.

What is the most important characteristic shared by a successful leader in business and one in war?

At the very top, with the chief executive, if you're in doubt between the charismatic inspirer and the deep thinker, I'd go with the deep thinker. I'd put the charismatic inspirer alongside them, because at some point the thinker says "this is it, we won't learn any more". At that point someone else should take over and set doubt on one side and inspire. Your pure commander type can do that.

Is that an argument for having two chief executives?

Ideally, what you want is someone who comes in after the boss. I'm arguing for management teams that have the whole range of skills. Maybe [one] role can be taken by someone like a strategy director - and the CEO listens. Maybe the commander type is the chairman, and the leader type is the CEO … Those equally good at all three are exceedingly rare - you're talking about the Caesars, the Napoleons.

When can leading from the top turn dangerous?

The really dangerous thing is if you get one of these charismatic types who's full of themselves and let loose on the strategy. That's where things really go wrong.

Which companies, or individuals, have exemplified this?

Enron is a good example. Al Dunlap [named one of the 10 worst bosses by Time magazine], though he took it to extremes; he was toxic. You find them at all levels, but they can do real damage if they're at the top. "Fred the Shred" [Goodwin], the former head of RBS, is very clever. He could convince people black was white, and in the end, no one could stand up to him.

What should a leader do if the business starts to pursue the wrong strategy for growth?

For the bulk of the 20 years I was at Boston Consulting Group, I probably created more value by stopping people from doing silly things than making them do clever things - saying no to acquisitions or entering this [or that] market. There's a terrible drive to do the same thing as everybody else.

Which historic military figure would you tap to run a Fortune 500 company?

[The German field marshal Helmuth von] Moltke, as a chairman. He knew how to develop organisations [and had] a profound understanding of strategy. He understood the importance of doing his job - and not other people's jobs … That type of leadership is a great antidote of the CEO/hero model.

* Neil Parmar