Creative Leadership Lessons from the Military

As part of a long-term research project examining the guiding tenets of creative leadership conducted with Doug Guthrie, we’ve interviewed dozens of leaders of creative businesses.  Many of these leaders were previously or remain successful creatives.   Besides illuminating the ways that effective creative leadership can be developed and sustained, one of the striking elements of these interviews has been the repeated references to military leadership – typically, as a contrast or foil to creativity-fostering leadership.  
Military leadership is hierarchical and paternalistic, these creative leaders say.  There is a lack of open-ended collaboration and reliance upon formal rather than informal authority.  Ultimately, military activities are defined, many observe, by creativity-stifling constraints and discipline.  The “salute point” at which decisions are made and discussions or collaboration end seems to fly in the face of the openness and even messiness required for creativity and innovation to flourish.
Of course, thinking historically, military leadership is among the most ancient of leadership forms.  That long view, combined with the diverse military activities across so many different societies today, means that references to “military leadership” can point to a wide range of incredibly varied practices.  The category is consequently an expansive one, which can contribute to partial understanding or attribution and even the creation of a “straw man” about which selective claims can be attached. 
The military itself, long committed to leadership training and practice, has increasingly engaged in reflection and research on the topic.  The United States military, in particular, has been active over the last three decades in re-thinking its leadership priorities and principles.  Several familiar examples of recent developments convey some of the breadth of their approaches.
·      VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, or Ambiguity
This acronym emerged in the 1990s to describe the capability to engage situations marked by changeability, lack of predictability, interdependent challenges, and preparation for multiple realities.  For leaders in the military and beyond, the doctrine underscores the importance of strategic decision-making, readiness planning, risk management, and situational problem-solving.
·      Be-Know-Do
Growing out of intensive analysis by the military of its leadership thinking, in part conducted with business management researchers, the Army Leadership Manual was revised following the end of the Cold War.  This shorthand version resonated with other models at the time that sought to combine attention to a leader’s character, competence, and action-taking (and which produced a best-seller: Be-Know-Do: Leadership the Army Way (Jossey-Bass, 2004).  The areas of focus here include individual values, people and teams, managing complexity, leading change, and leading learning organizations
·      COIN
Over the last two decades, and notably after September 11, the U.S. military developed a Counter-insurgency doctrine, with David Petraeus as its most prominent exponent.  As Fred Kaplan recounts in his exceptional historical account, The Insurgents(Simon & Schuster 2012), the evolution of COIN represented a paradigm shift in strategic thinking that was equally a story of leadership struggling to effect change in a sprawling and tradition-bound organization.  More specifically, and in keeping with the zeitgeist, it is a story about the challenge of ceding control and allowing for more adaptable and situational leadership.  Yet as Kaplan insightfully observes, the soldier-scholars like Petraeus who advanced this new approach overestimated its very sway and applicability: the COIN doctrine and approach ironically became for many a singular approach to war-making rather than one of many tools in the military leader’s kit.  
The emphases in these compelling models on self-awareness, adaptability, situational awareness, and engagement of complexity bespeak their important potential relevance to non-military leaders.  Still, I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of how military leadership operates and provides lessons for creative businesses, so I called Mike Zeliff.  Mike is eminently qualified to speak to the question: a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who also served as the Corp’s Chief Marketing Officer, he went on to earn his MBA and Ph.D. in Marketing.  Today he consults to both the military and creative businesses. 
A major thread running through Mike’s astute observations about military leadership involves the opposition between generalists and specialists.  The uniformed services, he says, want an educated generalist good at war-fighting.  However, some officers undergo intensive and continuing training to become experts in specialty areas like cyber, technology, finance or regional studies.  General leadership skills and practice are not the priority area of the training that allows for professional advancement in these specialty areas. 
This emphasis has far-reaching implications, for example, in the opportunity to lead complex organizational change and drive innovation.  Innovation certainly happens in the military, but unlike in business, where leaders often try to change everything about a unit or organization, it tends to be targeted and often involves implementing an established tool or model.   Not only does the challenge of change exist as it does in nearly all organizations, as Mike explains, there is also in much of the military a more thoroughgoing resistance to change such as a generalist leader might promote.
Another point concerns the difference between military leadership on the homefront versus the warfront.  This was a contrast that several creative leaders had raised in interviews, though some defined the contrast in opposite ways, citing one or the other setting as where more open and creative leadership could be allowed.  For Mike, the warfront requires leadership – inspiring a team, demonstrating commitment, sharing troubles and challenges, and engaging in complex problem-solving.  The homefront, conversely, is a setting for management, that is, filling time, being sure to complete tasks, and simple problem-solving.
As these threads and points make clear, the boundaries between military and creative leadership are not nearly as clear-cut as many imagine.  In fact, while perhaps more easily associated with military practice, at least a handful of essential shared priorities would serve well those wanting to lead more successful creative talent, teams and organizations.  These include:

·     Appreciating and Engaging Diversity
To solve the most complex problems, leaders need to engage multiple, diverse perspectives.  The assumption here, essential to the successful operation of learning organizations, is that we have the most to learn from those who are least like us.

·      Appreciating Generalists
The diversity of experience and perspectives brought by generalists in mixing with specialists can spur creativity.  More fundamentally, awareness of core values and priorities remains a touchstone for effective leaders.

·      Decision-making
As a basis for fostering collaboration and creative excellence, leaders should employ deliberate, value-based, and well-communicated decision-making about processes, priorities and outcomes.

·      Managing and processing information systematically
With so much data and information readily available, there is an imperative to be deliberate and systematic about deciding how to manage conflicting and often overlapping including.  (These are not only strategic; they can be as prosaic as asking, What do you read?  And, How do you decide what to read?)

·      Practicing Discipline
This is not the stereotypically restrictive and rule-based authority but personal as well as team and organizational discipline, ranging from personal routines and sleep to consistent interactions with subordinates and collaborators.

·      Role modeling behavior and integrity
The expectation that military leaders need, through their integrity and actions, to serve as role models to their subordinates is fundamental.  Particularly in creative organizations where successful creative have been promoted into leadership positions, such role modeling can be extremely inspiring and powerful.

For additional, accessible insights on military leadership, see the Harvard Business Reviewspecial collection at and the Center of Creative Leadership White Paper on “Learning Leadership in the Military” at

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