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Erwin Rommel is well-known as the "Desert Fox" for his exploits as the commander of the Afrika Korp in the North African desert during World War II. He earned a reputation for personal bravery, leadership from the front lines, and an uncanny ability to find and exploit the weaknesses in the forces opposing him. Because his career was spent in the military, his ability to succeed at leadership in the business world remains unknown, but a glimpse of Rommel in the boardroom might be possible by applying lessons from military history to business.
Analogies from the military are common in business. Even the language of the business world shows the influence of military history. Lexicographer Christine Ammer (1996) states:
The French campagne and the Latin campus, meaning both any field and specifically a field of battle, gave us the word campaign for a series of operations or an all-out effort to accomplish a given objective. It is still used in this sense for a military campaign but has also been extended to other endeavors, such as a political or advertising campaign.
What is surprising is that the theory and practice of military leadership have seldom been systematically applied to business. And this is despite the fact that large armies existed long before the industrial revolution gave rise to large business organizations. (Prior to the Battle of Waterloo in the spring of 1815, the Allied powers concentrated 500,000 troops against Napoleon.) By examining the history of how military organizations are managed under situations of extreme duress, valuable insights can be gained for the far less stressful arena of business management.
When lessons have been applied from the military, a variety of problems, such as incomplete studies of a few well-known battles coupled with misconceptions about the hierarchical structure of military command, have limited the effectiveness of the conclusions. This is unfortunate, because many themes in military command are well worth studying. The focus here is on one theme: decision making. An overview of the command and decision-making problems facing a commander is followed by a review of the cost of information and the cost of lost momentum. These themes are then summarized with a discussion of decision making in an environment of uncertainty.
The Nature of Command
Decision making in the military, as in business, takes place throughout the organization, not simply from the top down. Because of the attention given to exceptional cases, the true nature of decision making is not always clear. Perhaps the best example of a lonely, difficult decision is the timing of the Normandy invasion in World War II. In the final planning stages of the largest amphibious assault in history, General Dwight Eisenhower faced a variety of huge problems. The weather forecast for D-day was marginal at best. Eisenhower knew the German defenses were growing stronger by the day, and because of the desired combination of moon phase and tides, postponement would mean the next invasion opportunity would be several weeks away. He noted that any delay would entail "a wait of at least 14 days, possibly 28...a sort of suspended animation involving more than 2,000,000 men! The good-weather period available for major campaigning would become still shorter and the enemy's defenses would become stronger!" (Eisenhower 1948). The decision facing the general was either go now or postpone. Unfortunately, emphasizing his hard choice downplays the countless staff hours needed to plan the operation, as well as the training and background of the commanders going ashore. It also fails to provide any …