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Character Counts in Business

Wanted: Military-Experienced Leaders

By Evan Offstein, Contributing Editor

Article Sponsored by: Vinnell Arabia

I look at everyday events as learning opportunities and leadership lessons.  The recent meltdown on Wall Street offers several lessons for our own personal and professional development.  Business cases will be written and studied for years regarding the near economic collapse in October 2008.  Until those Harvard Business Review cases are written and published, I offer up some of my own insight that should assist you in your near and long-term development.

Courage.  This crisis may have yet to reward courage, but it will over the long term. Those that stayed the course and maintained a clear head despite the panic of others will be rewarded.  The objective of sound investment strategy and strong financial management is to purchase assets on the cheap and sell later for an appreciable gain.  Conversely, the worst thing to do is to buy assets at a premium and sell them at fire sale prices.  Remarkably, some investors doubled down and bought equities while the market swooned and others sold their positions.  To me this is more about the leadership trait of courage than it is about dollars and cents.  The best leaders (both civilian and military-experienced leaders) seem to find control out of chaos.  Fear can often lead to irrational behavior and it is the special leader who can counter that fear with courage.

Prudence.  Courage is best served with wisdom and judgment.  Without these, courage can be dangerous.  It appears that several senior executives at some of the most storied Wall Street investment houses pursued unnecessary risks in order to achieve short-term gains.  Risk is a good thing and without it capitalism does not exist; however, unnecessary and foolish risks can jeopardize the security of stakeholders.  Those organizations that survive this economic downturn will not be the excessive risk takers, the ones who bet the farm, or the ones who tried to ride the wave of easy money.  Rather, it will be the ones that balanced risk and reward.  Both courage and prudence should come easily to former military personnel who were taught to take calculated risks.  Prudence and courage allow leaders to lead their organizations to see another day.  The failing firms on Wall Street lacked, to some degree, this notion of prudence.

Stewardship.  While lives may not be at stake in the business world, livelihoods are. Business leaders often have the choice of rewarding either themselves or others.  Hopefully these go hand-in-hand, with mutual benefit to both parties.  But if they do not, then we see what happens when senior executives choose to exclusively reward themselves.  Here again I believe military-experienced leaders have an advantage.  They know that taking care of people means better organizational performance over time.  Stewardship means treating the resources of an organization as if you borrowed something of value, with the intention of returning it with enhanced value.  Organizations should never be exploited or ravaged for immediate, selfish gain.  Instead, they should be nurtured and developed.  The essence of capitalism is to create value and good stewardship protects that value.  When we fail to act as stewards, we put the life of the organization on the line.  Sadly, when we do this, we also put livelihoods on the line.

2008 was a difficult year for millions of Americans, but things will get better.  Let’s not repeat those mistakes.  We should look for some positive lessons – leaders and learners can do just that.

- Dr. O 

Dr. Evan H. Offstein is the author of “Stand Your Ground: Building Honorable Leaders the West Point Way.”  Learn more at www.honorableleaders.com.

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