THE BLOG
04/28/2016 10:41 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2017

Which Way to the Front?

Here's a challenge for people who think about organizations in 21st-century America: How do we demilitarize our notions of leadership?

In late January 2016, National Public Radio reported on Urban Warriors, a YMCA of Metro Chicago initiative. Run in cooperation with the Adler Institute of Psychology, the pilot program brings inner-city youth together with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal: to acknowledge the physical and psychological damage occasioned by participants' prolonged exposure to violence and help them cope. The YMCA staffer behind the program, Eddie Bocanegra, paraphrases the kids' logic for buying into it: they (the soldiers) have guns, we have guns; they have ranks, our gangs have ranks; they wear uniforms, we wear gang colors; they lived in a war zone, we do the same.

On the face of it, the YMCA program is an imaginative and praiseworthy response to a deeply felt need. Both military veterans struggling to reintegrate with civilian life and teenagers subject to or participating in gang violence have gravitated to the program, sharing their stories and taking comfort from the recognition that they aren't alone in their difficulties. That said, we might ask ourselves how we have created a "homeland" where combat experience best models the lives of supposed domestic harmony that veterans were originally sworn to protect, and wish now to share.


Two prominent last-century figures signaled the path to that world. In 1925, Calvin Coolidge told a group of newspaper editors, as he reflected optimistically on their role in a democracy, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." For Coolidge, that preoccupation expressed not so much America's materialism as its idealism. By 1961, Dwight Eisenhower, a career soldier and then 34th president of the United States, had updated Coolidge's assessment to warn of the threat to our democracy posed by a "military-industrial complex." The Urban Warriors story marks another stop on that trajectory, with even more dire implications for our political order and for us as individuals.

We are in equal parts captivated by a vision that merges competitiveness with battlefield aggression and committed to the possibility of defusing such free-floating hostility. The steady flood of war films and first-person shooter video games aside, the business community has for a long time now spoken the language of strategic dominance -- white knight, black knight, hostile takeover, regulatory capture, and so on. Internally, the private sector mirrors the military's commitment to hierarchy, though without the relative job security the services offer.

To support that pervasive control, we embrace an illusory efficiency and a cheery fatalism about market forces. In this view, human beings--and especially men--will always fight, so we might as well build our economy around that principle. To the supposed benefit of all, competition weeds out the inept, the uninspired, or the merely weak, thus insuring that we continue to innovate. We normalize this belief by treating business as a game, not a matter of human lives.

Yet over two decades in business education, I have heard combat veterans routinely testify to the cross-sector relevance of the approaches we increasingly teach our developing civilian managers: a flexible mix of distributed, transformational, situational, and traits-based leadership; a commitment to independent, entrepreneurial thinking; the cultivation of both the superior's and subordinates' emotional intelligence; and a conscientious focus on treating workers as assets, not costs.

In the private sector, a new generation of leaders is driving the Benefit Corporation movement, which deliberately looks beyond shareholder value as the dominant corporate goal. The boundaries between non- and for-profit entities seem ever more permeable, as practitioners apply their skills to mitigate economic inequality, find sustainable solutions to climate change, and manage the future that new technologies enable. Together, these developments signal a change of course for our national occupation of choice, one that the business sector itself could facilitate.

This is not the world of command-and-control decision-making. It suggests instead a sea change, one that might solve the problem that Urban Warriors can at best manage. Today and for some time now, we have found combat and competition easier to conceive and deliver than consensual victory achieved through hard-earned, collaborative effort. Yet now more than ever we need the institutions that can undertake those complex endeavors and marshal the resources to make them succeed. Our corporations could, and now increasingly do, express that collaborative spirit; community drives organizations. With a broader definition of their purpose, they can make systemic contributions that so far have eluded us.

Everyone likes a good and fair fight, but Chicago's child soldiers will never know one unless we think big. A slowly democratizing private sector has the wealth in both human capital and financial reserves to do that: it is time to put it to use, to stretch ourselves beyond what otherwise will seem to future generations like good-faith, hopeful, but ultimately distracting quarterly reports on stop-gap measures. We need a long-term investment, not just in what we do, but who we are.