Lessons from the military for COVID-time leadership

By Eric Chewning, David Chinn, Elizabeth Young McNally, and Scott Rutherford | McKinsey & Company | May 20, 2020

Forget the metaphor: in the most fundamental sense, dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is not like waging war. The enemy is a virus, not armed combatants, and countries around the world are in the struggle together.

Yet certain analogies apply. COVID-19 is also deadly, and leaders in all organizations are making life-and-death decisions quickly, under intense pressure and with incomplete information. The scale and complexity of the situation is greater than any one person can comprehend or manage, and the stakes are high. Leaders are having to make consequential decisions that will affect the lives and livelihoods of their employees for years to come. Military leaders operating in the fog of war know all about that. Moreover, the military is skilled in managing a variety of crises—from fighting wars to organizing emergency responses during natural disasters.

Having served in militaries and worked closely with them, we have a keen appreciation of the strengths of their leadership. We also recognize that the military culture is unique, characterized by a shared sense of mission, values, and standards; by unquestioning adherence to authority when required; and by extensive training and procedural practice. Even bearing these differences in mind, however, government and business leaders can learn lessons from the best military practices.

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