Look to Military History for Lessons in Crisis Leadership

By Marc Feigen, Benjamin Wallach, and Anton Warendh | Harvard Business Review | July 1, 2020

In November 2019, before giving a talk on crisis leadership to 15 financial services chief executives, we asked for a show of hands asking how many in the room had experience leading in a crisis. Not a single hand went up.

Today, executives everywhere are adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic and an important social justice movement in the U.S. and Europe. Information is changing daily, solutions are unclear, and supplies are often limited. As the CEO of a $50 billion company that operates in more than 100 countries told us, “There is no business playbook for a pandemic.” And decisions bear life or death consequences, as the virus in the U.S. has now taken twice as many lives as the U.S. lost in Vietnam. At the same time, Americans and Westerners are holding companies to a higher standard of social responsibility than ever before.

So where can today’s business leaders facing multiple crises at the same time turn to for answers? For thousands of years, military leaders have experienced challenges of this magnitude, and if operating today sometimes feels like “the fog of war,” we can usefully turn to lessons from some of history’s most effective military leaders for insight to our pressing peacetime challenges:

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