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A Genius Innovation for the CEO’s playbook from the German Military

A Genius Innovation for the CEO’s playbook from the German Military

In the early 19th century the Prussian military developed an innovation so sophisticated that it gave them and the German Military an advantage that lasted at least 150 years. It’s an innovation that’s just as relevant today and not just to the military because it contains within it many of the secrets of success for organizations coping with disruption, pressure and change.


There have been many inventions in the history of warfare that have provided a winning advantage; the horse stirrup, gunpowder, machine guns and tanks were all innovations that created a technological advantage.   Most of these advantages were temporary, as the enemy responded with an effective counter measure or figuring out the new technology for themselves.


The German Army’s innovation was not so easy to copy - it was easy to see and feel the symptoms of their success but the root cause was poorly understood. What the Prussians initiated and the Germans perfected was a comprehensive approach to identifying, developing and empowering their most talented officers. They called it The General Staff System.


Originally it was conceived as an antidote to the perils of leaving high command to the aristocracy – a social elite in whom society presumed all sorts of natural genius should reside. A conceit that Napoleon’s armies literally put to the sword. Crushed by Napoleon in 1806, Prussia’s eventual reforms of the Army were designed to ensure that talent and merit were put at the heart of the Army’s leadership.


Here are 3 key principles and practices in the system that every CEO could adopt:


  1. Mentor and develop your leaders. Von Molke was chief of the General Staff for thirty years. His habit was to personally select the top 12 graduates of the staff college programme and then personally tutor and mentor them. The most senior officer in the army took personal control of the education of his key talent. It ensured they were in his head and thought like him. Spread through the chain of command Moltke could have confidence that his intentions would be clearly understood and acted upon as though he were there. Far too senior leaders are actively involved in the leadership development of their key talent.


  1. Take Advice.  'The commander must be supported by obedient, independent and critical advising General Staff officers’. This sounds obvious common sense, yet many leaders buttress their lack of self-confidence in themselves by preferring yes-men and sycophants. Setting up a feeble culture that ignores the hard truths we need to hear and creating a cosy echo chamber where ideas and analysis are never challenged. To listen effectively implies a willingness to change your mind. Good decisions in complex and ambiguous situations require the insight, feedback and input of the team – the leaders role remains always to exercise judgment in making decisions but sound counsel is critical to this.


  1. Connect Your Leaders. Leadership needs to be networked across the organization. Not in a rigid top down hierarchy but in a dynamic and elastic network that connects top and bottom, junior and senior. Authority to decide and act moves to information (usually with junior leaders at the coalface) and not the other way around. Empowering junior leaders to act creates risk – but the hedge is that you’ve trained them to think like you and you’ve given them the context in which to exercise their judgement – clarity of what the organisation aims and objectives are. Many senior leaders think they have all the levers, the reality is they’re not connected to anything because junior leaders have not been taught to develop judgement or empowered to act.


The General Staff created a brotherhood of professional officers with an egalitarian commitment to the excellence of the organization they served. Rank and status were secondary to professional competence & the ability to think and lead in order to translate decisions into timely and effective action.  The problem the Prussians first set out to solve – how to make good decisions in complex fast moving situations and ensure effective timely execution – has never really gone away. The solution remains as elegant and effective if we can grasp the principles and apply them in our own unique context.

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