October 1, 2012 — If you’re looking for management lessons from outside the halls of corporations, you could do worse than to study the United States Army. That master of management teaching Peter Drucker often turned to the military of his adopted nation for inspiration, especially on matters of leadership. Take, for example, this advice from his 1967 book The Effective Executive:
It is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone—and especially any manager—who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization.It is grossly unfair to his subordinates who are deprived by their superior’s inadequacy of opportunities for achievement and recognition. Above all, it is senseless cruelty to the man himself. He knows that he is inadequate whether he admits it to himself or not.
The first example Drucker cited of such wise practice came not from the business world of the 1960s but from the army of the 1940s. Its leader, General George C. Marshall, he wrote, “insisted that a general officer be immediately relieved if found less than outstanding.”
Ironically, by the time Drucker was writing, the army had lost the practice of swift relief that Marshall had enforced so vigorously. With regard to talent management, it was already beginning to teach a different kind of lesson—a cautionary tale. To study the change in the army across the two decades from World War II to Vietnam is to learn how a culture of high standards and accountability can deteriorate. And to review the extended story of its past six decades is to comprehend an even deeper moral: When standards are not rigorously upheld and inadequate performance is allowed to endure in leadership ranks, the effect is not only to rob an enterprise of some of its potential. It is to lose the standards themselves and let the most important capabilities of leadership succumb to atrophy.
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