Be careful if you try to draw lessons from industries you do not fully understand.
In a LinkedIn article Harvard Professor Michael Wheeler surggests that the unlawful killing of a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan by a British Royal Marine could have been prevented if somebody had uttered the phrase "Marines don't do that". The post has drawn a lot of response from former and current service members basically arguing that Wheeler does not know enough about this subject.
My own concerns are on the premises of the article. The battlefield is difficult to understand to people who have not been in war or studied it extensively. And even to us it is still difficult to grasp. Read on:
The phrase “We (Marines) don’t to that” would work well to interrupt most situations. Referring to our core values in a direct manner is a strong argument. However, there two premises for that to work:
1. We have must know what is it we do/don’t do. There are certain rules in war but just because something is legit it does not have to be right. I have always discussed moral dilemmas with my soldiers using three questions.
- Is it legal?
- Is it proportional?
- Does it feel right?
But discussion alone is not enough. Values are not incorporated via a PowerPoint slide. They have to be lived everyday by the leaders in the organization.
2. For a marine to utter that phrase “Marines don’t do that” he must be able to think rationally. When the body is full of adrenalin the pulse is pushed higher and thus we are not able to think rationally. Overlooking this fact seems to be the bulk of the criticism. In such tense situations a simple order or command that has been trained over and over again would work better than trying to spur reflection.
In the rational domain the phrase works well. In the emotional domain something else is needed.
Ethics are especially important in combat leadership. Ethics are what guide the combat leader and moral courage what helps him follow through.
Military leaders can learn a lot from business leaders and vice versa. We are never too old to learn. However, we should never try to conduct a 20/20 hindsight analysis in businesses we do not fully understand.
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