Last month, Harvard Business Review carried a cover story on “Leadership lessons from the military", focusing on US war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and ways in which their field experience was being used in a rapidly changing business environment. For a nation that has realized the applicability of combat leadership (during three distinct occasions—World War II, Vietnam war and the Gulf wars) in its corporate and political culture, this is not a new or unknown phenomenon.

Narinder Nanu/AFP photo

In fact, former military officers constitute just 3% of the adult male population in the US, yet contribute three times more to the CEO pool of S&P 500 companies. While the HBR article makes for fascinating reading, I’m reminded of some skills that the military teaches which can be used by anyone regardless of what they do. These range from finding the north using a watch (a neat trick to show your nephew, but not very relevant in daily life) to developing a structured way of thinking.

These skills can be learnt in about half an hour and applied to pretty much everything for a lifetime. This article explains one of the best tools for structured thinking and communications. It’s a framework used by military commanders at all levels—sergeants or generals—to develop plans and brief their teams. Its design has been honed over thousands of years of combat and through lessons learnt in blood. And it has stood the test of time across different nations, situations and domain areas.

A commander needs to think through various aspects during planning. In complicated operations, missing elements can be disastrous. To avoid this, the military uses a framework informally named with the acronym “Z-Kitbag".

The leader starts by orienting his troops to the environmental landscape. “Z" stands for “zamini nishan"—landmarks in the theatre of operations. The commander first points out the north and the “general line of direction"—a distant landmark used to centre the whole body of troops. This is critical because if the troops are dispersed on a broad front, then the two flanking extremes need to be aligned to one central line—else soldiers standing on the right and the left flanks will interpret directions differently.

Next, he explains the nature of the terrain, presence of roads, villages and resources, natural and man-made obstacles, and boundaries of adjoining formations. This ensures that every soldier is familiarized with the environment and its extents, and avoids trespassing on to sister formations.

In a business context, gaps in knowledge about zamini nishan cause leaders to take wrong decisions. Similarly, people who don’t know their boundaries end up operating in areas which are not their domain. An incorrectly mapped individual can even turn out to be a hostile influence.

The next letter stands for “khabar" or information. This part of the briefing always starts with khabar of the enemy: What their strength and disposition are; what kind of weapons they have, what resources they can call for from other theatres of operations; their commander and his traits—right down to the cultural behaviour of enemy troops. The second part of khabar deals with information about one’s own troops and formations—friendly patrols that could be operating in the same area; capabilities and strengths; and most importantly, the location of one’s own commanders.

The “I" stands for “irada", or aim of the operation. This is a clearly defined objective that needs to be achieved within a certain time frame. The aim is repeated and rechecked from a few members by having them recite it verbatim—a practice that is sometimes forgotten in corporate communications.

“T" stands for “tariqa", or the strategy that will be adopted. It goes into details of where, when and how a mission will be accomplished: Who will be in charge of what part, and who will perform the role of a backup.

“Bandobast", or resources and organization structure, comes next: What arrangements will be made for infiltration and extrication; where the rendezvous point is after the mission is accomplished; what the signal codes for success or failure will be; how reinforcements will be called for.

“A" stands for administration, or logistics: How much ammunition will be carried; how long the troops should prepare for; what the “No-move-before" timing (the exact time until which the troops can be certain that they will not be called into operations) is.

And finally, “G" stands for an important, yet often missed, aspect—“ghari milao", or synchronization of all watches with the commander’s watch. In military operations, a difference of even 20 seconds between the watches of assaulting units and artillery support can mean the difference between pummelled enemies or one’s own troops caught in a barrage fired by supporting artillery. Translated into corporatespeak, this means aligning terms such as “as soon as possible" or “immediately" because these can imply different things to different people.

The sequence that the briefing follows also plays an important role. Each sub-unit commander knows which part of the sequence is relevant to him, and can, therefore, pay special attention when his portion begins.

This tool is several centuries old. For precisely that reason, it is but one of the many lessons that the corporate world can learn from the military.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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