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On today’s military battlefields, the United States is fighting asymmetric wars. Traditionally trained forces face insurgencies with seeming limitless capacity for unconventional campaigns. The old top-down warfare model, where a general decides the plan and the soldiers execute it, doesn’t work when the enemy, tactics, and weapons can change at any time.

The old rules of engagement no longer apply in the health care industry, either. Whether it’s a slew of serious adverse event reports, a hurricane of criticism about a pricing policy, or a politically motivated regulatory decision, today’s problems can’t be solved with yesterday’s best practices.

An MBA has long been considered a critical layover on the road to the C-suite. While it’s hard to debate the value of an academic pedigree, we question how well traditional leadership paths prepare people to navigate increasingly complex and unpredictable environments in health care and beyond.

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We propose a new type of MBA that is as at least as good as the traditional one, and probably even better: something we call the Military Business Advantage.

Standard academic and professional development programs teach people based on historical precedence and simulated scenarios. Modern warfare, in contrast, prepares people to act and respond to an ever-changing, constantly adapting enemy force.

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You may have heard that veterans make good hires because they are punctual and follow directions. All true. But that is only a small part of why military veterans are excellent candidates for working in the health care industry.

These new MBAs haven’t honed their leadership skills through obediently following directions, but rather through cultivating discipline. If obedience is conformity to rules and commands, then discipline is the habit of doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, regardless of the difficulty.

Obedience is about building capabilities or skills to repeatedly carry out a pre-set process or task that adds value. Discipline is about developing capacity. That’s the combination of capabilities and mindsets that enable us to create value. Capacity is about having the freedom to think for ourselves and deviate from the plan or procedure to adapt to a new situation when necessary.

In warfare, capability is about memorizing the proper steps to get out of a vehicle during an ambush. Capacity, on the other hand, is about quickly assessing which side of the vehicle is taking the most fire so you can exit through the other side. Capabilities are focused on plans; capacity elevates human decision-making.

Building capacity in leaders helps them take ownership of outcomes, instead of just focusing on executing a list of rules or steps. Leaders, of course, must have a basic foundation of capabilities, but without capacity there is a limit to what they can accomplish because capacity helps them face the unknown.

Gary Hansen, who is Lean Six Sigma Certified, does not have a traditional MBA. Instead, he spent four years in the US Marine Corps specializing in electronics. He said that the military gave him technical knowledge, a strong work ethic, and a clear understanding of team dynamics that laid the foundation for his expansive career in medical technology. Over the past two years as a director of software support at Elekta, a company that focuses on cancer and brain disorders, Hansen has expanded his leadership role from a team of 15 to several teams accounting for more than 100 support specialists.

“In a field of fire there’s no room for error. Everyone needs to understand their role, and you’ve got to rely on each other to make the right decisions in the moment,” Hansen told us. “The same applies whether you are in a military zone or directing remote service on the software that supports patient care.”

Mike Minogue brings an academic MBA plus his experience as an Army Ranger platoon leader to his position as CEO of Abiomed Inc., a medical device company that employs 850 people and has projected worldwide sales of $450 million this year. Mike’s leadership can be traced back to his service-oriented upbringing, one that was centered on the belief that the individual must serve something greater than him or herself.

Minogue also cofounded the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program (MVPvets), an organization that connects some of the 250,000 men and women who leave the US Armed Forces each year with mentors in the industry. A fundamental tenet of MVPvets is that veterans are well-suited for senior positions in the health care industry, since its sense of purpose and service is similar to the military’s.

Hansen and Minogue are just two examples of how the Military Business Advantage is informing a new brand of leadership in health care. While there are many other military-to-life-science success stories, there are thousands of other veterans whose resumes have been overlooked because they don’t conform to traditional paths.

While military veterans may not have the full set of capabilities for certain roles, they tend to have the discipline and the capacity to pick up those skills and, more importantly, to lead their teams through the uncertainties of tomorrow.

It’s difficult to train and develop workers and leaders — in the military and in business — for tomorrow when you don’t know what tomorrow will hold. When change is our only constant, people are our only strategy.

JC Glick is a leadership consultant and an Army veteran with 20 years of service and 11 combat tours. Sarah Ngu is a thought leadership freelance writer. Their forthcoming book, “A Light in the Darkness: Leadership Development for the Unknown,” will be published in early 2017.

  • Call me old fashion but,
    I feel that people with military background are completely out of place in science, especially life sciences.

    • Ugo, I find that an interesting and somewhat close-minded statement for someone in the life sciences. Why would previous employers determine an individuals capacity to serve in almost any area? I am not sure that is old fashioned as much as it is a limiting and probably uninformed perspective. Imagine substituting anything else for military – race, religion, school – listen to how that sounds. Disturbing to say the least.

    • Ugo, your comment perfectly illustrates why the sciences, especially life sciences, needs some new perspectives. Let us hope if you are in the field of life science that your opinion is not that of the majority.

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