Does the Military Train the Best Corporate CEOs?

Most Americans are already familiar with the famous generals who have led the United States' epic military: Pershing, Patton, Eisenhower. Now, in a society increasingly keen on measuring success, the military is infiltrating leadership ranks across a broad swath of the American commercial landscape.

In the sports world, where success is easily measured by wins and losses, two of college basketball’s most successful coaches, Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski and the currently-retired Bobby Knight, have military backgrounds. Knight, whose intimidating drill-sergeant approach to basketball earned him the nickname “the General," became the winningest coach in Division I basketball history after enlisting in the U.S. Army in the 1960s. His protégé, Krzyzewski, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and is currently in the top five in NCAA Division I coaching wins.

More recently, the National Football League has seen military leadership translate to the playing field. Last year’s Super Bowl saw the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. The credit for the Giants’ unbelievable victory was spread pretty evenly, but within the team’s inner circle, inspiration came courtesy of Lt. Col. Greg Gadson. A veteran of the war in Iraq and former Army football player, Gadson lost both his legs to a roadside bomb before being invited by the Giants’ coaching staff to help motivate the team from the sidelines. A longtime friend of Giants’ assistant coach Mike Sullivan, Gadson was named a team co-captain and has been a fixture with the team ever since.

The Giants aren’t the only New York team drawing inspiration from the military. While the New York Jets haven’t seen the same success as their hometown rivals, their special teams have been particularly strong over the past few years, punctuated by a Pro Bowl berth this year for special teamer Leon Washington. Some of the credit for that performance can go to Ben Kotwika, the team’s Assistant Special Teams Coach who flew apache helicopters in Iraq and is a recipient of the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Army Achievement Medal.

As in sports, the business world has seen a spike in military representation among its leadership. In fact, a 2006 report from Korn/Ferry International and the Economist Intelligence Unit appropriately entitled “Military Experience & CEOs: Is There a Link?” found that military officers were actually over-represented among American CEOs. While only 3% of American males served in the military, about 8.4% of CEOs represented in the S&P 500 had a military background. The report even found that executives with military experience enjoyed an average tenure of 7.2 years compared to four years for the rest of the S&P CEOs. Military CEOs listed included Electronic Data Systems’ CEO and former CBS executive Michael Jordan and Rockwell Collins’ Clayton Jones.

More recently, the mission to deconstruct the military’s success in developing real-world leaders has become something of a phenomenon in the world of self-help publishing. In his new book, Colonel Tom Kolditz attempts to explain the connection. Elaborating on the topic in the Harvard Business Review, Col. Kolditz explains “military leadership is based on a concept of duty, service, and self-sacrifice; we take an oath to that effect. We view our obligations to followers as a moral responsibility.”

Altogether, it points to a new generation of military men who could potentially come home to find themselves jettisoning boot camp for the board room.

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