Leadership lessons from the battlefield: trust is the key

This article is based on a recent BMI Presents webinar with Joseph McMahon and Mark Moutarde, former British army officers and successful business people who now also work in consulting and apply military leadership know-how in the business world.

Joseph and Mark experienced one of the hottest spots in the world – Iraq, in addition to other deployment locations. They led teams in successful missions and trained many new leaders at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. During the webinar, the speakers shared how a battlefield philosophy can be relevant for daily business.

Be honest, earn trust

Businesses are always working to achieve goals. The leader’s crucial role is to lead the team. Joseph and Mark both agree that trust is the key factor that helps survive any team situation.

As Joseph McMahon puts it: “It’s really about the trust you put in the person on the left or the right of you. Really knowing that each and every one of them will do their absolute utmost to support you to achieve your mission is the bottom line of everything. In fact, they have to trust you to do that to such an extent that they will even lay down their life to save you and, of course, you will do the same for them.”

Mark Moutarde adds: “What inspires individuals and motivates the team to achieve the goal is the trust shown by the leader. Trust can be earned with a ‘tight, loose, tight’ model and ultimately is developed by being honest enough to show your true self every day to your team – your genuine character, your vulnerabilities and weaknesses as well as your strengths. Just plain you. Every leader is different because every person is different.”

The “tight, loose, tight” model, Joe explains, has 3 steps:

  • Set a goal. Build a simplified structure of the situation.
  • Let the team make decisions in order to reach the goal. Assist them with resources and other needs.
  • Review what was accomplished. Fix the mistakes and set a new goal.


Although the military is generally seen as a hierarchy-based organization, this model is practiced widely there. Joseph McMahon explains how it strengthens trust on the team: “Instead of telling people what to do, it asks them what they can do for the company – in such circumstances they will exceed any expectations and perform to the maximum. So trusting and empowering the team is everything, and the model is a collaborative deal in which the leader supports the team with resources and trusts them in executing the mission.”

Prepare for crises every day

Any manager wants their business to be organized, stable, and continually growing. Just the idea of experiencing crises can set off the panic. As Joseph McMahon remarks: “Although it is relatively easy to contain stress in a daily routine, when a crisis hits, real chaos begins and that stress can hardly be handled without preparation. Hence, the military usually works in contemporary settings – simulated virtual environments, which theoretically and practically involves the team in the most unexpected of situations and dilemmas.”

He suggests taking this approach in business too, since it is not only the leader, the manager, who should be able to perform at their best in crises, but the team should be prepared too.

“There is no difference for us in our language about responsibilities in peacetime and wartime. The only difference is when we arrive in Iraq, there’s much more information to process, much more intensity. But one of the key takeaways I’ve had over the years is that training and preparation is vital, while suddenly changing from business-as-usual to crisis mode doesn’t work,” Joseph notes.

Set realistic goals

Mark adds, that you do not always have enough, or too much, information. In the case of COVID-19, businesses faced the task of operating in a situation with little available certainty.

“As a leader, you have to have the responsibility and the accountability to start making decisions at some point. Of course, we all want to see a complete road map to achieving our goal, but in a crisis, you can’t. You have to make the first decision – essentially, set a realistic goal – and go for it.”

It is impossible to be fully prepared for crises, but taking minimal steps to prepare you and your team to be resilient is vital in everyday business. Wherever a team operates, on the battlefield or in business, the leaders’ role is to create a trustful environment and let everyone take a leading role when needed.

More on BMI Knowledge: Leadership – learned or born that way?