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Major General David Fraser (ret.)
Major General David Fraser (ret.)


Lessons from the battlefield for the boardroom Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

After 32 years of service with the Canadian Armed Forces, commanding Canadian and international forces around the world, I moved into the private sector to repay the experience and share lessons I learned. In this shift, I have discovered that the operational and staff skills I acquired in the armed forces have valuable applications in any business, large or small. Here are a few of the key takeaways I’ll be sharing on March 22 as keynote speaker at FABTECH Canada, the largest metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing event in the country:


The military’s fundamental philosophy is about being part of a team. The team is strong when everyone works together, and it is this collective that can accomplish more than individuals working without co-ordination. Working as a team prepares you for circumstances that may seem impossible on your own, but are made possible by the collective. Whether working during the ice storm to bring relief to people in eastern Canada without power, or building a nation in Afghanistan that was simultaneously being destroyed by the Taliban, teamwork is key.

The private sector operates under similar constructs. The structure may vary from company to company, but the team approach is essential in every scenario. Like the military, individuals working outside of a team construct are not as effective as working as a whole to achieve operational excellence and maximize growth.

In the military, you rely on your teammates to survive, and the consequence for failure can be catastrophic. The same is true for businesses. Failure may mean production delays and interrupted cash-flow, which could have adverse effects on a company’s ability to meet customer expectations or payroll. In both cases, the lack of teamwork has similar negative effects, putting the organization and lives of the team players at risk. Trust and confidence working together makes the team stronger.


The military continuously plans. From the moment you join, you are taught to think ahead: plan your day, plan your training, plan your mission, plan for contingencies, plan for what’s next, plan for what if and so on. Military planning also includes rehearsals and continuously testing and improving the plan.

While many organizations plan, what is often lacking is a contingency outlook or sense of urgency for what may go wrong. Planning in the military context is closely associated with risk mitigation, and any size company would benefit from adopting a similar strategy that anticipates the unexpected. For example, develop plans for supplier interruptions and even what to do if your phones and Internet go out. Knowing what you’ll do in disruptions large and small helps reduce the impact on your operations.


In situations where people’s lives are at stake, soldiers look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance. In a crisis, if the boss is panicking, it reverberates throughout the organization. In Afghanistan, during some of the worst fighting NATO has ever seen, my team looked to me for the answers and tone of how bad things were. Whether you have the answer or not, you need to lead by example and keep the team focused and together.

It’s not any different in the boardroom when the economy is on the rocks or your share price is tanking. The team will look to the chairman or CEO for the tone and guidance of how to get through the situation. Leadership has always been that determining factor between success and failure. As a leader, attracting young people with potential is key – find them, nurture them and allow them to gain experience and make mistakes, which are surprisingly the key to success.

Businesses, from time to time, adopt a zero tolerance policy for errors. In reality, though, this philosophy actually detracts from leadership development and creates a risk-adverse environment. Allowing employees to grow without constant fear is critical. As they grow, their experiences will improve outcomes, even as the tolerance for mistakes is reduced. This is the “art” of leadership and leadership development.

Good leaders stretch themselves and acknowledge that they will not always be right. They allow for mistakes because this is a natural form of learning. In the Second World War, the Americans relieved commanders many times and allowed them other opportunities to redeem themselves and demonstrate that they learned from their experiences. Military leaders are selected and given opportunities to learn and practice their craft. This is done through rigorous exercises and a career of preparation for the next rank level. This codified system of leadership training is something that the private sector could benefit from.

By and large, the private sector does not invest as much in leadership development as does the military. Investing in the constant development and long-term growth of employees allows a business to better, and more affordably, react to changing technology, market conditions and demands from customers.

Retired Maj. Gen. David Fraser is COO of INKAS Armored Vehicle Manufacturing in Toronto. His 32 years with the Canadian Armed Forces was highlighted with operational tours around the globe leading multinational forces, a tour in the U.S., commanding the army training and education command along with numerous staff and project management positions. Fraser is a member of several boards and a mentor at the Ivey Business School.

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