Family Businesses Can Learn from Military History


Military Culture

My late husband was fascinated by military culture, and you could often find him reading the biographies of famous generals.

His fascination stemmed from his interest in human motivation. He often quoted Napoleon’s statement that, “Inside every corporal’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton.”

“What a genius motivator Napoleon was,” Frank would say, noting that Napoleon made it possible for even a corporal to dream of becoming a marshal.

Another quote Frank liked was what Patton told his troops when he was motivating them to heroic efforts at speed and surprise. “An ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood.”

Another version of this quote is, “I’d rather spend a gallon of sweat than an ounce of blood.”

In Frank’s view, the best military leaders were so demanding that they brought out the best in people. Frank believed that people have a compulsion to live up to–­­or down to–your expectations of them, and the military knows how to expect the best.

Having a Purpose

What are the elements of this culture that expects the best?  And how does the military maintain it?

Frank never met Charles Milam, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, but Frank would have endorsed Milam’s statement, “You’ll never hear a service member tell you, ‘We’re in it for the money.’”

Milam goes on to say, “Service members do it because they’re called to something higher. They’re part of a larger purpose.”

Frank would have agreed because in his view, people need to believe in something.  “Purpose provides meaning, motivation, direction, identity, and responsiveness.” He went on to say that most people spend their lives looking for meaning, but an organization, whether it’s the military or a family or a family business, at its best, provides purpose.

How does the Military do it?

So, how does our military create the culture where men and women willingly to go into harm’s way, where they may lose life or limb; where they’re separated from loved ones for long periods; where they may miss the birth of a child, and where they’ll almost certainly miss important family events and holidays?

Or, to use Frank’s words, “How do they persuade people to become committed to something bigger than themselves?”

Milam has some answers.

  1. The military communicates to everyone at every rank that the work of the lowest-ranking enlisted member is just as important as the contribution of a four-star general. Everyone plays a crucial role in the enterprise of keeping us safe. Everyone feels needed, important and part of the mission,
  2. The message that everyone is important and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves is reinforced continuously. “In the military, our ideals aren’t some mission statement that just hangs on the wall,” Milam explains. “Instead it’s something that an individual learns as an impressionable 18-year-old, and he or she is going to hear it throughout his or her entire career.”

Family businesses can learn from our military.

Communicate to everyone at every level that they’re important.

This reminds me of something Frank used to do. We had a goal of entertaining every single person who works for Perdue (and during Frank’s life, this amounted to roughly 20,000 people). For almost 17 years, we used to have weekly dinners in which we’d entertain Perdue associates, 100 at a time at our home.

At the end of each evening, Frank would say, “I know that the company would never be what it is today without each of you. Thank you!”

Frank understood communicating to people that they’re important.  I bet he got this concept, at least in part, because he studied military culture.


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