OCdts. On Parade

Lessons for CEOs from boot camps


By Canute Waswa

For three years, I had the privilege of training military officer cadets as an Outward Bound instructor. We would take them through leadership training and would finalise with climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,000 feet, the ‘roof’ of Africa.

During these years, many misconceptions that I had about army training and its relevance in leadership outside the military were clarified. Once, I asked one of my students what most surprised him at the Armed Forces Training School after his university experience. His answer was as startling as it was direct. “The army leaders face one giant reality that business leaders rarely face: In business, if you make bad decisions, people lose money, and perhaps jobs,” he said. “In the military, if you make bad decisions, nations can fall and people can die.” The phrase stuck in my mind: people can die. In the army, it matters if your leaders are competent, trustworthy, if they care more about themselves than they do about their people or the mission. Your life may well depend on it.

Combine this truth with the mission of protecting national interest , and you get a context for leadership we rarely see in out top companies. After training cadets for three years, I got very impressed with the slogan, “The only easy day was yesterday.” There are lessons that we in the boardrooms can all learn the boot camp.


Business leaders can learn how the army has long embraced discipline: knowing when to follow and when to not follow, the responsibility to question and the responsibility to execute, dedication to mission first and dedication to your comrades above all.

These highlights the point that disciplined action does not mean rote action. Discipline means that you begin with a framework of core values, combine with knowledge and insight, and finally you make situation-specific decisions to act. Leadership begins not with what you do, but who you are.

Encoded into the officer training approach are two eternal truths. First, the medium—and long-term future cannot be predicted, and second, the best “strategy” in a volatile environment lies in having the right people who embody your organisation’s core values and who can adapt to unanticipated challenges.

The military exists not to train soldiers for a specific war, but to develop leaders who can adapt to whatever war might be thrust on our nation—no matter what continent, no matter the enemy. Just like in business; the only constant is change.


Whether you like it or not, you are a leader, but of concern is how you will be an effective leader.

Leadership is the dynamic that galvanises individuals into groups to make things different or to make things better— for themselves, for their enterprise, for the world around them.

The essential components of business leadership are: intelligence, insight, instinct, vision, communication, discipline, courage, constancy. All can be studied and studied again.

Being in a platoon is a lot different than any other job, in the military or otherwise. First of all, every man, officer or enlisted, has a position of leadership.

While the second lieutenant runs the platoon, the rest of the enlisted men in the platoon have specialties as well, for which they are the authority. The doctor takes the lead on all medical issues, whether they are emergencies or not. The weapons man… you get the point.

The workout involves fast paced training, conducted throughout the army by officers that have ‘been there, done that’, and are experts in their specialty.


Platoons are regularly tested to ensure that they are reaching the elite levels of expected performance, and for this reason the camaraderie between platoon-mates is very high. Because of the intensity and tempo of the training, platoons band together like brothers.

Towards the end of my tenure at Outward Bound, I had the privilege of conducting a rock climbing session for soon-to-graduate cadets. One senior cadet, told me that he felt more fortunate than his friends who had gone to different corporate entities as management trainees or graduate clerks.

“No matter how the rest of my life unfolds,” he said, “I know that I have served a larger cause than myself,” he said.

Article first appeared in Business Daily –  Kenya,  July 5, 2011

Mr Waswa is management and HR specialist and managing director of Outdoors Africa. E-mail: waswa@outdoorsafrica.co.ke

Leave a Comment