This post was written by Chris Kosednar, a strategy consultant here at Jump. You can reach him directly by commenting on this post.

Many of our corporate leaders today served in the military or attended a military academy before heading to the business world. Although the number of CEOs who served in the military has been on the decline over the past few decades, in 2005, men who served as military officers were almost 3 times as likely to be CEO’s than those who had not served.

The military’s style of leadership, of course, starts with bootcamp. We can all conjure up a scene from a movie where a drill sergeant is screaming, yelling, and spitting in the face of some new recruit. The sergeant’s plan is to tear folks down, humiliate them, and then build them back up in his image of a soldier. This was thought of as the best way to create and lead a group of like-minded individuals.

Having served in the military or not, there’s no doubt that this style of leadership shows up in corporations, where leaders receive names like “Neutron Jack” and “Chainsaw Al” for their ruthless management styles. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “just soldier on” in the context of the workplace.

The bootcamp style has even trickled down to pop culture and reality TV shows. Our favorite celebrity drill sergeants like Donald Trump on the apprentice, or Simon Cowell of American Idol, captivate those sitting at home and have contestants eager to please. Other shows like The Biggest Loser, Project Runway, and Bar Rescue, have hosts that tear people apart and humiliate them only to build them back up into something new.

While this style of leadership may have worked during the 20th Century, we now live in a time of rapid change. Company leaders don’t have multiple years to implement change, they have months.

We might take a lesson from the world of animal learning theory, which has begun to explore how animals change behavior. Until recently, the Traditional method for training animals was the only show in town. The Traditional method is where the trainer takes the dominant position over the animal, commanding it into action. Sounds sort of like a drill sergeant, no? However, new developments in learning theory have shown that a better approach is to use the animal’s free will to shape its behavior over time.

Here’s how positive behavior theory works: Instead of the trainer commanding, the animal acts however it chooses. When the animal exhibits the desired behavior, it is rewarded, usually with food or praise. If the behavior is not performed, the trainer takes no action nor punishes the animal. Sea World is a huge proponent of positive behavior theory and has used it for years to train its animals to incredible feats.

People aren’t sea lions, but what can we learn from this?

1. Give people a choice, don’t always command. Positive behavior theory works because animals retain the free will to make decisions. If you do a flip, you get a fish. If not, you don’t get punished—you just don’t get anything. At Jump we say, “act like an owner”, it means that people aren’t always going to be telling you what to do. But if you act in the best interest of the company we trust that things will work out. In fact “act like an owner” is one of the many criteria for being promoted.


2. Focus on rewarding small steps along the way. When teaching a dog to go to its kennel, the first time the dog looks at the kennel, it gets a reward. After that behavior is learned, the dog is only rewarded for taking a step toward its kennel and so on and so on. Until eventually the dog goes to the kennel. While this change takes more time upfront, the dog has now learned that going to the kennel is a good thing.


Disclaimer, people aren’t dogs, but when trying to lead folks through complicated change, small rewards along the way can be stabilizing and assuring. In a recent project, Jump worked with the federal government to redefine procurement. This was a huge change that required thousands of people to do something different. We started with small changes in roles and responsibilities on the way to the final vision.


3. Act your way into change. My dog jumps up on people out of excitement. My dog is extremely attentive when I have a ball, so when folks come over I pull the ball out before I open the door. When the guests step in, there is my dog sitting patiently looking up at ball behind my back. It’s a good start. Zappos is radically rethinking its management structure. A system they are calling Holacracy, encourages folks to behave like entrepreneurs. Folks in the vital call center no longer have shifts, they choose when to work just like an Uber driver decides when to drive. This is a small behavior change that is encouraging employees to act more entrepreneurial.


There are many positive things to be said for military experience influencing leadership in the workplace. CEOs who have served in the military, for example, are less likely to commit fraud than those who never served. But we live in a time of increasingly rapid change, and the bootcamp style is too slow.

Additionally many folks now expect to be at a job for 3-5 years, again reducing the time leaders have to make change. Is the animal learning theory heading in the right direction? I’d say so. And as it becomes more and more important for businesses to implement lasting change with a less rigid management structure, it’s hard to argue for any method that focuses on breaking people down and building them back up—especially when they may not even be committed to the company for the latter half of the process.

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photo credit: ttarasiuk via photopin cc