Corporate Leadership Development Challenges: Shaping Culture the Military Way

William M. Duke Written by:
William M. Duke

Habits Create Culture

In his best seller, The Power of Habit, Martin Duhigg makes the obvious claim that “the U.S. military . . . is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.”  But, Duhigg is not criticizing military habit formation as a failure or weakness.  Corporate leadership development programs could a lot from the military: he goes on to say that “Basic training teaches soldiers carefully designed habits for how to shoot, think and communicate under fire.”[1]  How to think!? How is it that habits can help us think?

Habits, whether individually or culturally formed, can drive both negative and positive behaviors.  An overwhelming and insightful body of research is now helping us better understand how we humans think – both poorly and well.  It turns out, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has argued, that the complex activities that take place in our brains can be simplified into a two-part system that he labels System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the mind of habit.  It works quickly and with very little or no conscious thought or effort.  System 2 is our much slower critical thinking mind that requires significant energy to analyze complex information, develop ideas, and reach decisions.[2]

Just as water will seek the path of least resistance as it travels downhill, our minds seek the path of least effort.  In terms of the two-system cognitive model, System 2 is lazy. Let that fact sink in for just a moment and apply it not to a single individual, but to teams and whole organizations.  It’s not difficult to realize, then, that an organization’s culture is also the result of this tendency toward laziness.  Hence, leading and nurturing an organizational culture requires significant leadership effort. Furthermore, if ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, as Peter Drucker is believed to have said, then the lazy habits of organizational culture are a powerful countervailing force against performance excellence.

Habit is to the individual as culture is to the group.  When left to develop on their own, cultures run the organization rather than the leadership.[3]  Intentionality and focus die a quick death.  Habit evolves through a looping cycle in the brain.  The loop begins with the brain attending to a cue or stimulus that triggers a response from an inventory of various habits.  If the action that the brain takes from its inventory of habits results in a positive outcome, the brain learns and reinforces the situational appropriateness of that particular habit.  Thus, over time, certain habits become more and more powerful and, therefore, more and more difficult to override should changing circumstances or context render the habit inappropriate.[4]  For example, consider driving on an ice-covered road where one’s habitual response is opposite to the appropriate response.  The habitual response is to jerk your wheel in the opposite direction of a slide while the appropriate action is to slowly turn your wheel in the direction of your slide until you regain control.  Most of us know better, but we do the wrong thing anyway because our thoughtful System 2 is moving so much slower than our habitual System 1.

In a static environment in which change is slow and disruption rare, habit is a wonderful thing.  In a stable world, habits prevent the effortful System 2 brain from having to expend energy.  The brain becomes a couch potato.  But, that is not the world we live in.  Instead, we live in a world of increasingly rapid and turbulent change in which individuals, teams, and organizations must continuously grapple with new and ever-evolving challenges.  There is little time for positive habits and cultures to form before they are rendered ineffective or worse, down-right dangerous.

How do we overcome the influence of inappropriate habit and culture in such a turbulent environment?  The answer lies in building habits and cultures that recognize the necessity of intentional System 2 effort.  Habits that help guide thoughtful action can be more appropriately called heuristics or rules of thumb.  Heuristics can be short and simple processes that help engage System 2.  You need a habitual or culturally accepted heuristic that triggers System 2 to assess the environment thoroughly and critically in order to direct appropriate action.  Although such a heuristic may not override the quickness of habitual actions like jerking your steering wheel in the opposite direction of a slide on an icy road, it can inform an individual or team of the necessity to train or develop more appropriate knee-jerk reactions when rapid responses are required.

That is what military training does for the military culture.  It builds habits for both effective action and thought. For individuals, such habit emerges from many hours of practice in activities like daily operations in business or tactical military operations.  For organizations, rapid habitual responses should be governed by carefully developed cultures and more concrete direction such as standards or standard operating procedures (SOP’s).  For those of us that have served in the U.S. military, we are keenly aware of the libraries of standard operating procedures that tell us how best to perform any number of simple to complex operations.  Furthermore, we know that those SOP’s are constantly evolving and are developed from carefully reviewed debriefs or after-action reviews.

Flawless Execution Brings It All Together

Flawless Execution is a heuristic that was inspired by the many disparate cultural practices within the U.S. military.  It is a simple cycle of plan-brief-execute-debrief that engages System 2 and, when iterated frequently, informs the creation of standards and identifies training needs to continuously improve the organization. Flawless Execution is an intervention that assures System 2 engages in an intentional way to identify the routine and non-routine challenges we face, identify them appropriately, rationally solve for the non-routine while continuously updating and revising the healthy habits needed to handle the routine challenges.


Will Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology.  He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).

[1] Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. (Random House, 2012) Pp. xvii-xviii.

[2] Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Pp. 20-24.

[3] Edgar H. Schein. Organizational Culture and Leadership, 3rd Ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2004) Pp. 23.

[4] Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. (Random House, 2012) Pp. 19-20.