Industry Update
Opinion Article10 September 2020

Mission Purpose – A Combat to Commercial Approach – Lessons for the Hospitality Industry

By Robert Swade, Managing Director of Maze Hospitality

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The stakes have never been higher for the hospitality industry than they are today. Businesses of all sizes are having to rethink and reshape their operating models - and fast.


When some might only see challenges, others will identify opportunities. Perhaps more so than ever before, this is the time for new thinking and fresh approaches - embracing lessons from other fields that could prove transformational.

One might think that lessons in military command are not relevant outside a theatre of war. It conjures up the image of extreme conditions and serious jeopardy, not perhaps a corporate office or the calm and serenity of a luxury boutique hotel.

However, some of the principles of military leadership are universal and far reaching - and we in the hospitality industry could look to channel them to our advantage, particularly in the current operating environment, which bears many of the similarities to combat - fear, uncertainty and unlimited liability all prevail.

This is something I learned from colleague and friend, Stuart Tootal OBE. Stuart is a former army Colonel, best-selling author and currently a partner at Matero Consulting. As the commanding officer for the first UK battle group sent to southern Afghanistan in 2006, he has a wealth of experience in military leadership. He told me that "what distinguishes any military leader with a strong track record of succeeding in challenging circumstances and making order out of chaos is a clear sense of mission - having absolute clarity of mission, purpose and intent is crucial to achieving success in the military arena."

The same is true for hospitality. By communicating the purpose of your organisation, you significantly enhance your ability to get full buy-in for a course of action from your team. That is the first step towards building a group of like-minded colleagues that are all pulling in the same direction – especially when the organisation is being tested.

It is up to a leader to instil that purpose in their team. In the military, 'mission command' is all about making sure that your direct reports know their objectives and, even when you are not around, feel empowered to make their own decisions to achieve it. In doing this you develop vital qualities in your team - you encourage collective accountability, self-leadership and the ability to adapt.

When you are on the frontline, you need a team that can keep a clear head. The hospitality sector itself is facing a period of high stress. Every decision counts, more so than ever before. Leaders need to empower and enable their colleagues to make these decisions without constant reference to senior colleagues in the chain of command. Companies must build an organisational culture that fosters empowered and confident attitudes - which will in turn allow all parts of the company to navigate tough scenarios.

Building this culture cannot happen overnight, it takes time for it to develop and grow. In the military, as in all walks of life, you have people coming from a diverse range of backgrounds - of thought, experience and values. Trying to find an 'instant fit' is impossible and keeping this diversity is crucial for any team. Good leadership is being able to bring different personalities into a culture and induct them into a shared mission.

However, being a part of a team should not undermine one's individuality. In the military, having a clear sense of collective mission purpose unites you but you get to know colleagues personally and individually. You learn their pressure points are and how to play to each other's strengths. It is crucial for leaders to understand their team's individual needs and how they work best. Communication needs to be open, regular, and clear so that each team member knows their point of focus and understands how they are adding value. Communication in the military is also a two-way street and it encourages and codifies permission to challenge, input to the formulation of mission purpose and individual and team initiative.

When building such a culture of trust and empowerment you also need to allow people to experiment and exercise that initiative. Consequently, it requires a tolerance to accept mistakes.

The stakes in the military are life and death. There are now similarities with other industries, including hospitality, with the current, ever present threat of COVID-19. However, cultivating an environment of fear is never going to result in confident, decisive individuals.

Missteps and false judgments are part of the journey, and a company culture that encourages and promotes an environment where every colleague can contribute, needs to take that as a core by-product of the process. It is important for everyone to understand that mistakes will always be part of any learning process - but it is how you respond to those mistakes and progress that is most important. The key thing is to establish a culture that learns from mistakes, shares the learning and, as a result, improves team performance as a whole.

COVID-19 has itself been described in war-like terms - from doctors on the 'frontline' to the 'fight' against the virus. Whether in a pandemic or not, learnings can be taken from military leadership as it provides a powerful perspective of leveraging the experience from an organisation that makes operating in crisis the norm; especially when so many managers today find themselves in uncharted territory.

If core principles of purpose and decision making can be upheld in a theatre of war, then we can certainly deploy them in the hospitality industry to great effect.

Robert Swade

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    Robert Swade
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