5 Unexpected Cues Small Business Can Take From The Military

And no, it’s not to order push-ups for every late project.

5 Unexpected Cues Small Business Can Take From The Military
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Long before I became an entrepreneur I spent seven years serving as an officer in the British Royal Marines Commandos.


To hone our expertise in warfare, we were trained according to what is known as the Commando Ethos. It’s a philosophy unique to the Marines, but one that constantly informs my business decisions–and one that every entrepreneur can learn from.

Here are its basic tenets:

1. Unity of purpose

Every commando is put to a set of rigorous tests at the beginning of training, and the shared experience of these tests helps develop trust among peers and a sense of selflessness.

Each Marine is expected to assist his fellows at all times to achieve a common goal, and officers would never ask a subordinate to do something he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do himself.

Think about how this applies to business. Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do some of the dirty work your employees are expected to do every day?

For my co-CEO and wife Natasha Ashton and me, this means everything from answering Petplan’s phones to cleaning up after office pets. The shared experience gives us better insight into the challenges our employees navigate while demonstrating to our team that we are all working together to achieve the same goals.


2. Adaptability

There is a saying in the military that, “no plan ever survives the start line,” meaning that no matter how much preparation goes into battle, as soon as bullets start flying the unexpected will happen and the commander on the ground will need to think on his feet.

One of the most valuable assets to an entrepreneur is the ability to constantly evaluate tactics and strategy to determine what works, often on the fly.

There will be times when your plans work better on paper than in practice and you need to change course to succeed. There will be times when the industry throws you a curveball and you have to innovate to compete. In business, as in battle, there are surprises around every corner. Your survival depends on your ability to adapt.

3. Humility

In the Marines, there is no place for leadership through arrogance or a reliance on rank alone to get things done; humility is the mark of a true leader. Humility in business is important as well–the moment a business believes they are untouchable by competitors is the moment a new player comes along and eats their lunch.

One needs only to look to Blockbuster Video and Netflix or BlackBerry and Apple to see how detrimental arrogance can be to business. Success is earned through hard work and innovative thinking. Once these are eclipsed by ego, a leader can be poised for his downfall.

4. Fortitude

Fortitude is arguably the most important defining characteristic of a Marine. Mental toughness enables consistent performance at a high standard, whatever the situation or environment throws at you. Sound a lot like starting a business? Grit, determination, endurance–an entrepreneur calls on all of these daily to keep operations running.


Making sure your business is performing at a high standard every day, while maintaining the creative ability to conceive novel approaches to problems, takes a ton of mental fortitude. Much like running a marathon, developing the mental fortitude to succeed (in the Marines or in business) takes training–and you WILL be tested.

5. Sense of Humor

The Marines have a distinctive self-deprecating brand of humor, with a sense of cheerfulness in the face of adversity expected no matter what the situation. This is in all likelihood a well-developed coping mechanism for facing extremely arduous circumstances.

The stakes in business may not involve death or injury, but encouraging a sense of humor is advantageous in the workplace, too. Levity makes you more approachable, makes your brand more appealing, and just plain makes you more fun to work with. And at the end of the day, being able to laugh when the going gets tough creates the kind of mental breathing room that allows for truly inspired ideas to emerge.

Being an entrepreneur can often feel like going into battle, but with the right training and tactics, success is there for the taking. Stick to a strong ethos no matter who or what the adversary, and you’ll find that, as Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “what counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”

Chris Ashton is CEO of Petplan pet insurance.