Playing Managerial Roles in Military Operations

Norwegian soldiers running operations in Farya...
Norwegian soldiers running operations in Faryab Province, Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force(ISAF) is a NATO-led, 44-nation military coalition dedicated to helping Afghan authorities provide security and stability and creating the conditions for reconstruction and development. (Photo by ISAF Public Affairs) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The military is not just another organisation, at least not all of it, all of the time. It is an organisation with at least two faces:

  • One dealing with peacetime conditions and, hence, resembling an ‘ordinary organisation’; and
  • One operating in ‘hot’ conditions, during crisis and peace operations or outright war (Soeters, in Wilderom and Peterson, 2000).

In this article, the authors focused their attention on managerial roles that Belgian military commanders were playing in a given situation: at Kabul International Airport (KAIA). This airport is a multinational military base run by NATO since 2002 in the context of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). To analyse these human processes, the authors used the same method of Henry Mintzberg, who paved the way in discovering the ‘nature of managerial work’ when paying attention to two organisations (Greenpeace and the Red Cross) that are accustomed to exceptional circumstances (Mintzberg, 1973; Mintzberg & Westley, 2000; Mintzberg, 20010.

In his study, Mintzberg identified ten basic roles common to the work of all managers. All these roles were put into an interacting model combining three groups of roles:

  • Three informational roles which link all the work together and relate to the information processing;
  • Four interpersonal roles which ensure that information is transmitted and refer to behavioural processes; and, then,
  • Four decisional roles which require the use of information to take the ‘good decisions’.

The model proposed by Mintzberg also shows that the manager’s activities may be directed inside the unit being managed or outside it, to the rest of the organisation or to its external environment.

Following Mintzberg’s methodology, the authors followed two Belgian managers – commanders in military parlance –and reported all their actions during one full working day. Doing this, the authors applied precisely the same observational method used by Mintzberg which was proceeded, as he mentioned, “in a rather simple way”. Some may say that one day – in fact two separate days – is not enough to grasp the essence of behaviours and actions of managers. But the authors had additional information from their previous stays in operations and, furthermore, it was sufficient for what they ambitioned to do, that is, to extend the existing research of Mintzberg to a military context, in order to ascertain the peculiarities of military management.

From their observations, the authors noted that the two managers played, in their own organisational unit, managerial roles which were quite different from each other, favouring some of the three levels (information, people or action) and some orientation (internal or external). This difference in managerial role playing helped the authors to understand some of the specific characteristics of ‘managing militarily’. The ability to develop several managerial roles depended on their own functional area, but also on other variables such as their hierarchical level and the complex environment of the military compound. Military managers have to cope with specific features such as the importance of language and communication skills (related to the information roles), boredom among the work force (related to the interpersonal roles) as well as suddenly occurring emergencies and multiple (‘political’) authority lines inside and outside the mission area (related to the decisional roles).

The richness of Mintzberg’s model shows that managers are not merely engaged in planning and thinking and, in this case, it was seen that the military commanders spent relatively little time actually thinking about what they have to do and how to do it. Of course there were some official procedures which were at their disposal for specific situations but due to the fact that they were working in a highly volatile but also international environment, the two managers predominantly acted according to their intuition, their ‘gut feeling’ so to speak. Because of the many interruptions in their work, but also due to the time spent on building interpersonal relations. The authors also found that, even in the military field where formalisation is at a high level, managers are no longer confined to traditionally conceived managerial roles.

Observing two military managers during an ‘ordinary’ working day has proven fruitful because – in comparison to ‘conventional management’ – it revealed a number of similarities and differences characterising military management. Military management has evolved to be ‘conventional management’ including well-known features such as planning, organising, coordinating and controlling, but it has a number of peculiarities. The need to be able to switch immediately from ordinary to crisis management (from ‘cold’ to ‘hot’) such as in incident organising, the boredom factor when there is no crisis (which is usually the case), the international dimension including language diversities and national politics intruding the ‘ordinary’ managerial, decision making and communication processes are features that typify managing in a(n international) military, operational context.

Of course, none of these distinctive features are unknown in organisation theory, but put together in one organisational constellation, such as Kabul Airport, they create processes and outcomes – effectiveness and efficiency – that turn out to be satisfactory, but which are in fact less than optimal. Future research, applying general organisational concepts to the military, may help shed more light on this phenomenon. the authors expect that the international dimension, in fact the national-political dimension in the context of international military cooperation, plays a dominant role in this regard. Future studies should, therefore, particularly address this aspect of military management in today’s operations. Even though managing in and of the military is comparable to ‘conventional management’, it also has idiosyncrasies that give military management the character of an organisational species in its own right. It is a species that is worth studying because, if used properly, military organisations are still essential for achieving peace and stability around the world.


Resteigne, D. & Soeters, J. (2008) Playing Managerial Roles in Military Operations. Institute of Public Governance and Management. Volume 14.


Joseph Soeters, “Culture in uniformed organizations”, in Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate. N.M. Ashkanasy, C.P.M. Wilderom and M.F. Peterson (eds) (Thousand Oaks, Sage, 2000): pp. 465-481.

Mintzberg, H. (1973) The Nature of Managerial Work. New York: Harper and Row.

Mintzberg, H. & Westley, F. (2000) Sustaining the Institutional Environment. Organization Studies. 21, pp.71-94.

Mintzberg, H. (2001) Managing Exceptionally. Organization Science. 12, pp.759-771.


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