Military metaphors abound in the world of business. Companies rarely enter new markets; they usually "invade" them. When businesses ponder geographic expansion, they make "forays" into new territories. Consultants no longer speak of assignments for clients—the preferred term is "engagements." All this martial lingo serves a purpose: At a time when global business rivalries are intensifying, competition often resembles combat. This fact was forcefully borne home to the CEO of a high-tech company who recently sold his start-up to Microsoft. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal about his reaction when the Seattle-based giant let 50 of his 100 employees go, he said: "Though I felt that we had won, some got killed, [and] some got wounded…"

Such parallels between warfare and business formed the theme of a recent seminar at Wharton. Titled "From the Battlefield to the Boardroom: Applying Military Leadership to the Corporate World," it featured three former military officers who spoke about their experience in the armed services and how it prepared them for their present roles in corporate America. What they said might surprise those who may have expected to hear about guerrilla strategies or take-no-prisoners tactics. Their fundamental message: Character counts; leadership means caring for your troops; and those who accept the status quo will probably die.

General Charles Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant who once led troops in Vietnam, is now senior vice chairman of MBNA Bank, an independent credit-card issuer that manages more than $70 billion in loans. He spoke about character as the most important trait of a leader. "It doesn’t make a difference whether you are in the boardroom or the battlefield," Krulak says. "Many people are brilliant, articulate, charismatic, innovative and tough. But if they lack character, they will not succeed as leaders."

But are there not instances of leaders—including presidents of countries—who seem to succeed despite their apparent lack of character? True, admits Krulak, but their power is fleeting because success without character rarely stands the test of time. "It doesn’t serve to inspire anyone—and as leaders, you are in the inspiration business," he says. Unlike talents such as intelligence, which is a "God-given gift, character is a choice," says Krulak. "And it’s not an easy choice like whether you should have Pop Tarts for breakfast—it’s the kind of choice where your palms get clammy, sweat pops out on your brow, your guts begin to turn, and you know that the decision you are about to make will have an impact that people will not want to hear. But it is the right decision." When people learn to make right decisions over and over again, no matter how difficult they are, that process helps build character.

If character matters, caring is character put into action, according to General Thomas Draude, former assistant commander of the First Marine Division in Desert Storm, who is now senior vice president of USAA, a $40 billion financial services company. "Early on, marine officers are taught to do two things: Accomplish your mission, and take care of your troops," he says. How does an officer take care of troops? By showing that he or she cares about them—which involves knowing their names, their backgrounds, and even what makes them tick. Quoting Sun Tzu, author of the Chinese classic The Art of War, Draude says: "Regard your soldiers as your own children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Treat them as your own beloved sons, and they will be with you even unto death."

Does corporate life lend itself much to caring? Draude believes it does. "The attitude of caring is important because, first, it is the right thing to do," he says. "Your character is demonstrated by the way you care about those for whom you are responsible. Caring cannot be delegated…it is not an HR requirement." Secondly, as the U.S. economy changes from one that was dominated by manufacturing to one that is driven by services, a caring, nurturing environment is crucial to engage the minds and hearts of all employees. "How can managers expect employees to care for customers unless they feel cared for?" he asks. "You can’t become a leader unless you care for your troops. You can’t fake it."

Colonel Robert E. Lee, former commanding officer of the Marine Corps’ officer basic school, is now an advisor to the Secretary of the Navy. He points out that business is changing so rapidly that all leaders need to ask why they are doing things the way they are. "If you accept the status quo, you will die," he says. "When you ask why something is being done in a certain way, you are not belittling tradition or the past—you are learning something new." Asking such questions helps create agile organizations that can respond quickly to changes in the market.

Following the nostrums that Krulak, Draude and Lee prescribe may not necessarily bring V-Day to all business executives. It could help them, however, avoid the most destructive landmines.