Friday 9th January 1998: it’s a dark, wet, rainy night in The South Hams, Devon. I’m in the first week of my year long Officer Training at BRNC Dartmouth. Along with my Division of new recruits, I’m standing in a dark field and about to commence a map-reading night navigation exercise wearing my newly issued DPM combats, beret and boots. To be honest, the exercise was pretty easy and not that different to the stuff youngsters might do in the Scouts or Cadets. It was only a ‘starter-for ten’. However, it was my first training exercise in military leadership as a paid, professional trainee Officer. The thing I remember most was my Divisional Officer, a Royal Marine Major, stating that “leadership is not about handing out sweets when it’s your turn to lead the map reading exercise!”… (I made a mental note to keep the sweets I had to myself!) I don’t remember what he did define leadership as.
And that was the start of a constant stream of leadership training that ended in 2014 when I left the RN. Every training course throughout flying training had a ‘character and leadership’ assessment that ran alongside all the flying assessments. Every annual report ever, assessed my leadership ability and therefore my suitability for leadership roles and promotion. At suitable points throughout an officer’s career, he or she will likely attend a major leadership, command and staff course at The Royal Military Academy, Shrivenham which will be several weeks long or even a year for the senior officers.
And it’s not just the officers – all the non-commissioned officers and junior ratings also receive leadership training throughout their training and career.
So, with all this training, you’d expect all Officers in the Royal Navy to be excellent leaders. In fact, with the resources, technology and access to information that we have, you might expect the military to be a centre of excellence for leadership, development, innovation and progression.
That would be a fair assessment to make I suppose. In which case, why were all of the senior officers that I worked for so convincingly unremarkable? Squadron Commanding Officers, Ships’ Captains, The Base Commanders and Heads of the Fleet Air Arm? I cannot think of a single noteworthy example of leadership from any of these Military Officers. For that matter, I can’t really think of any household names of military leaders since, um, about 1996 perhaps.
Now, people reading this with their own experiences might immediately accuse me of writing total nonsense and counter with many examples of military leadership in combat scenarios etc. These are very real and of course commendable and have my utmost respect – but where are the modern-day Admiral Nelsons, Captain Scotts, Wing Cdr Gibsons, Field Marshall Montgomerys, General De Labillieres and General Jacksons? Where are the new leaders that should be filling the history books? Where is the inspiration for school boys and girls with tales of strategy, adventure and discovery?
I’m not saying today’s Senior officers are bad leaders – just simply that there is no need to really lead anyone… they are custodians of their role. By this, I mean their role, duties and responsibilities are pre-defined and the officer is appointed into the role – they fulfill the role and then move on to their next post after a couple of years thus making way for the next incumbent. Furthermore, they are also not given the scope to be genuinely innovative and creative, and nor do they foster these attributes in the men and women for whom they are in charge of. And in many respects, they’re not incentivised to! They merely need to fulfill the role within their posting in order to tick the box for the CV – which is usually is enough for an often preordained promotion to the next rank…
And here’s the thing: stable, unchanging conditions do not require leadership! And, in the context of war and death, this is a good thing. Stability is good.
Leadership is needed when things change, for example:
- The location is changing – eg an expedition
- The geo-political situation is changing (or change is the threat) eg resulting in dispute, conflict and war
- Ambition is driving a change – eg, technology needs to change and advance in order to meet new needs and desires
- The commercial market is changing
- Death Rates are changing (increasing) due to disease/pandemic
What is leadership and its attributes? Ultimately, a leader needs an understanding of ‘the change’ – then the leader needs to do the following:
- Create a vision of the final/desired outcome
- Create a solution(s)/plan (using all effective available resources).
- Create/select methods to convey to your team (and delegate as required) the necessary logistics, actions and incentives to reach that vision.
- Monitor progress
Note my use of the word “create” – creativity, lateral thinking and pragmatism are key to a leadership team. An effective organisation needs space and utilities for creative thinking – merely hoping to use pre-determined SOPs or previously used routines are unlikely to create bespoke, innovative solutions to progress (or retard) change. Leadership without creativity is really just ‘management’.
This is where leadership in the business and commercial world is so exciting. In the 20th century the Government (and Government funded organisations) pioneered new technology and innovation through military equipment, the cold war and the space race all supported by healthy public funds. But governments are no longer the custodians and vanguards of new technology.
Ultimately, we are all trying to solve problems with solutions. The problems are the root cause of the change. If there is no problem, then there is no need for a solution – and if there is no need for a solution, then there is no need for a change which means there is no need for leadership. Any entrepreneur is usually looking for a problem to resolve:
- How can a task be done quicker?
- How can a task be done cheaper?
- How can a task be done more reliably?
- How can a client have a better experience?
- How do we reduce greenhouse gases?
- How do we create enough food?
- How can we reduce transport requirements?
- How can we streamline our supply chain?
- Where will humans live when planet earth becomes uninhabitable?
There are, very definitely, many more problems to solve in the commercial and civilian world than in the military world. And many large organisations are spending huge sums of money on technology, innovation and creative output. The opportunities are endless and, for many organisations, there seems to be an endless supply of money. Small businesses can be in the party as well: software, apps, automation, 3D printing, collaborative systems, virtual-reality and simulation are all bringing really cool solutions right into the workplace. We’re living in exciting times. Our modern day leaders and household names are global: Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, James Dyson, the late Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos.
In business, you need to lead – you need to lead your staff when your business develops, grows and changes. You need to lead your clients when they are in the process of using your services – they are seeking your services, probably because something is changing in their life: a house move or a job change or a change in financial circumstances or children are growing up or their physical or mental health is changing, or a desire to change (eg, get fit, lose weight, learn and instrument) etc. This is when the business owner, or employee needs to lead.
- In your business do you have a system for logging and developing new ideas?
- If you’re a business owner, are you keeping up with technology in your industry?
- Does your business embrace change and new developments to overcome problems?
- As a business owner, do you revise and envisage where you want your business to be in 1, 2, 5, 10 years time?
- Do you have a team, business partner or even just a trusted adviser with whom you can create ideas and lay down the path that your business needs to follow?
Remember, leadership is not about handing out ‘sweets’. You might give your staff benefits, a generous salary and bonuses and they might all really like you. Its doesn’t make you a great leader. But that’s not to say staff rewards, incentives and treats are not allowed. But’s another article.