Can business learn from the way the British Army develops its leaders of tomorrow? TM Editor-at-large Nick Peters reports.
How do you lead someone into battle and possibly to their death? By coercion? That was certainly the way they used to do it. Officers may have led from the front, prepared to be the first to die, but the motivation of those behind them was usually driven by the knowledge of the consequences if they refused to follow.
If you’re tempted to believe this kind of coercive leadership could never possibly exist in business, yours or anyone else’s, think again. For a great many companies, command and control is the default modus operandi.
A New York Times’s August 2015 article on the way white collar workers at Amazon are managed, tells us that coercion is the way the world’s best known companies believes it can achieve its goals, no matter the cost to its employees.
And, anyway, if coercion – which often transforms into bullying – didn’t exist in everyday business management, why do we still need employment tribunals?
In the 1980s, the British Army decided that a modern army could not possibly perform the many roles asked of it by late 20th and 21st century warfare, in which terrorism is much more likely to feature than old-style pitched battles.
The principles of Mission Command in the British Army:
- A commander gives his orders in a manner that ensures that his subordinates understand his intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions
- Subordinates are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved
- Subordinates are allocated the appropriate resources to carry out their missions
- A commander uses a minimum of control measures so as not to limit unnecessarily the freedom of action of his subordinates
- Subordinates then decide within their delegated freedom of action how best to achieve their missions
Therfore they developed a new philosophy of leadership called Mission Command, which requires officers to earn the trust and respect of their troops by humility of service rather than rank.
Three times a year, 200 young people enter the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) to be trained as army officers. They have to undergo a searching assessment even to be accepted as officer cadets, and once accepted they endure a gruelling 12-month training programme, which is not for the faint-hearted.
It’s physically rigorous and intellectually demanding; a mixture of university-level academic studies and hard physical graft. What is remarkable is that a cadet can excel physically and academically, and still be rejected if they don’t have the spark of leadership within them, according to RMAS Commandant Major General Paul Nanson CBE.
“I sum it up into the Three Cs,” General Nanson said. “We’re looking for someone who has courage, both physical, and moral more importantly perhaps; a certain amount of competence, the ability to stand on their own two feet, communicate and problem-solve; and we’re looking for someone with a bit of character, someone with something special to offer, who can demonstrate that ability to step out of the ranks and lead.”
The insistence on character underpinning every other skill the cadets possess is what breathes life into the Sandhurst motto Serve to lead. It is a simple, yet profoundly moral philosophy founded on the apparent paradox that only by serving those you profess to lead can you persuade them to follow you.
Lieutenant Colonel Lucy Giles, Commander of New College and the first woman college commander at Sandhurst, came face to face with this within 18 months of passing out, or graduation, a shiny new officer who had to lead men into war during the Balkan conflict. Neither her youth, nor the fact that she was a newly trained woman officer, got in the way of her being an effective leader.
“I found myself having to command 70 men on operations,” she said. “But I didn’t see my gender as being an issue, neither did the soldiers. As long as I was fit, could shoot straight and I looked after them well, that inspired the trust and the loyalty you need to be effective in a leadership role.”
If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “That may work for the military, but it couldn’t possibly work in business,” think again. There are businesses in the UK and across the globe hungry for the power that Army-style leadership can unleash.
Stephen Bennett, chairman and founder of the Inspirational Development Group (IDG), remembers the conversation he had 15 years ago in the Cabinet Office at which the idea of IDG establishing a partnership with Sandhurst was first mooted.
He had started IDG not long beforehand, to fill a gap he had identified in the market between the theory of leadership as taught at business schools and the practical leadership training sector which, while good, tended to be run by businesses too small to deal with the demands of large companies.
The Government recognised the potential for business to learn from the very advanced leadership training that Sandhurst had developed, and saw in Bennett the man to make it happen. As a very well regarded and experienced businessman and financier, Bennett had no difficulty in persuading the RMAS to enter into a partnership whereby IDG, working with Sandhurst’s instructors, could introduce commercial clients to the Academy’s leadership theory and philosophy.
Today, IDG has a permanent office at Sandhurst and as a result of the partnering arrangement, has a number of former Army officers among its consultants and senior management. The fact that it numbers some very large global companies among its clients, such as HSBC and KPMG, testifies to the success of the formula.
As far as Stephen Bennett is concerned everything that is important about the Sandhurst experience rests on a set of values.
“If the individual at Sandhurst is not imbued after their training with the values Sandhurst expects from British officers, then that is a reason for failure,” Bennett said. “That is a lesson we try to bring to business. This whole issue of creating organisations that possess, and operate on the basis of a strong value set is now so important.
“The lessons of the last ten years need to be learned; we need to run our businesses in a much more cultural, rather than a tactical, sense. It was Peter Drucker who coined the phrase, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’. Never was a truer word said.”
It’s important to note that IDG does not seek to transfer the entire military leadership playbook into everyday commercial life. Modern day business may be tough, but no one will be expected to march their troops into a firefight, so only those tenets of military leadership that have total application to the world of business are taught.
The most powerful of these is the principle of ‘forgiveness not permission’.
“Most businesses these days want to do things faster, better, cheaper,” Stephen Bennett explained. “They’ve got to be fleet of foot, and it’s not always possible, particularly at a tactical level, for people on the ground to get permission from above.
“So if something goes wrong, they should receive forgiveness not punishment, because things do go wrong. Sometimes they are not even mistakes, they just happen. A good leader will never admonish somebody for taking an initiative, unless they have gone outside the accepted values of the organisation.”
In military terms, this equates most starkly with a junior officer or a non-commissioned officer (NCO) having to make split-second decisions in combat, with no input from above, decisions that could have profound consequences way beyond the field of battle.
“Tactical actions of an NCO or a low-ranking officer could have strategic consequences,” General Paul Nanson added.
“In today’s media environment, that action can be on Sky News in seconds, it can influence political decision-making, and yet you have to have that freedom to act. That means you have a thorough understanding of higher commanders’ intent.
“In the old days, we used to say you needed to know what your commanders two-up from you were thinking. Today it’s three, four, five and six-up, you need to know the whole context of the operation.”
For Bennett, the likelihood of subordinates making the right decisions, consistent with the mission they have been given, is greatly enhanced if, like the Army, they operate within a culture that has integrity at its core.
“When I talk about values, some people say yes, but they’re only words, and that frustrates me incredibly, because values are just words unless the processes within the organisation consistently reflect them. We talk about integrity – I wonder how many people test integrity at the interview stage? Not many, I suspect.
“Our business at IDG is about business improvement. It’s not soft or fluffy, it’s hard-nosed and hard-edged, and we help businesses improve by helping people modify their behaviour. And Sandhurst is a great example of that.”