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Team of Teams: A Leadership Model for a Complex World

By Dan Snelson

The 21st century is a time unlike any other.  Modern technology allows instant global communication for everyone, making the world no longer just highly complicated, but increasingly complex.  It is this complexity, argues General Stanley McChrystal in his 2015 book Team of Teams, that makes it vital that we take a fresh look at how we think about leadership, management, and teamwork. 

Complicated vs. Complex

At the centre of Team of Teams is the distinction between complicated systems and  complex systems.  This difference might seem trivial, but it is in fact an incredibly important shift, requiring us to look again at how we lead.

A car engine is complicated. It has a large number of working parts.  However, their interactions are predictable: rotating the camshaft will always cause the pistons to move.  A complex system can also have many working parts. The difference is that the interaction of these parts is highly unpredictable. This increase in unpredictability changes the way leaders must lead.

An Uncertain World

McChrystal provides us an example of this. You have probably never heard of Mohamed Bouazizi.  A disaffected Tunisian street vendor, on 17 December 2010 he set himself on fire in protest against the Tunisian government.  Within hours, accelerated by modern communications technology, protests erupted across the country.  What followed became known as the Arab Spring.

The effects of Mohamed’s death could not have been predicted.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that 50 years ago his death would have had the same impact.  But today, enabled by unprecedented levels of connectivity, the actions of one person can have rapid, far-reaching and hard-hitting consequences.  This is complexity.  And complexity breeds uncertainty

Dealing with Uncertainty

In Team of Teams McChrystal leads the reader through his solution to the problem.  From his perspective, in order to deal with ever increasing uncertainty large organisations must become:

Agile – Able to move quickly and with ease.
Adaptable – Able to be modified easily to suit new conditions.
Resilient – Able to withstand and recover from difficult events.

These are all qualities typical of small teams, not of large organisations. Worse still, they are characteristics that large organisations struggle to scale up.  Yet McChrystal offers a set of solutions.  Having adapted American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to effectively take on Al-Qaida in Iraq, McChrystal passionately believes such ‘small team’ qualities can be achieved at scale. The ways he suggests doing so are simple to understand.

Delegating Until It Hurts

We all know to delegate, and most of us are confident that we do it well.  But how far do we delegate?  Do we still require our troops to gain our ‘go-ahead’ before they execute their plan?  Do we still like to ‘rubber stamp’ things for fear that their mistakes that will reflect badly on ourselves?

McChrystal writes that he often found himself giving the green light for plans that those below him knew far more about, making them far better placed to make those decisions.  His involvement in those decisions added lag, and reduced agility.

Building Shared Consciousness

The common argument for having this input from above is that the complex interplay between different teams that is inherent in a large organisation requires top-down oversight and broad understanding. After all, this ensures everyone is pulling in the right direction and prevents costly mistakes made by juniors. 

However, McChrystal suggests another way: shared consciousness.  Ensuring that intent is well understood, and that everyone has a good grasp of the overall picture can prevent these costly mistakes and improve decision making.

Of course, shared consciousness is not easy to achieve.  McChrystal describes having to actively fight for it.  However, by abandoning an attitude of ‘need-to-know’ and implementing open command group meetings that anyone in the organisation could sit in on, he showed that it can be achieved.

Cultivating a Cooperative Culture

Gone are the days of working in isolation. Our teams regularly have to work with groups that can differ from our own. Groups that, due to rivalries and differences in culture, we may find difficult to work with. We often come across these issues when working with different cap-badges, let alone with international allies. This is often because liaison is treated as a chore, or a task to give to those who ‘won’t be missed’. 

McChrystal suggests assigning liaison tasks to your best and brightest instead.  He recommends a ‘litmus test’ when selecting someone for such a role.

1.  Will their loss from your team pain you?
2.  Will you recognise their voice when they call you at three in the morning?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then they are the one for the job.

Coalition working is not going to go away, and there are good reasons to embrace it. We often have much to learn from our partners. Like an ecosystem, diversity typically breeds resilience. By bringing others into the fold, strengths and weaknesses can be balanced out; new lessons learnt; experience and intelligence better shared. To do this you need your best people to build cross-cultural links.

Panacea or Pipe-Dream?

You may be reading this and thinking none  of it is new.  Delegation, situational awareness and cooperation are not new concepts.  What differs in McChrystal’s approach in Team of Teams is that these aspects of leadership are prioritised above perhaps more sacred concepts.  In fact, McChrystal’s contention that ‘…the difference between command and control on the one hand, and adapt and collaborate on the other, [can be] the difference between success and failure…’ is quoted and reference in the UK MOD’s Joint Concept Note 2/17: The Future of Command and Control.

Delegation is prioritised over tight command and control because the costs of a delayed reaction are now simply too great.  Situational awareness is prioritised over information security because intelligence that is two days old is often useless to soldiers on the ground.  Today, the 60% solution now often trumps the 90% solution tomorrow.

You may also be reading this and thinking: ‘These concepts are all very well, applied to a very highly trained and selective organisation like JSOC.  My troops, as much as they are professional, well trained and competent, are not special forces operators’.  This is likely true, but a solution is offered by McChrystal, in perhaps his most important insight of the whole book.

The Gardener

Through our experience, upbringing and training, we have built up a certain idea of what a leader should be.  In general this person is forthright, commanding and central to the team’s success.  They lead the way and victory depends on their decisions. 

McChrystal suggests that the time may well have come for a new model of leader: the gardener.

The gardener cultivates, nurtures, and develops.  The garden does not require the gardener’s constant presence, but becomes robust, resilient and radiant thanks to the environment that they create. It is an idea that he develops in his most recent book, Leaders: Myths and Reality.

If our soldiers are not yet at the stage where they can be making important decisions without higher input, then ask why not.  What can we do to get them there?  With time, effort and energy invested in cultivating, we can develop them into teams that require far less direction from ourselves.  Perhaps that’s what we’re subconsciously afraid of?

In conclusion, Team of Teams presents many interesting and challenging ideas in addition to the ones distilled above. By using a selection of case studies from history, McChrystal builds a case for a more nurturing style of leadership. For the junior officer or NCO looking to expand their repertoire of leadership styles, this is essential reading.  For the more senior leaders out there, I suspect many of the lessons taught in this book may be ones you have already learnt for yourselves. 

Even so, McCrystal’s account of leading JSOC in Afghanistan makes for a great read in and of itself.  And who knows, there might still be a nugget or two in there for the more experienced and battle-weary amongst us as well.

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Media Credits: Images © NATO

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3 Ks of Leadership – Part 2

By Richard Clark MC

In Part 1 I talked about the need to occasionally Kiss your subordinates. Woo them. Make them feel special and valued. To follow on I want to give my take on the second of the 3 Ks – Kuddle. Kuddle is not about going into the office and tip-toeing around sensitive issues. It is definitely not a suggestion that success can be achieved exclusively by taking people aside and physically cuddling them! For me, Kuddle is about being less robotic and more human in the team environment. It is about working to engender trust and being willing to mentor your people. I have found that the results will undoubtedly profoundly impact what your team achieves.

But first, thanks to those who have responded to each of the previous articles. I have been asked why I feel the need to write about leadership. Security guys usually like to keep a low profile.

I write to share my views and generate discussion. The truth is, I feel fortunate that my experiences have enabled me to travel and meet so many different people:  rich and poor, those who have dedicated their lives to others, and those who generally want to be a better version of themselves. I have learnt from all of them and learnt about myself during my time with them. I feel there is something important in passing on the benefit of your experience. But let’s talk about the next K – Kuddle

Kuddle – Care about and engage with your people

I have had the great privilege to work in many teams over the years. Each had their own capacity to achieve excellence, irrespective of how difficult their challenges may have been. In the military I worked with teams in Helmand and, later, as a private security contractor I worked with teams in Northern Kenya. In each case, the teams were utterly committed to achieving their goals. It is true to say that some were more capable and better resourced, but the desire to do the best they could was always quite clear. With experience, I have come to realise that, in every case, had my peers and I not invested time in knowing each member of the team the results could have been very different.

As one might imagine, working in the Middle East and Africa, with both the British Army and local security forces, leads to very different perspectives on what works and what does not when it comes to managing people. In Kenya I worked 30-on-30-off with a fellow contractor. We were responsible for a group of police officers. They were poorly paid and often worked in challenging conditions. Most often, all they needed to stay focused was a chat, which I could provide through a mix of my broken Swahili and English. Spending time getting to know them was an immensely rewarding experience. Conducting training with the guys provided me a means of breaking down barriers and, often by example, explain and demonstrate what good looked like and why they should want to achieve it. As I got to know them, I understood what motivated each of them.

What did I learn? That as a leader you should strive to bring your people with you. They should come with you on an endeavour not because of duty or coercion but because of a deep-seated feeling of loyalty. To do that you need to get close to them and know them. Put your arms around them, not in a loving way but, perhaps, in a way that shows you care. Let me explain.

  • Develop Your Human Intuition. Develop a sense of family, a genuine esprit de corps amongst your team. Recognise when something is not right and ask your people what can be done to reduce their concerns. It could be family issues, money, a woman or man. Either way don’t just accept the person is having a bad day if they are acting differently to the norm. Take them aside and invest some time in helping them.
  • Take an interest Giving your time is more than just being there in body. Actively listening to your team members, taking on board their views and opinions. This will not make people think that you are just a figure head. It will show that you can be trusted and that you genuinely give a shit! Too many times people turn up and ask, “how are we, chaps” and then as quickly as they appeared they are gone again. I read Operation Mincemeat recently. In a book full of awe inspiring characters, one of the most profound was an American Colonel William Orlando Darby. He repeatedly turned down promotion because he wanted to lead his men into battle. Lead he did, until his untimely death at just 34 after which he was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General. His men followed him everywhere.
  • Time. A leader must give their time to those for whom they are responsible. Do not be the kind of leader who expects results to magically appear. But the kind of person who helps others through the process. If you only ever show up at the end you can create a gap between you and your team, which may prove to be irreparable. They may never believe you really care.

To me, Kuddle represents the need to give a shit about your people.

To expect everyone to blindly follow you, no matter what, does not reflect the reality of today. People want to know that they are being thought about in more ways than simply getting results or securing your place on the next wrung of the promotion ladder. Kuddle also means that when you ask about their family, they know you really care. When did you last sit down with your team and talk about stuff beyond work?

But do not worry about me getting soft. The third K is Kick.


So, let me tell you about the third K. Kick.

Kick has not been the easiest K for me. I used to be called ‘Nice Guy Clarky’ by my peers. It was a bit of an in-house joke. I was once advised that I should be less of a Sergeant and more of a Company Sergeant Major. I would accept that my personality tends to steer me away from confronting people but, and it is a big but, I have always been willing to challenge people to change the status quo. I have never allowed people to continue in the way rut just because ‘that is the way I have always done it’. I challenge people and, as a result, I continue to put people in positions where they have to re-evaluate their contribution to the team.

I don’t do this for personal satisfaction or to appease my commanders. I do it to bring out the best in someone for the benefit of the whole team. In my experience, some people want to be challenged and ‘kicking’ someone’s thinking processes can work to great effect. Because Kick is not about kicking people as a punishment. It is about kicking people into improvement.

Challenge – for the right reasons

A while back I was working with a small team. I often referred to managing them as being like a football coach. On a regular basis, they really needed to be told how good a job they were doing and that their contribution to the team’s efforts was appreciated. But they also needed to be challenged to be better so that they did not rest on their laurels.

I recall one of the last conversations I had with one of the chaps. I was determined to improve his overall capability and, perhaps if time permitted, adjust his mind-set. I sat down with him and explained that whilst he was good at certain things, in other areas he was not. When it came to these areas, he lacked the ability to recognise that he was fallible. As a result, he had made mistakes.

As the conversation progressed it became slow and sometimes painful, but ultimately, I spoke to him for the right reasons. This was not about making him feel incompetent. This conversation was borne of desire to make him better. To do this I had to make my feelings clear in a non-confrontational environment.  He needed to know that people make mistakes, even the best minds. He also needed to know that by recognising this he would be able to define his limitations and then proactively seek the knowledge to improve.

Many times, in my career I have seen the importance of challenging people to develop themselves. In most cases they rise to the challenge in a way they never would have had they not received a leadership Kick. Sadly, in this case, the relationship soured after this conversation. He was unwilling to acknowledge there had been mistakes.

Do not be afraid to administer a Kick

So why do I mention it? Because my regret regarding this particular episode was not having dealt with it sooner. This chap liked being told he was doing well. Don’t we all? However, he loathed even the slightest suggestion that he was making errors. Perhaps in time he will come to recognise my intention and that it came from the best possible place. Perhaps he will eventually realise that we all have weaknesses and sometimes it takes a leadership kick to realise it.

Kick, to me, represents helping people evolve as the situation changes. Recognize that people become comfortable with what they are doing. In some cases, they eventually do little more than just toe the party line. Whilst in certain circumstances this may be nice, it cannot work in the long term. Challenging people to do something different, helping them to be bold, is very important. Challenge the status quo for all its worth and reap the benefits of doing so. Do it in the knowledge that you are keeping your people mentally active and motivated.

Kiss, Kuddle and Kick

Kiss, Kuddle and Kick. Thinking retrospectively, these have been my leadership philosophies for a very long time. But it has taken me time to get good at them. Perhaps leadership comes naturally to the best of men. For mere mortals like me it takes a bit of practise and commitment.

I have no doubt that there are alternative ways to approach management and leadership. I am always interested in hearing the views of others with more experience than myself. But these have worked for me. Tell your people they are valuable. Understand them and develop them. Never be afraid to give them a kick when they need to be pushed outside their comfort zones or in new directions. I challenge you to give some thought to the three Ks and share your interpretation. I would also encourage you to take a look at another great article that I agree with, Russ Lewis’s Five Universals of Great Leaders.  It has some exceptional observations that chime with my three Ks.

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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright, NATO and author’s own

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The Three Ks of Leadership – Part 1

By Richard Clark MC

For 12 years I served with 3 SCOTS – the Black Watch.  In my time I served in both Iraq and Afghanistan a couple of times. I decided to leave in 2012 as the Platoon Sergeant of a highly capable platoon, one I was proud to serve with. In the six or so years since leaving I have traveled and worked in Kenya, Nigeria, Albania and now Jordan. Being away from home gives a lot of time for self-reflection. What follows is the result of one such period of introspection.

I have always craved knowledge and development in everything I do and have benefited from the advice of many exceptional operators in my working life. I read extensively about peers in the security industry and former service personnel who have gone on to great success in their respective fields. I openly discuss ideas with those who share my thirst for being better. One of the most pertinent pieces of advice I have received was shared with me in response to an external audit I and my team underwent in 2017. My boss at the time shared his view on what he called the 3 Ks of leadership, how I might rectify the findings of the audit and how best to approach the very sensitive situation of change with my team members. What he taught me was how to Kiss, Kuddle and Kick.

As the Estate Security Manager for a private estate in South Gloucester my responsibility was to ensure the family living there were free from any unwanted attention. I had to do so without being overly zealous; not in their face during every waking moment and maintaining the tranquillity that they had worked hard to establish. It was also a working estate with all sorts of other people who needed to be considered when applying security principles. Was I to go in to hard and lose the support of other staff and ultimately the family or go in to soft and nothing changes?

The audit came a year or so into my appointment it was the type that really goes to town on trying to find the good, the bad and the ugly in order that the boss (the principal) could be assured, or otherwise, that his security team were doing what was being asked of them. The audit was not designed to instil fear, it was an honest look at TTPs and their validity on the estate. There were positive points and some not so positive points. The results had not been what we hoped for. In every case I took the points as learning opportunities. The easy option would have been to bury one’s head and think nothing more of it, but it was quickly apparent that the team’s approach had to be changed and that I had a key role in doing this.

This article was spawned in the months immediately following my boss imparting his wisdom. After much contemplation, I now realise that the words he shared with me ring true. Retrospectively I recalled the many times I lead and managed people, as a soldier and now as a civilian. Perhaps subconsciously I had been applying the 3 Ks throughout my career to get the best out of people.

Kiss – Let them know they can be valued and valuable

Kiss is best explained through a story. It is a story that many platoon sergeants will recognise. I don’t doubt many readers will share my sentiments as I share the story. Most will probably recognise the characteristics of blokes from their own units. I tell it not as a character assassination, far from it in fact. The lad being discussed went on to be  an effective member of the Platoon. All that was needed was a bit more attention and development – a bit of a Kiss.

When I was a platoon sergeant I had a young Jock, small and wiry and average in terms of his ability. He joined my platoon in the midst of pre-deployment training for Operation Herrick 15; this Jock was just starting his military career. He was ok, there was nothing particularly special about him, but I got the sense that he was a good egg, if a bit naïve. After a few months, as Jocks often do, he became increasingly detached. He often acted as if he would rather be somewhere else.

And of course, he did. He wanted to be with his newfound love, a local girl who was obviously far more important to him than the Army. The desire to be with her was strong. It led to him being late for parade on a number of occasions. He had a partner in crime, a fellow Jock, who was also quite new. They were inseparable and as a result they both pushed the boundaries.

Actions have consequences

To cut a long story short, after a few second chances and a few more broken promises, I had to act. I’d seen the potential in both young men. I knew that if they were to stand any chance of succeeding in the Army, they would need to be separated. One week, over the space of a few days, the situation came to a climax.

I decided to pull them into the office and AGAI them. I recall being irate and screaming at them about complacency, about being the new guys and that given their relative lack of experience their efforts should be on trying to make a name for themselves and not chasing about some girls in the local town. I rarely, if ever, got myself to a point where I would shake with anger, but the two lads had simply not produced the standards required of them. They were a platoon sergeant’s archetypal problem children.

The AGAI was purposefully meant to take away their weekends. I wanted them stood at the guardroom at 20:00 on a Friday night and not swanning away with their new-found loves. They both felt different and decided that my AGAI action was unwarranted, so much so they decided to blow it out. I was the Battalion Orderly Sergeant that night and so quickly worked out that they had failed to show up.

Well what followed is still a bit of a blur. It ended up in me being investigated by one of the OCs due to accusations of bullying. The parents of one of the lads had called the Orderly Officer and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t great. Apparently, I had made some threats and daddy wasn’t happy that his son was being dragged over the coals. Even as I type this now I struggle to think of anyone who would ever refer to me as a bully. Yes, I had gone about punishing these chaps in the wrong way but being a bully was simply not who I was.

A Lesson Learned

My first mistake was giving them five show parades straight off the bat. As the OC in charge of the investigation would rightly note, giving them five show parades gave me no room to manoeuvre. What would be my escalation if I needed to go again? Giving three and not the full five might have given me room to play with.

But the second, and by far the greatest, mistake was allowing myself to become too emotionally involved. Why did I think that being as angry as I was would lead to a different reaction from the lads involved? There was no carrot on offer to tempt them to comply with my instruction. There was no incentive for them to pull their socks up. My job, I now realise, should have been ensuring that they understood the error of their ways and how they could each become better and achieve more.

Over the following months, after the guys had been moved to different companies, it became clear that the one who remained with me needed another steer. He needed someone to help him evolve. I ensured one of the screws took extra time at the end of each training session to help him understand the relevance of what had gone on and the importance of his role in the platoon. The result was a dawning of realisation for him. He suddenly understood that he could make a significant impact on the success of the team. The extra time with him really did pay off. In late 2011, he deployed with the platoon to Afghanistan. He proved to be a highly capable soldier and excellent team player.

All he needed, after a having a bad influenced removed, was a leadership Kiss. A little wooing to let him know he was valuable and could be valued by the team.

A Leadership Kiss

What did I take away from this particular situation?

  • Motivation can take many forms. What works for one may not work for the other. The journey a leader must take to fully understand what motivates someone can be both rewarding and insightful.
  • Development of one’s subordinates can be a fulfilling experience for everyone involved. Take ownership of training your people. Give them the necessary knowledge and skills so that they can understand the role they play in the team. Set targets and measure them regularly but most importantly empower them to do their job. Trust that if they have doubts or concerns they will bring them to you.
  • Communicate to everyone that you will accept mistakes. When people fail, offer support. That way people can push themselves, knowing that you will have their back if things do not quite go to plan.
  • Invite feedback. Know that allowing dialogue at all levels promotes inclusiveness and generates team cohesion. Feedback highlights areas for development and gives everyone (and certainly the chain of command) a focus on overall improvement.

Kiss is about recognizing that people need to feel that they add worth to the mission. The reassurance a leader can give to their team, sometimes just by saying well done, gives a deep sense of fulfillment and helps to build confidence. This is even more true when you place a particular focus on individuals at just the right time. Being identified as having made a good contribution really does motivate people.

In Part 2 I explain my views on the Kuddle approach, having the empathy and willingness to engage with our teams daily. If you expect that you might be able to walk in to a new job and change the world immediately your hopes will be quickly dashed. Team cohesion is hard won and requires the time and the occasional Kuddle. Even so, the spoils of victory are worth the challenge.

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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright and author’s own.

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Honesty and Inspiration – An Interview with Maj Gen Paul Nanson

By The Army Leader

Since 2015 Major General Paul Nanson has been the Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the British Army’s Director Leadership. During his tenure he launched the Army Leadership Code, oversaw the publication of the Army’s first leadership doctrine and established the Centre for Army Leadership. During his command there has been a significant period of revitalisation in how the Army teaches and understands leadership.

I had the opportunity to interview Nanson in his office in Academy Headquarters, the 1960’s concrete monstrosity that is, understandably, hidden behind a treeline in the otherwise-historic grounds of the Academy. During our conversation it was clear that he is a deeply practical soldier who cares about the point where theory meets practice. The value of leadership is, for him, in how effective you make your team.

Perhaps that is because of his operational pedigree, having commanded his platoon, company and battlegroup (twice) on operations, as well commanding 7 Brigade and being Deputy Commander of Regional Command (Southwest) in Southern Afghanistan. Interesting, then, that he reflected on the shortcomings of an operational leadership background and how it does not provide you with the right leadership mindset for leading at the most senior levels.

General Nanson is also commander of the ARITC – the Army Recruiting and Individual Training Command – so right now his focus is on recruiting and training. ARITC includes Recruiting Group, the much-maligned Capita partnership, and all of the British Army’s basic training.  His priority is encouraging applications, turning them into recruits and then getting them through basic training.

I asked him about his leadership philosophy, how the Army develops a wider breadth of leadership skills, and about the moment he felt his personal leadership was most tested.

Leadership Philosophies

You have been the Commandant of Sandhurst, and the Army’s Director Leadership, for nearly four years. This must have given you plenty of opportunity to think about what leadership is and how it is best done. What have you come to think of as your leadership philosophy?

Just the other day I was trying to think about how I might describe my leadership philosophy. Was I ever taught leadership? I don’t remember thinking at Sandhurst that I wanted to be this style of leader or that style. Sandhurst develops leaders through practise and so your style develops as you practise.

I think in the Army, particularly in the Infantry, we are lucky. In our early years we have no choice but to practise leadership because we are so intimately involved in the lives of our soldiers. I was lucky when I was a junior leader because I joined my battalion at a busy time. We were in Northern Ireland and on exercises in Germany.  When you are constantly living cheek by jowl with your soldiers you practise leadership and improve because of it. You could almost say my soldiers taught me leadership.

But if I had to choose a single principle that I consider central to effective leadership I would choose honesty. The most important aspect of leadership is being honest with your people. And that is largely about your character. You would call it authentic leadership nowadays. It is about turning your personality and character into something people can believe in and trust. That is what I have tried to have as my principle throughout every leadership role I have been in.

The principle of honesty, does it become more difficult as you become more senior?

More difficult? Yes, because the decisions are more difficult. But do you still have to stick to it? Of course. Wherever you are, people need to be led and led by example. The more I work with civilian organisations, the more certain I am that the way the Army describes leadership is absolutely right. It genuinely is about inspiring people. Whether you are sat in a board room or stepping out of the FUP to cross the line of departure, it is about inspiring people. People have got to believe in you. If they do not believe in you and trust you then you are lost.

The position of the commander

As soldiers we understand the FUP part. It is in our nature. How have you applied the principle of honesty and authenticity as you have become more senior? It is not as simple as leading out of an FUP when you are at the battalion level or above.

Perhaps, but it is still about the position of the commander. It is about where you are, how you are seen and how you communicate.

At my level, a ‘Town Hall’ is as important as an O Group. Both of them are about persuading people that the direction of travel is the right one, whether it is on a change programme or during a battalion operation. People have to know they heading in the right direction and it is a leader’s job to convince them.

I have found this particularly in my current line of business. Recruiting is an emotionally tough area to be involved in right now! My team – military, civil servant and contractor – have been battered and abused for the last five years. They have been described as shit, nicknamed ‘Crapita’, and had politicians, retired officers and armchair generals calling them incompetent. But I still need to carry those people forward in this difficult and critical endeavour. Which means I have to stand up and inspire those people. When the going is tough your people have to believe in you, that you can get them through the tough times.

In some ways, the principles of leadership are still the same. Where leaders make a mistake is in thinking that they don’t apply during their time leading on the staff. They think they can become a business manager: an efficient number cruncher and process ninja, and that leadership and inspiration is now irrelevant. Does an SO2 or civilian in a staff job still want to know that you care about them and believe in what you are all doing? Of course they do. The personal connection between the leader and the team is still important.

Personal connection

Can you give an example of how that personal connection works in practise on the staff?

I can, but first let me link it back to the FUP and the position of the commander.

I remember speaking with a guy who had been a platoon commander at Goose Green. He said that in the FUP ahead of the attack he had moved around his platoon to speak with the guys. He had spoken to and had some sort contact every one of them, individually. A pat on the back, a touch on the shoulder. Nothing more than that. He said that after the battle his soldiers remembered that one small contact with him more than anything else. I think that endures in an office as much as in a battle. I know I do not do that enough. I need to get out of the office more often. But when I do, two things happen. First, I get all this useful feedback that I would not have got otherwise. But, far more importantly, people notice that their boss cares enough to visit them. Sam Walker wrote something similar recently in his book The Captain Class. Leadership is about reaching out to individuals in a way that they value, not in a way that you value, or that is necessarily efficient or easy.

Go around peoples’ offices, sit down and chat with them. Find out what has been going on in their lives. It is important. I once worked in a headquarters where a former commander had sucked the enjoyment out of work. The DCOS, Command Sergeant Major and I went about putting it back in to the programme. The enjoyable activities had been removed because they were seen as inefficient wastes of time in the programme. In fact, they gave people the opportunity to bond and for leaders to connect with their people.

Town Halls illustrate this point. Just because I have everyone together every few months does not mean I have inspired them. Town Halls do not create the personal touch. They are important, but they are not enough.

Peter Wall was amazing at the personal touch. I would meet him and he would ask after my wife and my children – all by name. When he did, it meant something to me. He did it so effortlessly and not everyone is good at doing it effortlessly.

Equally, I remember a CO I had when I was in First Fusiliers who used to know everything about everyone. He would come on a visit and he would stop by a sergeant as say “Hey, Sergeant Jones, how’s Kimberley getting on after the new child? And how’s the boy getting on?” I always wondered how he did it – because the effect it had was so important. I later found out that he had a fantastic driver. As they were driving to visit one of the companies the driver would tell him “Don’t forget to speak to Sergeant Jones. He has just had his first child, a son. His wife’s Kimberley.” So he was always prepped. It was not natural, but it was effective! You might argue that this was a bit dishonest or not actually leadership on the part of the CO. I would argue that it was about having a good team that supports you, and knowing that you need to build a personal connection with people – and that is about leadership.

The shortcomings of operational leadership

And how about you? Are you good at remembering names?

Sadly I am terrible with names! Great with faces, terrible with names. I try and get around it by having a system to help me remember. Just like so many leadership skills, you have to work hard to be good at it but you have no choice. It is too important. And besides, I think leaders should always be developing themselves.

And are there any areas where you think you could still improve your leadership?

But if I was to criticise my own leadership more deeply, I would say I have never moved far beyond an operational style of leadership. My company command included an operational tour. My battalion command was mostly on operations – two tours of Iraq. I commanded a Brigade that was preparing for operations. So I’ve had a theme of operationally focussed leadership – even when I was on the staff my jobs were operational.

I had always assumed that an operational leadership style would be sufficient throughout my career. But, as I’m about to say to the new cohort of General Staff officers, at the General Staff level you become more of – it is a horrible term – a business leader. While the foundations are the same, there are nuances that higher leadership demands of you that you simply do not learn in operational, field army role. So I have found my leadership lacking in my current role. I am missing certain skills sets that I am trying to catch up on. I’m now finding I have not got as wide a repertoire as I need in my current job. So, if I had my time again, I would broaden my leadership portfolio.

Do you think there is a gap in how we develop these kinds of skills in leaders?

I would not describe the problem as a gap. It is about having a mind-set. Organisational design, fostering innovation, systems thinking – things the business community understand – I now find myself trying to grasp for the first time. Getting innovative ideas up from the bottom and into business as usual, for example. Understanding how to use money to best effect, where and when. You might think these things are about management – but they are not. They are about leadership. And they are especially important in my current job in ARITC

I feel we have got to develop this mind-set much earlier in officers’ careers. I failed to broaden my leadership early enough.

Do the opportunities to broaden our leadership experience exist in the Army or do we need look outside?

We do need to look outside but that is only part of the solution. We do not need to send every leader to industry for a year. What frustrates me is that we send people outside the Army to get these external experiences yet we fail to exploit their knowledge.

When people return from operations we ask them to do ‘reality of conflict’ talks where they discuss the leadership insights they learnt. They write post-operational reports. We do not do that with those who return from secondments to other organisations. So we do not pass on what they learn. I would love to have these people come back and give a ‘realities of leadership’ talk. Something like “I led an extremely complex acquisition project. It was as complex and difficult as anything I’ve done on operations and here are the leadership lessons I learnt.” We are missing an opportunity.

The Toughest Challenge

You described leaders as being developed through practise. In that vein, could you to share the moment when you feel your leadership was most heavily tested, and what you learnt from it?

It might sound strange, but my biggest leadership test was when I was on BATUS as Commanding Officer of the First Fusiliers Battle Group. I say strange, because I took the Battalion on operations in Iraq twice during that command but the biggest test was not during those tours.

We had gone through the majority of the BATUS rotation and we were going into ‘Totalise’ – the final test exercise when the gloves come off of the free-playing OPFOR. We were absolutely shattered by that point, having lived out of our vehicles through several tough weeks of training. Totalise consisted of a series of missions, I think it was seven missions over a ten day period. The first mission went really well but in the second mission we got utterly taken apart. It was a defensive mission, so we had been digging in for over 24 hours. And the enemy just walked straight through us. Frankly, it was humiliating.

We then had to recock and go into an offensive set of missions. There was a period during the switch of phase when I was literally falling asleep standing up. We were a demoralised battalion who thought the end of the world had happened. Everyone likes success. At that point we were clearly, unquestionably, an unsuccessful battalion. I had to stand in front of the Battle Group and motivate them to give their best. It was a moment when I had to use every ounce of my leadership and inspiration.

I have lost soldiers on operations, including losing soldiers to friendly fire. I’ve spoken with their wives and parents afterwards. That was tough. But it was an expected part of the job. In terms of having to deliver leadership at a tough moment, it came during an exercise when I needed to inspire a demoralised team when they needed it the most.

The secret, I think, was appealing to soldiers’ professional pride. I was not concerned about the career implications of failing that mission, I was concerned about the reputation of the Battalion. And that was something that every soldier and officer in the Battle Group had a stake in safeguarding. There was a job that needed doing and we had to do it well because of that age-old Fusilier pride. Soldiers do not let their mates down and they certainly do not let the previous generation down by allowing their regiment’s reputation to be tarnished.

There was nothing there that was rocket science. I appealed to something greater than us, which is what I learned to do as a junior officer all those years ago.

That, I think, is my biggest lesson. Yes, we need to broaden our leadership development beyond the purely operational. Yes, we have lessons to learn from outside the Army. But even so, much of good leadership is straight forward, as long as you choose to do it.

And that would be my biggest single piece of advice to junior leaders: trust the foundations of our system of leadership development. Be honest with your subordinates, be someone they can trust, and inspire them. This, I believe, is a leadership philosophy that is absolutely fit for purpose as the foundation for everything we do.

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The ‘Adding Value’ Dilemma: An Interview with Lt Gen Richard Nugee

By The Army Leader

People are at the heart of a leader’s business. This is something every junior leader gets – you need to understand your people, put their needs before your own, motivate and develop them. It is at the centre of leading a team.

If you’ve worked in a staff headquarters, especially a major organisation like the Army Headquarters or MOD, you will know that leading there is different. The leadership rules-of-thumb that work when you lead a platoon – or a battalion – will not deliver the same success. You need more.

So how do you lead in a major staff headquarters? How do you draw the best from your people, generate ideas and ensure you understand the situation?

These are the questions I asked Lieutenant General Richard Nugee. He is the MOD’s three star Chief of Defence People – the senior personnel officer in Defence. He led his regiment on operations in Iraq and also led staff in Afghanistan, as Chief of Staff ARRC in 2006 and Chief of Staff ISAF Joint Command in 2013-14. There was a reason I wanted to ask him the question: he has been working in senior leadership roles in staff headquarters for over a decade – so he knows what works when leading staff, and what does not.

Here is what he said. It is a long answer. It is about ‘adding value’, listening to subordinates, and admitting you do not know all the answers. But if you work on the staff, it is worth the read.

Leading on the staff

During your career you have led soldiers and officers at the team, organisational and strategic levels, in deployable units and in staff headquarters. You are now responsible for the MOD’s military and civilian staff, as well as military veterans. Could you explain your thoughts on leadership when you are in a staff headquarters role like the one you are in now?

Well first, I’ve never really focused on long lists of leadership characteristics. I have found these quite dull and not much use. Different people have different styles but most importantly different contexts require different types of leadership. A strategic headquarters – like the MOD or Army Headquarters – requires different leadership due to the issues it deals with.

So let us be quite clear, when you are working somewhere like the MOD you do not need the hierarchy to work in the same way as it does in the field army. For example, in a headquarters you don’t need the staff work done by a Major to be redrafted by a Lieutenant Colonel, then a Colonel, then a Brigadier and so on, before it gets to the 4* level. That would be incredibly inefficient. Yet it is always a temptation when you are a leader in those jobs because you always feel the need to ‘add value’.

Let me use an example. I had an interesting experience when I was a Brigadier working in a headquarters in Germany. It illustrates the tension that I know we all feel in staff leadership roles. I had a fantastic US Army Colonel working for me who wrote very well but in a US style. He wrote a paper for me and we had to submit it to the General by Friday. I was going back for a wedding that weekend and needed to leave on Friday afternoon. So, I told the Colonel to submit it without me seeing it. “I’m sure it will be fine” I said.

“You haven’t added value”

As I was driving home the General (and he shall remain nameless) rang me up. I was outside Antwerp on the motorway so I had to pull over to answer the call. He was furious. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked me. I explained I was on the way back to the UK for a wedding. He told me that, in his opinion, I hadn’t added any value. I disagreed with him; I’d added value in the drafting but I hadn’t read the final copy. He shouted at me so much that I actually offered to turn around and miss the wedding. I offered to come back and present the paper personally. Because I would have done, of course, if he had wanted me to. Well as you might expect, he grumbled at me and said he did not want that.

But after I returned from the long weekend, he got me into his office and asked me precisely how I felt I had ‘added value’ without personally signing the paper off. It has stuck with me to this day. That’s because this is a question we all ask. How do we ‘add value’ if someone junior to us presents a paper without us having added a little bit more to it?

But if you do that at every level the final paper ends up being so far removed from what was originally written that it ceases to be the initial author’s paper. Instead it has become owned by the bureaucratic hierarchy. It stops having the impact the author intended. So in the staff you have to balance a constant tension between trying to ‘add value’ and yet empowering those beneath you to really make a difference.

The chain of command hierarchy works on operations because the mission flows down the chain of command. On the staff it is never that simple. Hence why you must somehow get over the tension between adding value and not getting in the way.

Let me use an example from right now. I have four outstanding two stars working for me. They do not need me to tell them what to do. Two are military and two are civilian, all of them are HR experts. And they don’t need me. When I started as Chief of Defence People I went home most evenings thinking “How on earth am I adding value as a three star?”

Yet when I speak with my two stars, they tell me that they couldn’t do their job without me. They tell me they are given the space to get on with their business and when they need me, I am fierce in fighting their corner. But that is quite uncomfortable at first. Sure, I am setting the vision and forming the strategy. But it is different to being a junior leader where you actually do ‘stuff’. As a senior leader, sometimes your value is added by creating the space and removing flank interference so that your subordinates can do their jobs.

The value of a junior opinion

You mentioned empowerment. At the moment I worry if empowerment is becoming a buzz-word in the Army. What do you mean by empowerment? And how have you gone about harnessing the ability of your junior officers?

OK, well let me give an example. I ran the last redundancy programme for the Army. I was the person who designed the programme. It was my decision to make it last four years, because my red line was that absolutely no one who was on, or warned for, operations would be made redundant unless they were a volunteer. Being made redundant is horrible and we have to look after our people, even if we are making them redundant.

Whilst I’m sure many people will shout at me for the redundancy programme, I am actually pretty proud of how it ran. It is the only redundancy programme the Army has run where it hasn’t been taken to court. So I think we got it broadly right and broadly fair. And that was important to me.

How did I do it? Every Wednesday I had a brainstorming session with my Colonels to discuss the programme. One of my newest Majors, fresh out of staff college, always attended. I invited Hugh because he was much closer to the ‘real’ Army than everyone else there. Before we started, I told him “You are here because I need you to tell me when I am talking utter rubbish. And I’ll make you a promise. No matter whether or not I disagree with you, I will always listen to you.”

His role was important because it was critical in getting a feel for what the rest of the Army was thinking. Of course we ran studies, surveys and tests across sections of the Army. We had data. But on a day-to-day basis, I needed to be able to discuss ideas with someone who was nearer to the real Army than me. The best I could do was ask my most junior officer to give me input. Of course, and I should have known this, he was tapping into his network from Staff College and asking all his mates their views.

The sessions were all pretty fruity. But what we were doing was so important that I absolutely needed to have junior people giving me input. What Hugh said in those meetings genuinely affected the redundancy programme for the better. His views allowed me to temper the programme.

At my level, leadership is about being open to listening to junior people. They may not be as experienced, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a view, or that the view is not valid – perhaps even more valid than your own!

An arrogant Major

At what point in your career did you learn that lesson?

I can tell you exactly when. It was in my first job after Staff College. I had spent my whole career to that point in operational roles. When the job list came out I was furious because I had been put into this ghastly G1 personnel job. I had been promised I would be SO2 G3 Ops in a deployable division. I’d gone from being an operational soldier to being some horrible desk-wallah. I was so angry I went to my Divisional Colonel and said “Sir, who the hell shafted me?” and then walked away. He grabbed me and said “Richard, you should be pleased, it’s a really good job.” Well, in the end it turned out to be one of the best jobs I’ve had.

At the time, General Guthrie was the CGS. About three months into the job Guthrie openly and publicly criticised one of the policies I was responsible for. It was a direct criticism of the policy I’d written. And having CGS directly criticise your policy isn’t great! So I wrote a short note to CGS explaining why the policy existed, what it did, and the logic behind it.

CGS didn’t respond. Then, two or three months later, he very publicly criticised it again. He said it was a rubbish policy and it should be changed. So I rang up his outer office – my God, I was an arrogant young Major – and said “I’m fed up with CGS criticising my policies”. And his Military Assistant said “Well, I’m sure CGS would be very interested to know why. Why don’t you come up and talk to him?”

“This is my problem with your policy”

With some trepidation I duly went up to see CGS. He sat me down and talked with me, who had only been an Major for six months. “Well Richard,” he said “this is my problem with your policy” and he explained, in the most calm manner, why he didn’t like it. He even had his leg draped over the arm of his chair – I remember it so vividly. “But Richard, this is why the policy isn’t working. I can see what it is, I understand it and the logic, but it isn’t working. It might have worked 20 years ago. But it isn’t working today. And if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter about the logic – it needs to be changed so that it does work”.

From that conversation came Career Structure 2000. From that conversation came the end of Regular Commissions being given out at Sandhurst. From that conversation came the formation of the career fields as we know them today. It all came from the head of the Army sitting down with a junior Major and taking the time to explain that “actually, I get your policy, but it’s not working and here’s why”.

So as a young major I learnt the lesson that youngsters need to be listened to. They may not have as much experience as you but they have something to say and they should be listened to and given time.

Find the space to listen

How do you manage to do this today, as a three star?

It gets more difficult as you get more senior. My first Military Assistant thought it was their duty to stop people seeing me. They thought I was far too busy and important to be interrupted or questioned about things. I had an Adjutant who did the same when I was a CO. When I found out in both cases I was furious. I live by the rule that if someone has gathered up the courage to see a three star or the CO, if it is important enough for them to need to see the boss, what right have I got to turn around and say “you are not important enough to see me”.

And to have someone else interposing and saying “No, you are nothing like important enough to see the boss” – which is what is inferred even if it isn’t what is said – I think is terrible. I got rid of the MA and the Adjutant. The new person knew to say “of course the General will see you, it just might take time for him to get you in the diary.” As a result, my diary is constantly full! But I want to see people who feel they have something important enough to say.

By definition, every single one of them are junior to me. By definition, they are also more expert in their particular field than me. I’ve got to find the space to see them and I’ve got to listen to them. If I don’t, I’ll make stupid decisions. Then the whole system falls down. You cannot have Generals making stupid decisions because they do not find the time to listen to their junior experts.

Frankly, if a senior officer thinks he is the font of all knowledge – of course we all like to think we are – but if he seriously thinks he is, then he will go wrong pretty fast. You actually see senior officers do this. They think their idea is the only good idea out there. It is soul destroying for everyone beneath them. They know it is a stupid idea but they have to do it because the boss says so. That is why I want give my junior officers the opportunity to speak to me.

In fact, let me change that – people don’t just need the opportunity, they need to know they have the opportunity as well. I don’t want them to think I’m not interested just because I’m a three star. The difference between an SO2 and a three star is massive, psychologically. If they can’t approach me then the chain of command is not helping me get things done, it is getting in the way.

Mission Command or empowerment?

Is this the difference between leadership in the field army versus leadership in the institutional headquarters? The former is about directing people to get on with tasks, the latter is about freeing up your SMEs to do their job and drawing up expertise from the bottom?

I’m not sure it is quite as simple as that. However, a good example is the idea of mission command on the staff. I hear a lot of people say we should use mission command on the staff. I think this is a misunderstanding of mission command; it is not quite right. In this context, mission command is being used as a code for ‘empower people’.

Here’s my personal view. Mission command is specific to missions. It is specific to operations and operational units.

When using mission command on operations you receive orders from above, then you direct people, telling them what to do but not how to do it. In contrast, on the staff in senior headquarters you receive problems from every direction and then ask your team for ideas.

It is not a question of ‘we have this compound we need to capture, get on with it’, as it was for me on Op TELIC during a battlegroup attack. At the senior level, there are not well bounded problems with a solution that you need to enact. There is no clear task, so there is no clear mission.

‘Get rid of this insurgent strong point’: I turned to my staff and they came up with a plan. I gave them planning direction, they worked the problem, I liked the plan, I said ‘make it so’ and our sub-units did. That was mission command – how each battery, company, squadron worked was down to the subordinate commander, not up to me. They had the parameters and they executed the battlegroup headquarters’ plan.

On the staff and in the policy world, the problems aren’t bounded. You are not just telling your subordinates or staff what to do. In my world I am more often looking to them for ideas. I look to my team to find solutions for wicked problems.

Problems without boundaries

An example. What do we do about the problem of veteran suicides? There is no ‘go do it’ order I can give. This is not a simple problem and there is no simple solution. Most importantly, there isn’t a monopoly of good ideas from senior officers. It is such a big question that you can’t say ‘go do it’. So mission command, in that sense, isn’t appropriate. The question is ‘how do we solve one of the most intractable problem we have at the moment?’ We don’t know how to solve it and we do not own all the levers to improve the problem. There are a myriad of ideas within the MOD, let alone the huge number from outside. So the concept of mission command, in the policy world, doesn’t work.

Unless mission command is just a code for ‘just empower your subordinates’. But I don’t think it is. Some of the best ideas for dealing with the veteran suicide issue are coming from some of my brightest, most junior staff. I have not given them a mission to ‘go do it’. I have not given them boundaries within which to act – because the problem isn’t suited to that sort of approach.

So, where does a senior leader add value in this case? I do not do it often enough, but I try and walk around my staff and talk to them. I try explaining the problem to them and saying ‘what do we do about it?’ I don’t give them a mission – I explain my problems and try and pull the best ideas from the team.

Ask questions; admit you don’t know

So you subscribe to the idea of ‘leadership by walking around’?

There is something to that. I was told once at a leadership event that the more senior you get the more you need to ask questions rather than give answers. I’ve tried to live by that.
In fact, there are two things I have tried to live by as a senior leader.

The first is to ask questions. Not leading questions, but inquisitive questions. How do we deal with this? How could we make this work? This gives people the freedom, the permission, to talk to a senior leader and provide their wisdom.

The second is to say ‘I don’t know’. I always try ensure that every day I say ‘I don’t know’ in answer to a question. I picked up the idea from reading David Marquet. Saying ‘I don’t know’ allows other people to tell you that they know or to give you ideas. Out of that comes so much more imagination than one person alone could ever produce. It doesn’t matter what rank the idea comes from. Only if it is any good. So I always look for opportunities to tell people that I don’t have the answers.

You don’t want to do it all the time! If you do people will think “Who the hell is this guy? How has he ended up in charge?”. But even after the 30 years I’ve been in the Army, if I thought I knew everything about any issue – complex issues, like veteran suicide – then I’d be kidding myself. And then I’d cease to add any value to my people and my organisation.

If you think you know it all, you really aren’t adding value. You really have stopped empowering people. It is a balance and it is difficult. I inevitably get it wrong. I am sure there are times when someone has turned around after I have left the room and said “God, this guy thinks he knows it all”. But, of course, I don’t.

Add value

As a junior leader, sometimes you can know enough to solve problems. You will always fare better if you get help from your team, but it is possible to get by on your own.
But as you become more senior, the problems get so complex that it is impossible for you to know enough to solve them. So you have to set the vision, define the problem and enable your team to solve it.

As a senior leader you have understand that you add value by admitting you do not know enough; by listening ideas from the bottom of your organisation; by empowering your subordinates to act; and by removing the distractions and flank interference that stop them from getting on with their job.

And probably not by recrafting their submission.

If you enjoyed Lt Gen Nugee’s interview you can also read his two book recommendations in the 2018 Christmas Leaders Book List

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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright and © Lt Gen Nugee

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Spinning a Dit: Leadership and Storytelling

By The Army Leader

I remember the afternoon pretty well. Sat in my OC’s office with a brew and a plate of sandwiches. The OC was a military history enthusiast – as we all should be – and we were spending the afternoon examining the battles for Monte Cassino during the Second World War. Five months of bitter fighting. Steep mountain slopes and winter weather combined with the German defenders’ determination and skill. In particular we discussed the actions of one of our antecedent regiments.

So although we were studying history, we were also listening to the stories of our predecessors.

With hindsight, those stories were not just fodder for our analysis. They were also important cultural touchstones. As we discussed the rights and wrongs of battle plans, and read about the human determination and courage, we were telling ourselves stories about our regiment. We were telling ourselves stories about ourselves.

Stories about ourselves

I am not sure many soldiers join the army to be storytellers. It is not seen as a core skill in the military – or elsewhere, to be honest. But storytelling is becoming recognised as a useful weapon in a leader’s arsenal. Companies like Microsoft, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and the World Bank are teaching storytelling skills to their leaders.

Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.

Howard Gardner, developmental psychologist

Why are stories important for leaders? Because stories bind groups together. They give us culture touch-points.

Stories also hold particular importance in larger groups. It is worth exploring why.

Dunbar Numbers

The story of the importance of stories begins not in leadership, but in anthropology. Robin Dunar is a British anthropologist, evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. In the 1990s he identified a correlation between the size of the pre-frontal cortex in ape species and the size of the social groups each species could maintain. If you took the size of an ape’s brain, you could calculate the size of its social group size. This number – the maximum social group size for a given species, based on pre-frontal cortex size – became known as the Dunbar Number.

Dunbar took the human pre-frontal cortex size and plotted it on the same scale. He concluded that for humans, the Dunbar Number is 150. But his research also uncovered something else interesting. 150 was the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village; the splitting point of religious sect settlements; the basic unit size of professional Roman armies and 16th century mercenary groups; and the size generally considered appropriate for a modern military Company. Dunbar also discovered that Bill Gore (of GORETEX fame) structured his factories to have no more than 150 staff. Above this level, Gore found that teamwork faltered and productivity dropped off.

Put another way, Dunbar suggested that 150 was the largest group in which we can understand human politics. Interestingly, the boundary line between ‘team’ leadership and ‘organisational’ leadership is sometimes referred to as ‘the point at which you can no longer recognise the face of every person you lead’. Beyond that, you cannot remember people and so you cannot be in touch with human politics.

Team leaders know everyone in their group. They can convey meaning through regular human interactions. Organisational leader cannot. Organisational leaders have to lead differently.

What does this have to do with a story?

Stories, so the theory goes, help convey meaning to groups larger than 150. Stories hold inherent meaning, explain values and define who we are. Think of the military groups you are part of. In the small groups, you know everyone and see everything that happens. In the larger groups, you understand what has happened by stories you hear – both current or historic.

Consider the stories from regimental history, or told in the smoking area. They help you understand what kind of organisation you are in. They explain what is valued.

Another well-known anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes culture as “… the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.” An anthropologist views stories as means of creating culture, conveying meaning and values, and defining who we are.

That is important if you are leading at any level. It is especially important above sub-unit level – when the team is larger than 150. If you are trying to create a culture you can do it by the actions you take – but only for your closest 150 people. Beyond that, stories are the medium through which meaning and culture flow around a group.

Think about the stories you tell

Yannis Gabriel, author of Storytelling in Organizations, believes that stories compete against each other. Only the strongest survive in the ‘narrative jungle’. The stories that survive are often those that reinforce our biases. If you want a story to convey meaning that breaks the norm, you will need to continually reinforce it.

Next time you are telling a story, think about the meaning it conveys. It may be a story from regimental history or it may be a dit about what you got up to as a subbie. Every unit has a story about how it beat another unit during an exercise, or how it fought in particular battles on operations. Each mess can tell you stories about their most respected members – past and present. All these stories have heroes and villains. All of them create meaning as they are retold.

When you retell them, be aware of the message you are choosing to reinforce.

Equally, next time you act remember the power of the story. Remember that it is not the act, but the story about the act, that conveys meaning beyond your closest 150 people. Annoyed that people’s perception of an act is different to reality? You are complaining about the nature of Dunbar’s Number and the power of stories to convey meaning. If you do not think about the message and story that your actions tell, then you are missing an opportunity to build or reinforce organisational culture.

If you are a leader you need to use stories and narratives to best effect. That does not mean you need to be a master storyteller. Concentrate on being a master soldier instead. But realise that every time you create or retell a story you are affecting your team’s culture, whether you like it or not.

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Start With Another Narrative: Leadership for the Information Age

By Matt Offord

At the end of my presentation, I looked over the rows of young military officers and I realised that I had failed to convince them that I could offer them anything new on the subject of leadership. I had failed to create that moment, an opportunity for them to think about leadership in a different way. It was a blow. I had been studying leadership in one way or another for my whole working life, three decades. I was thinking of moving into the world of leadership development full time. But if this was anything to go by, nobody was going to buy it. I received letters of thanks from the students of the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the lecture had gone OK. Even so, I knew I had not done the subject justice.

This moment, although painful, was a critical time in my life-long exploration of leadership. I realised that I was not at the end of my mission to understand leadership. I was still near the beginning. The journey began in the energy-sapping horizontal rain of Dartmoor in 1989 as a Midshipman at the Britannia Royal Naval College (Dartmouth) It was a grueling leadership assessment. Before this we learned about John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership. I had not won any plaudits for my leadership and passed after a lot of hard work.

However, I found that NATO Warning Orders and Action Centred Leadership didn’t have much to do with the leadership I needed in the Navy. I found myself operating in the Northern Arabian Gulf alongside US mine-hunters, helicopters and dolphins (yes, they brought dolphins). It was my first taste of network centric warfare. It was baptism of leadership in the Information Age. The coordination happened in cyber space. It was more about collaboration than command and control.

As a Hudson Fellow at Oxford University, I returned to those bleak moors to observe officer cadets from Dartmouth conduct their leadership training using Adair and the Seven Questions. We tend to sneer at the leadership models taught to us in training. This because we have grown beyond them. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose in helping us grow in the first place. But all these models were developed before 2001, before agility and the asymmetric warfare world of today. We need a new tool, that is simple but also works in the Information Age. It is pointless trying to work through the 7 questions when you are data-bound before you can answer the first one.

This is where a new perspective is needed, one I have called SWAN – Start With Another Narrative.

Not all our whys are right

Start With Another Narrative is a tool to help leaders unravel problems in the Information Age.

Simon Sinek tells us to Start with Why. He gets straight to the point with an elegant and extendable meme. It is simple and applicable in most, if not all situations. It is, without doubt, a work of genius.

But I have often worked in situations where the ‘why’ is fully understood. The problem is, those ‘whys’ are not always right. Many organisations are rife with narrative fallacies. “This is why it doesn’t work, it is because of the programme, the heat, the rain, etc.”

I find that the content of my research (leadership theories and models) cannot help because  people believe the problems they face are unsolvable, based on the narratives they have written for themselves. This is becoming increasingly the case as the limitations of classical strategy and top-down leadership are becoming better known. The problem is that the complexity of the Information Age becomes an excuse for being unable to solve problems.

Matthew Syed’s fantastic book Black Box Thinking explains the power of narrative fallacies to do harm. Specifically, Black Box Thinking explores the influence that false (but compelling) narratives have in driving us towards the wrong decisions. A good way to escape this trap is to Start With Another Narrative and test it to destruction.

When I work with companies, I find myself drawing not on my research but the methods I used. I found myself naturally, by dint of my experience, using data to contradict firmly held beliefs and develop alternative narratives.

I realised the ability to refute narrative fallacies and unravel complexity is a key skill. It enables leaders to emerge, especially in the Information Age. The way leaders often do this is to test new theories, to allow failures if the team learns from them. In other words, the methods I used in my research were actually ‘leadership in practice’. They were more important than leadership models.

Be a SWAN leader

So, how can you help your organisation sweep away myth and focus on relevant knowledge? It has nothing to do with paddling like mad beneath the water and gliding gracefully on the surface (although that might help too). Start With Another Narrative means the following.

  • Ask difficult questions – It is too easy to go with the flow. Chances are that if you don’t understand something, others do not either. Or it is a narrative fallacy that everyone believes without evidence?
  • Identify false narratives – This requires critical thinking skills. Military Estimates can be a tool to identify false narratives but be careful you are not affected by confirmation bias. Look for information that does not fit the narrative
  • Challenge – Be prepared to challenge, manage upwards, or to challenge your peers.
  • Consider new possibilities – Construct a new narrative based on critical thinking from the first stage. Be prepared to test the new narrative as well as the old (i.e. carry out the process again until you have a tried and tested awareness of the situation).

Start With Another Narrative is a simple way to practice this leadership. Be sceptical about the narratives you find in your organisation: test alternatives, fail and learn. It is important to understand that the process is cyclical and continuous. New narratives must be tested because they too may be wrong or become obsolete as the situation changes. This is how leaders will survive in the Information Age. So yes, theories are important but leaders need those theories to be simple and practical. SWAN is a practical leadership tool which is easy to understand and apply.

I wish I had thought of it before I spoke to that group of bright young officers, but failure is the only way to learn.

Matt Offord is Director of Coscoroba Consulting and uses SWAN as a method of identifying and enabling change and better performance in businesses. You can find out more at www.consultcoscoroba.com.

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Leadership in The Specialised Infantry: An Interview with Brigadier James Roddis

The British Army has been training, advising, mentoring and fighting alongside indigenous armies since at least the 18th century. Whether formal or informal, these roles have tended to attract soldiers and officers of a particular temperament and character. Brigadier Ian Gardiner thought so. A veteran of the Dhofar campaign of the 1960s and ‘70s, he was clear that a different sort of leader was required for missions working alongside indigenous forces:

“…The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with the less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of, and sympathy for, a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb to the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern Euro-Atlantic culture. The attributes, and the skills these attributes imply, often need to be taught in addition to purely military skills.

We seem to be able to churn out in large numbers officers who can manoeuvre around the high intensity battlefield in armoured vehicles by day and night. Finding and training people who have the necessary attitudes, skills and quality of character to live with, to be accepted by, and to lead successfully a group of Dhofari Firquat is another matter altogether.” Ian Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan

As a result, the British Army is creating four Specialised Infantry battalions – known as Spec Inf. They will be organised and trained to train, advise and assist partner forces around the world.

Selection and Training

I asked Brigadier James Roddis, the Commander of the new Specialised Infantry Group, about what he required in a leader in these new battalions. Brigadier Roddis has had a career full of experience of working with indigenous forces. He is clear that leadership in the Specialised Infantry will bring different challenges. So is selecting and training his group to ensure they have the right kind of leaders in the team.

Can you start by telling me what’s different about the Specialised Infantry role? 

Working alongside partner forces to build their confidence and promote security is not new idea but having battalions dedicated to the task is a new way of doing it.  Previously there was an opportunity cost for non-specialised units when they trained indigenous partners. The chain of command was committed to the task but lots of soldiers were left behind.  What we are doing is improving the way the British Army do it. We are professionalising the way we mentor so that we are better at this role.

That is not to say mentoring is a job that most of the Infantry cannot do. it is rather that to do it well you need to concentrate on the skills. The complexity of mentoring operations demands it.

You seem to be saying you want leaders with specific attributes. Is your selection process about getting the ‘best’ leaders or getting leaders with the right character?

We are honest with ourselves. We run an assessment rather than a selection process. The majority of people pass. The failure rate is around two or three per course.  Partly that is because the volunteers who come forward tend to be the kind you want. But also, because the British Army soldier is good at this type of work and I know the majority should be able to pass the assessment cadre – it is both aspirational and attainable.

The real benefit of the cadre is it gives OCs and CSMs a snapshot of the individual they are going to work with, so that they can develop the qualities required of that individual soldier over time. We do check candidates are suitable for the job, that they have patience and empathy. But principally it is about starting their development by identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

The assessment is a three-stage process: first there is a paper sift for JPA competencies, then there is an Assessment Cadre and finally, a training course. You must ‘pass’ all three stages and we have sent people home at the end of the third training phase because they were not right.  They maybe great soldiers, they are just not appropriate for the mentoring role. This echoes Ian Gardiner’s views from Dhofar.

I need people who are patient and comfortable in their skin. People like that tend to be better at mentoring than your ‘top 10%’, ‘distinction from Brecon’ type leaders. Thankfully, the job appeals to those who are slightly more measured in their approach.

Leaders with Mature Egos

If the type of person you want is slightly different, how does a leader operate differently in the Specialised Infantry? How do they lead their teams differently?

Think about your normal infantry platoon. You have 30 individuals, across the spread of ability from one to ten. Leadership is about dealing with them all – and often that means looking after the lowest common denominator. But in a Specialised Infantry team you only have 12. And whilst they aren’t all going to be tens, you won’t have many ones, twos or threes. This allows you to assume a level of competence that means you can train to the best of your ability rather than just hitting the standard.

This has another effect – the leader must have the confidence to not have every idea. Sometimes we find that platoon commanders want to be at the front, have all the ideas, lead all the patrols. I don’t want that. They have to trust their Lance Corporals and Corporals to run more stuff.

Perhaps that is not different to a normal infantry unit, but the importance is accentuated in the Specialised Infantry. The Platoon commander must ask themselves “where do I add value?” The value commander adds is in the power of the written word, in engaging with senior host nation officers, DAs and senior visitors – the sort of things you would not necessarily do as a Platoon Commander or Company Second in Command in a regular unit. In a regular unit your frame of reference tends to be one-up. It needs to be higher than that for a leader in the Specialised Infantry.

What you are saying reminds me of the idea of a ‘mature ego’. A leader with a mature ego doesn’t feel the need to be at the centre of the spotlight, at the forefront. They are someone who has a bigger frame of reference and so doesn’t feel the need to hog the limelight.

Indeed. I like to think that Specialised Infantry commanders need to work two-up and two-back. That is thinking of developments in terms of their two-up commander, but also thinking of the impact of their actions for their successor’s successor – two-back in the deployment programme. Everything they do must be sustainable. A mature ego is important – do no harm must be the mantra. The worst thing you can do during your task is make your successors’ jobs more difficult. You can’t afford to do something so catastrophically bad that it might ruin a relationship built up over time. So, you must be comfortable in leaving tasks horribly unfinished because success, certainly in the initial phases of a task, might simply be being asked back.

I need leaders who can think in terms of a three- to five-year time frame. Leaders who are comfortable with the idea that they are setting the conditions so their two-back can really take things forward. That means leaders in the Specialised Infantry will need to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. They will recognise problems, accept the problems need to be solved, yet also accept that they will not be able to solve them in their own deployment cycle. All this leads to the acceptance that their role is actually laying the foundations for their successor’s successor to help the partner force blossom.

That will be hard for some people. It is different to the normal ‘task success’ focus we have in the Army. This whole ego maturity thing is about sublimating your ego to the mission. Not every leader is mature enough to accept that his reward is not going to be immediate and obvious, and that the best they might get is that, in two- or three-years’ time, they can look back and say “I played a part in that”.

Remember – in a mentoring role, your whole job is making your partner force leader look good. It’s not making yourself look good!

Leaders Who Understand Risk

Can we talk about risk? When I served in an OMLT a decade ago I realised there was a risk to the mission that had nothing to do with the enemy. I could fail my mission without ever getting into contact if I ruined the relationship with my Afghan commander. Does risk need to be understood differently in the Specialised Infantry?

I think you have put it very well. For me it is about understanding three things: the operational effect that needs to be achieved; what is essential to achieve that effect; and what might achieve the effect but risk damaging relationships. Commanders need to think “these are the factors I’ve identified; and this is where I need to push the partner force to generate an effect; but these are the areas where I don’t need to push.”

Do I want teams that will risk breaking their partner force in order to achieve a training mission? Almost certainly not. In many cases pushing hard for change is the wrong thing to do – during the first few iterations of a mission the most critical task is establishing a relationship.

We also need to understand when our focus on our own safety will damage our partner force relationship or hinder the potential for that partner force to get much better and prevent them putting the theory of our training into practice.  At present we are predominantly training partner forces in safe base locations. But this will only take these forces so far.  If we can advise and assist these forces further forward we will build greater trust, reinforce our training and gain a better understanding of the tactical situation; however, this comes with greater threat to our own safety.  So, it is always a balance but we must be honest in that if we always just train in low threat environments we will only take those we are working with so far.

It sounds like you are trying to build a culture that looks at risk in a different way. How are you trying to engender this risk culture in barracks and during training?

Well look, I am lucky. My training audience is stable and full of mature, experienced volunteers.  During training I want my commanders to think of risk through an operational effectiveness lens. I want risk assessment to be one of the decisions made during a commander’s estimate, rather than a separate consideration.

So, when we talk about minimising heat injuries on exercise in Belize we consider the value of pushing our teams as soon as we arrive in theatre.  Does this improve our operational effectiveness? No; because when we are deployed at range in austere conditions any injury in a small team is difficult to absorb. So, we must husband resources. I want commanders to think first about whether the risk they are about to take improves their chances of achieving the mission, and then be guided by policy when making these decisions.

Or take live fire tactical training, for example. I can offer the company commander dispensation to use reduced safety arcs. But just because I have given the commander the dispensation doesn’t mean they have to use reduced arcs every time. I want Commanders to make a risk-based decision, considering the training audience, the previous levels of training and the different skill levels of everyone. But most importantly, I want the decision to be theirs and I want them to make it.

The Specialised Infantry Attributes

What would you say are the attributes you want for leaders in the Specialised Infantry group?

All this – balancing risk to life with risk to mission; understanding and owning risk with a long-term view; thinking two-up and two-back, and having a mature ego – means that I need commanders who are measured and weigh their words, thoughts and deeds carefully. These young leaders will be making decisions and will have to justify them at a senior level if something goes wrong.  But we prepare them for this.

Some might find this ‘freedom with responsibility’ crushing. Others will flourish under those conditions. Those are the people we need in the Specialised Infantry.  And so far, most individuals have fallen into the second category.

Finally, above all else, I want to reinforce three attributes required in the Specialised Infantry Group: Humility, self-reliance and restlessness.

Of the three, people find the last one unusual. But I want restlessness! I want commanders who will make decisions, take opportunities, and ask me to give them more freedom. If they ask, sure, I might say no; but if they don’t ask, it will be as good as if I’d said no!

It comes back to how we’re brought up and the culture we operate in. I want people to be restless, seek opportunities and know when to ask for more. I don’t want to have to push the tiger out of the door, I want to be holding it back!  A culture like that takes time to develop – but the raw material is good and we are working on it.

If you enjoyed Brig Roddis’s interview, you can read his book recommendation in our 2018 Christmas Leaders Book List.

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Christmas Book List 2018

By The Army Leader

With Christmas approaching, The Army Leader has reached out to some respected army leaders, scholars, authors and role models to ask them for a recommendation for our Christmas book list. It includes suggestions from Lieutenant Generals Tye Urch and Richard Nugee, and WO1 Glenn Haughton, the new Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. These aren’t all books about leadership – they are also about war, strategy and determination. They aren’t all new books, either. But they all offer some personal development for a modern leader

Looking for a gift for yourself or others? Or just looking to update your shelves and read something great this winter? Grab a winter warmer and check out some books that will improve you, educate you or just plain entertain you. Many are available as audio books, and readers can get four month’s membership to Audible at half price until 14 December 2018.

So here’s our recommended Christmas list of books for leaders.

Shackleton’s Way – Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer

Recommended by Lieutenant General Tyrone Urch, Commander Home Command, British Army

I love Shakleton’s Way; it was given to me by my wife just before embarking on a challenging operation tour in the 1980s, not just because it “reads like an adventure story” but because she recognised its value as a reference handbook for those difficult leadership moments that come to us all at some stage in our lives.

Each chapter resonates strongly and offers helpful contemporary advice by successful leaders, businessmen and entrepreneurs in society; there are even pithy executive summaries to refer back to in times of crisis.  All draw on Shackleton’s powerful people-centred principles, strong moral code, and adherence to a set of values that will serve well when one is struggling ‘to do the right thing on a bad day when no one is watching’.  CEOs, Generals, Lieutenants and Corporals alike will be able to relate and learn from excellent sections such as ‘Hiring an Outstanding Crew’, ‘Creating a Spirit of Camaraderie’, ‘Getting the Best from an Individual’ and ‘Leaving a Legacy’; this last chapter in particular has helped me enormously leaving all my command appointments.

The Shackleton motto is “By endurance we conquer”; this outstanding book will help you grapple with the leadership challenges you face and remind you that people are the Army, not in the Army.  As another highly respected polar explorer, friend and leader said to me once, “Everyone has an Antarctica, what is yours?”

Tyrone Urch is the commander of the British Army’s Home Command

Legacy: What the All Blacks can Teach us about the Business of Life

Recommended by WO1 Glenn Haughton, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Whilst serving as the Sandhurst Academy Sergeant Major I had the pleasure  of meeting James Kerr over dinner during the launch of the British Army Leadership Code. Based on our conversation I read his book, Legacy. Legacy explains 15 lessons of leadership, as practiced by what is probably the most successful sporting team of all time – the New Zealand All Blacks.

The book is easy to read and captured me right from the start. It gives the reader an insight in to the All Blacks’ camp and how they play, train and live, both on and off the pitch. For me, it highlighted the importance the All Blacks place on their values, standards and ethos. These provide an esprit de corps that other teams can only dream of. And it is this, combined with a sense of humility fuelled by their cultural and tribal heritage, that makes the All Blacks the team they are.

I would recommend this book to any leader – in fact, to any soldier. It is great to compare leadership in sport with leadership in the Army, and spot the similarities. For the All Blacks, everything is about the uniform, the sense of belonging and the pride in the jersey that they wear. They aspire to leave their jersey – and the team – in a better place than when they arrived. Just as we should.

Glenn Haughton is the UK’s first Senior Enlisted Advisor to the UK Chiefs of Staff Committee, and was formerly the British Army’s first Army Sergeant Major.

The Principles of War for the Information Age

Recommended by WO2 Paul Barnes, British Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Service Institute

When asked to recommend a book I immediately thought of the winner of the British Army Military Book of the Year Competition 2018. Dr Aimee Fox’s book is an outstanding work, but instead I chose an altogether different book.

Since taking up my current post as Army Visiting Fellow at RUSI, I have been astounded by the levels of conceptual and doctrinal ignorance across all ranks, pan-Service. The book I have chosen seeks to overcome the gaps left by formal professional military education. It questions the assumptions upon which our Western military principles are built. My choice is Robert R. Leonhard’s The Principles of War for the Information Age. It is essential reading for practitioners, theorists, and futurologists.

Leonhard’s book, written in 1998 while the author was serving at the U.S. Army War College, examines the U.S. Army’s Principles of War and their applicability in the Information Age. His thesis is that much at the core of military thinking is anachronistic and requires considerable revision.  Leonhard’s predictions of Information Age war were remarkably prescient, and although they are beginning to look a little tired after twenty years, they will certainly get the juices flowing, even in the midst of a Turkey-induced Christmas coma.

Paul Barnes runs the British Army Military Book of the Year award and the War Talks series at Aldershot. You can read more of Paul Barnes’ thoughts at www.thewarrantofficer.org


Generals and Generalship: The Lees Knowles Lectures 

Recommended by Dr Aimée Fox, Lecturer in Defence Studies, Kings College London

Overshadowed by later ‘desert generals’, Archibald Wavell was held in high regard by his adversaries before and during the Second World War. In 1939, Wilhelm Keitel remarked that ‘[i]n the British Army today, there is only one good general [Wavell], but he is incomparably good’. It was said that Erwin Rommel had a personally annotated copy of the German translation of Wavell’s lectures, Generals and Generalship.

My battered, well-thumbed copy of Wavell’s lectures on generalship, first published in 1941, is a ‘go to’ book for me. It offers succinct insights into the challenges of command, yet underpinning such insights are reflections on leadership more broadly. Though only sixty-three pages in length (an ideal Christmas read!), it ranges across the whole sweep of military history to make important points on the relationship between people, commanders, and government.

Yet, why should junior leaders read a book on generalship written by a general? First, as Wavell himself notes, ‘many of you are likely to suffer, perhaps even to triumph, under generals; and all of you are likely to have opportunity to criticize generals’. Secondly, this book is fundamentally about the relationship between humans – whether between the leader and their troops, the leader and their staff, or the leader and their political masters. ‘Commanders’, wrote Wavell, ‘must have a background of solid common sense, and a knowledge of humanity, on whose peculiarities, and not those of machines, the whole practice of warfare is ultimately based’. Finally, it is really leadership, rather than generalship, that sits at the heart of this book: ‘Whenever we speak and think of great captains … let us add one more altar, “To the Unknown Leader”, that is, to the good company, platoon, or section leader who carries his men or holds his post, and often falls unknown. It is these who in the end do most to win wars’.

Dr Aimée Fox is the author of the British Army Military Book of the Year 2018 Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army, 1914–1918

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty  and Forgotten Victory

Recommended by Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence Personnel, Ministry of Defence

My favourite book is Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. For me, this is a seminal, seminal book. I read a lot of anthropology when I was serving in Iraq and was based in Al Zubayr. When I was there I could look out of my window and see the cranes in the port that were built in the 1970s. And those cranes still worked. This led me to reflect on why Iraqis were different to Brits. Because if those cranes were in Glasgow, they wouldn’t be working – they would have rusted and so we would have had to innovate and repair them. And so I decided that the reason us Brits were so different to Iraqis was because the weather had forced us to be innovative.

This book, quite rightly, taught me that all that was utter bollocks. The book is about why democracy works, the advantages it gives, and our place as a democratic nation.

But I know that book won’t be to everyone’s taste, so I will recommend another as well. It is topical given that we have just had the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. The book is Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield.

I love this book because it blows away the myth that ‘we didn’t win the First World War; the Germans lost it, in spite of us’. It explains, very clearly, that the reason we won the First World War was simply that by 1918 we had become the most effective army, navy and air force in the world. Victory was helped by the fact the German army was exhausted and that US allies were arriving in greater numbers. But the clearest message is that a great deal of what we believe about the First World War, ‘Lions led by donkeys’ and so on, is simply untrue.

Richard Nugee is the Chief of Defence People for the Ministry of Defence


Recommended by Brigadier James Roddis, Commander Specialised Infantry Group, British Army

One of the best novels I have read this year was  Matterhorn. It is an honest, although fictional, account of a year in Vietnam through the eyes of a young platoon commander – The author Karl Malantes was a platoon leader in the USMC in Vietnam. For junior leaders it is perfect – this is a book that talks in detail about the infantry combat craft and the moral courage necessary to command in combat. The author writes not only about combat but also the crushingly boring but often deadly monotony of routine.  This is a book I wish I had read as a platoon commander and the author Karl Malantes deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Jary…this is 18 Platoon for the Vietnam war.

What really struck me about the book was how quickly the commanders learnt their craft and became tactically savvy.  I feel we in the Army do not teach enough about the tactics of gritty infantry close combat – this book is a useful primer. And it makes compelling points on the value of the ‘shoot, move, communicate, medicate’ basics.

Matterhorn is absorbing, insightful and stark. What you come away with is the theme of ‘my mission – my men – myself’ and how the bond between the soldiers and the best officers shines through. This makes it a compelling read and an emerging classic.

James Roddis is the commander of the British Army’s Specialist Infantry Group

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

Recommended by Dr Jack Watling, Land Warfare Research Fellow at the Royal United Service Institute

Stories of espionage and subterfuge are a dime-a-dozen, but for me Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First stands out. It is less an account of complex and daring exploits than a meticulous history of Israeli leaders’ wresting with one decision: when is it appropriate to kill.

Books on leadership often amount to little more than manuals of glorified management. Bergman’s history of Israel’s targeted killings contains many impressive leaders, but he does not let them bask in the glow of technical achievements. He rigorously interrogates the merits – tactical, strategic, and moral – of their methods and ends. He exposes how tactical success can lay the groundwork for strategic failure; how methods developed for exceptional circumstances can become the norm; how the power to mobilize men can serve disastrous ends.

Bergman empathically shows how decisions made under pressure of time and with limited information can have vast unintended consequences, and how leadership is not just a quality in commanders, but can – and in some circumstances must – come from below. As we demand ever-greater precision in the conduct of operations by today’s warfighters, Begman’s account poses all the right questions for the military leaders of tomorrow.

Jack Watling is the Land Warfare Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and former journalist

Leaders: Myth and Reality

Recommended by The Army Leader Team

It only came out in the last couple of months, but for me this book has been the stand-out leadership book of the year. In my review of Leaders: Myth and Reality, I focused on three big questions about leadership.  But the real value is in each of the 13 leadership biographies. These help us to understand what is was about the situation that made a particular style of leadership effective.

Why was it, for example, that people followed Walt Disney and Coco Channel? Is a compelling vision for the future enough regardless of personality? Why were geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Lenny Bernstein able to lead so effectively despite people not being able to understand them? What role does context play in defining heroism? Where does power really sit? Was Margaret Thatcher powerful, or was the power it in the network that supported her and the environment that made her network succeed?

Leaders: Myth and Reality forced me to reflect, question what leadership is, and might just change the way I lead. It is also deeply personal. The stories throughout, from those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Harriet Tubman, took me on a thought-provoking journey covering some of the most admirable, and most abhorrent, leaders the world has seen.  I’ve found the lessons invaluable.

We hope the recommendations are useful. Most of these books are also available as audio books, and readers can get four month’s membership to Audible at half price until 14 December 2018. Enjoy!

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Media Credits: Images © The Army Leader

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Leaders: Myth and Reality by Stan McChrystal, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone

By The Army Leader Team

 “Leadership is not what you think it is – and it never was”

Last week the Army Leader team went to the Emmanuel Centre in London to listen to General McChrystal talk about his latest best-selling book, Leaders: Myth and Reality.  During the discussion McChrystal gave a candid and mesmerising insight into the realities of leadership and the myths that surround it.  These myths and realities force us to ask three big questions:  if leadership isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it; what does this mean for us as leaders; and does this change how we develop leaders going forward?

“We’ve been looking at leaders through myths…if you have no other explanation, why would you not believe them?”

Leaders: Myth and Reality is McChrystal’s third best-selling book.  Following on from My Share of the Task and Team of Teams, this book is a must for anyone that is studying leadership or who wants to become a more effective leader.  McChrystal and his co-authors organise their book into thirteen short and fascinating leadership biographies. Grouped into six genres of leadership – zealots, founders, power brokers, geniuses, reformers, and heroes – each biography asks what sort of leaders the subjects were.  In answering this question the authors uncover three myths:

  1. The Formulaic Myth:  In an attempt to understand process, we strive to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, and always dependent upon particular circumstances.
  2. The Attribution Myth:  We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them.  We’re led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.
  3. The Results Myth:  We say that leadership is the process of driving groups of people towards outcomes.  That’s true, to a point, but it’s much broader than that.  In reality, leadership describes was leaders symbolise more than what they achieve.  Productive leadership requires that followers find a sense of purpose and meaning in what their leaders represent, such as social identity of some future opportunity.”
If leadership isn’t what we thought it was, then what is it? 

By recounting the stories of important and influential leaders from Margaret Thatcher and Robert E Lee, to Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Leaders: Myth and Reality demonstrates these myths transcend continents and centuries.  And their very existence forces us to ask once more what leadership is.  Acknowledging that leadership is difficult to define, McChrystal argues that leadership is not simply inspiring others to achieve an outcome, but is in fact “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members”.

What does this mean for followership?  In tune with the lessons McChrystal shared in Team of Teams, a networked approached to leadership requires followers to take more responsibility.  In the modern world, followers cannot wait for leaders to make decisions.  Empowerment is more important than ever, and followers need to take the responsibility for this.  They need to push for information, give feedback and make timely recommendations.  In a networked model of leadership “followers should be more willing to shape and confine their leaders’ style”.

What does this mean for us as leaders?

“For leadership to work it needs to be about the future.  Making people feel that it will be better.  Creating that vision in your people”.

McChrystal argues that there are three realities that correspond to the three myths of leadership:

  1. “Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore needs to be constantly modulated, not boiled down to a formula.
  2. Leadership is more an emergent property of a complex system with rich feedback, and less a one-directional process enacted by a leader.
  3. The leader is vitally important to leadership, but not for the reasons we usually ascribe. It is often more about the symbolism, meaning, and future potential leaders hold for their system, and less about the results they produce”

McChrystal argues that these will force us to significantly reconsider how we lead, follow and teach.  Rather than sitting at the top of a pyramid, leaders should reposition themselves as a node as part of a network.  A network that is based on human relationships.  This shift will highlight the importance of humility, of listening, and of cultivating the team.  Just as networks morph and change, so must we.  As leaders we need to “serve as both a bottom-up servant to enable action and a top-down symbol to motivate and provide for meaning”.

In London, McChrystal reflected on his own leadership style in Iraq, recounting that, “the more I worked on creating an environment and giving people freedom, the better the results”.  Simply put, the emphasis should no longer be placed on the leader, but on their followers, those that give the leader their legitimacy and power.  In his book, McChrystal goes further. He highlights the one commonality between all of the leaders in his book. “Many of our leaders were made powerful not so much by what they did, or even by what they said, but by what their followers perceived they had to gain either individually or collectively by buying into what their leader was asking.  They stood for the hopes and fears of a future state of being, and their role as leaders was in crafting a visceral sense of the possible”.  All of this suggests that leadership is not bold and heroic, but is in fact deeply human and all about relationships. Leaders enable their followers to succeed, and provide the motivation to do so through an attainable meaning and purpose.

Does this change how we develop leaders going forward?

In his book, McChrystal argues that it does.  “Leaders shouldn’t be given a checklist of attributes. Rather, they should be equipped with an understanding of leadership as a system, see themselves as the enablers of that system, and learn how to adjust their approach based on the needs of that system”. He reiterated this when we asked him in person what all this meant for training military leaders. He told us that “followers are looking for an emotional connection. This means leaders need to focus on a network of relationships and adapt to the requirement.  You learn leadership from what you see, and a lot from trial and error”.

The British Army focuses its basic leadership training on formulaic theories.  So this presents a significant inflection point in the way we develop our leaders.  Our leaders need to be educated through practice over theory, and by learning from others.  This means a widening of leadership study to incorporate a greater variety of leaders, contexts and environments.  There is more to gain through studying the situation that made a particular style of leadership effective than by trying to attribute a certain theory to an individual’s success.  Critical to this is increasing the diversity of leaders that we study, and the range of industries that we expose our people to. McChrystal proves this in spades through the breadth of his studies.  Positively, we are already seeing signs of a shift in the Army’s approach to leadership, most notably at this year’s Centre of Army Leadership Conference. But we still have a way to go.

Leaders: Myth and Reality is an important book and one whose true impact cannot be expressed in a short summary.  The value lies in each of the biographies, carefully selected and studiously examined.  They, and the conclusions that General McChrystal and his team draw, turn any pre-existing notions of leadership upside down, forcing genuine reflection and reminding us why the study of leaders is so fascinating.  As the authors say, leaders “are the beating pulse of change.  They start companies, invent things; and they lead nations, courtrooms, and countries; they make others happy and fulfilled, frustrated and desolate, hopeful or inspired”.



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Media Credits: Images © The Army Leader and © NATO

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