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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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Media Credits: Images © NATO used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

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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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Change and Leadership

By The Army Leader

Change is coming – and leaders had better be ready. This was the message from the 2018 Army Leadership Conference, where 850 delegates from across the services (and civil service) heard from four speakers on the subject of leading through change.

The speakers painted a compelling vision of change and what to do about it. Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon, authors of Thinking the Unthinkable, explained how the pace of change is accelerating and overwhelming modern leaders. Margaret Heffernan, author of Wilful Blindness, gave an impressive description of why it is human nature to ignore the serious issues and changes that we would rather not see – and how they can explode in our faces when we do. Then two experienced leaders gave their perspectives of leading change. John Manzoni, CEO of the UK Civil Service explained why cross-cutting leadership is helping to break down silos in the Civil Service. Finally, David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around (more here), talked through his personal journey of creating change in a nuclear submarine.

The conference theme was Successfully Leading through Change. Not every lesson was about leading change. There were some great insights no matter what you are leading. So, here are six lessons worth taking away from the day.

1. The conformity that got you to the top makes you unqualified to deal with the change (from Nik Gowing)

The world is changing faster than ever and no organisation is unique in dealing with the change. In fact, if you do not think that your organisation is going through change then the chances are you are choosing to ignore it. But the problem with large organisations is that the process of getting to the top is largely one of conformity – you do what the culture values, you get promoted, then you promote more people who have confirmed like you. So if you are a leader at the top you are probably a conformist.

But what constant change requires are leaders who thrive on change, not those that thrive on conforming to what their organisation has always done. If the glue that holds together our assumptions is coming unstuck, the solution for a leader is to look for the non-conformists, the mavericks and the purveyors of ‘wacky ideas’. This isn’t easy. Ask yourself – how am I valuing and cultivating the mavericks and non-conformists in my team?

2. To harness non-conformists and diverse thinking, you need to be a leader that understands the team’s information networks (from Margaret Heffernan)

If you want to solve problems you need to understand what is going on and get new ideas to those that need them. Information flows around an organisation, passing through people until (one hopes) it reaches the decision makers that need it. And as it flows it passes through some key nodes. These nodes – these people – are the team’s opinion formers and information leaders. They are the hubs of ‘what’s going on’.

But the flow of information does not just go up and down our chains of command – no matter how much we wish it did. In fact, it flows across teams and across functions, enhanced by those people who act as hubs. So to improve the flow of information and ideas you need to enhance the speed of the flow. This does not mean forcing it to go up and down your chain of command – sometimes this can cause it to slow down. It means understanding the flow and removing impedance.

To understand the flow of information in your team, and to help speed it up, you need to get out there and know your people. Know them, know their groups and understand how they interact. Sadly, you cannot do any of this from your desk on the top floor. So if you need ideas and information to speed around your team, get out there and learn who the information hubs are. Go learn where the information is.

3. Diverse and inclusive teams are better at solving problem in a changing environment (from Margaret Heffernan)

Mavericks, wacky ideas and non-conformists might be able to help with change. But unless they feel at home, having them is not enough.

Put another way, diversity and inclusion are different things. A diverse group will have diverse ideas and guard you against wilful blindness – intentionally missing things that you really should see. But unless the non-conformists feel able to contribute to the team, their presence is irrelevant.

This isn’t a call-to-arms for the Social Justice Warrior, it is an evidence-based analysis of what solves problems. Research evidence tells us that teams that succeed are not those filled with superstars. Nor are they led by superstar leaders. In fact, what differentiates ordinary teams from great teams is not about who is in them but in how they interact. As Margaret Heffernan said “The mortar is stronger than the bricks.” Great problem-solving teams were more diverse; included members with high EQ – able to ‘read the mind and read the eye’; and valued the contributions of all the team members equally.

This doesn’t mean that everyone is right, or that consensus is the only way ahead. It means that when problems are wickedly difficult you need collective intelligence to solve them, and that team needs diverse views that are included in the problem-solving process.

4. You cannot execute on intellect alone. You need experience. And it is a leader’s job to develop that experience (from John Manzoni)

From John Manzoni’s perspective, the UK Civil Service has been so focussed on policy lost it has lost its ability to execute. That is because good execution comes from experience. Hard won experience. Sometimes costly experience. If a team relies on ‘intellect’ and ‘ability’ alone it will make mistakes.

This is why one of the most important jobs of a leader is to develop their people by helping them get experience. It can be uncomfortable doing this. They will make mistakes along the way, but unless they do the hard yards they will never get the experience they need to be masters of execution and delivery. Lord Karan Bilimoria echoed the sentiment in the private afternoon session when he said “Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgement.”

The other thing experience builds in a subordinate is the confidence to speak up to a senior. When you know your stuff you can prove your point. Another good reason to give your subordinates the chance to learn from experience.

5. Leaders set the context (From John Manzoni)

Along with develop their people, setting the context is the other job of a leader. Leaders at the top of a big organisation need to create an environment where people can best use their skills to get things done. This happens when people feel they are in control and can make decisions about the best way forward.

Command and control get things done – especially in crises. But just because the Army trains for crises does not mean this is the best way to get things done every time. A better way is to set the context for those around you, and those in the rest of the organisation, so they understand what is going on.

When John Manzoni was asked “What is the one thing a leader can take away, so they can do their job better on Monday?” his response was “That depends on the context. What are you doing on Monday?”

“But”, he added, “whatever you are doing, you need to set that context for your team so that they know what they are doing.”

6. When you lean back a level, the team thinks up a level (by Davis Marquet)

“The core of my message – the only person you can really control is yourself. So if you want change, it has to start with you!” So began David Marquet, former submarine commander. But his message was about how you can change others by changing yourself.

David’s core philosophy was that when you take yourself out of the decision-making cycle your team step up to fill the space. This can’t be done lightly; when you give up control you must already have improved competence and provided clarity. For David, it meant his team gained experience (John Manzoni would approve) and it improved the speed and quality of their decisions. Instead of saying ‘may I have your permission to…’ his team said ‘I intend to…’ and waited for him to stop them.

He wasn’t always good at it. When he started his career he thought that a leader made all the decisions and could fix everything. Even as Captain he made mistakes and took back control when he shouldn’t have. But eventually the team learnt to work without his direction and rely on his broad intent. In many ways, just like John Manzoni said, he set the context.

He finished with a great point.

“Leadership isn’t about changing people. It is about creating the environment for people to be the best they can be, exactly as they are.”

The Army Leadership Conference was held at Sandhurst on 8 November 2018 and was run by the Centre for Army Leadership. Video of the speakers  is due to be published by the end of the year.

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What’s on at the 2018 Centre for Army Leadership Conference

On Thursday the 8th of November around 800 leaders from the three armed services, the Civil Service, business, academia and international sport will be coming together at Sandhurst. Hosted by the Centre for Army Leadership, it will be the British Army’s 2018 leadership conference. Last year the Centre’s conference looked at leaders and moral courage. You can download a free copy of the proceedings to get a feel for the event, which included Lord Ian Blair and Jack Straw as speakers. This year the panel of international speakers will be discussing leadership and change. It is another impressive line-up.

The event was so popular last year that all the tickets sold out well in advance. This year the several-hundred tickets reserved for MOD delegates have long gone. Fortunately, there are still places available for non-MOD delegates. The tickets have gone so quickly because leading through change is a perennial problem.

It is fair to say that we do not like change; too often it is done to us rather than done by us. For leaders part of the solution is making sure that, for as many people as possible, the team are in the driving seats, not in the back holding on for dear life. Although leading their team through change can be the toughest challenge for a leader, sometimes it is at the heart of what we have to do.

As Peter Drucker said:

Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm. Peter Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999)

If change is the norm, then it’s the leader’s job to help the team through that change – to show them the way. Drucker added:

The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.

That’s what the speaker at the Centre’s 2018 leadership conference will try to do – show leaders how to act with today’s logic, not yesterday’s. Whether you’re dealing with recruiting, military operations, training or even your business’s response to BREXIT, we’re all in a time of change.

And – bottom line up front – the Centre is offering discounted tickets to subscribers of this site.

Subscribe here for your discounted tickets to the Army Leadership Conference 

Leading Through Unthinkable Times

Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon are the first speakers. Gowing will be a recognisable name and face to those who’ve watched BBC news over the last two decades. Famously anchoring the BBC coverage for the death of Princess Diana and the 9/11 attacks, he’s moved from TV broadcasting to researching leadership and change.

He and Chris Langdon have spent the last three years studying why leaders are struggling in the age of constant change. Their research is based on peer-reviewed data from hundreds of hours of interviews with leaders, both established and members of the next generation. This included interviewing the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen Nick Carter, for his views on managing and leading change.

Their superb book, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age, was published this year and they have been travelling the world explaining its finding since March.

The book is no checklist for leading through change, and Gowing won’t offer delegates any answers. But their book, (and talk), will highlight how some of the world’s leaders, established and upcoming, view change and the unthinkable events that disrupt their businesses.

TtU's new book reveals the struggle of leaders to handle global disruption - Vimeo
How Small Changes and Make a Big Difference

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and internet businesswoman. But she is be best known to leadership students for her TED talks about leadership and challenge which have been viewed over 6 million times. I heard her talk a few years ago in London. Her message – that we remain deliberately blind to changes that might rock our cosy world – is compelling.

Her leadership and organizational books include Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious – the FT ‘best business book of the decade’ and, most recently, Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes. Margaret’s insight into how leaders can galvanise change in organisations without uprooting the organisation will be excellent.

She’s all about how the accumulation of small, everyday thoughts and habits generate and sustain culture: how changes in the way we of speak, listen, think and see are small steps that can mark the beginning of big changes.

From Business Office to Cabinet Office

If you think changing your company – business or military – is hard, then think about how hard it would be to change the Civil Service. That’s been John Manzoni’s task as PUS to the Cabinet Office and CEO of the Civil Service.

But John isn’t a mandarin. He’s a businessman who’s been brought into the Civil Service to push an agenda of efficiency and business-mindedness. Although he’s a Civil Servant, he’ll also be the biggest heavy-weight businessman speaking at the conference.

After 30 years in oil and gas, including four years as the President and Chief Exec of Talisman Energy and four years on the board of BP, he’s seen private sector change first hand. He’s also dealt with failure. He left BP after the Texas City Refinery exploded in 2005, killing 15 people and injured more than 170.

The disaster taught Manzoni the importance of linking specialists and generalists together; the importance of linking experience with logical decision making. From his perspective, delivery requires experience, so a delivery organisation needs to focus on experience-building. It will be interesting to hear his view on how leaders develop their teams to deal with change.

Turning The Ship Around

The final speaker, David Marquet – and his book Turn The Ship Around – will be familiar to leadership students.

David was a US Naval submarine commander on the USS Santa Fe. On the submarine he implemented a change to the way leaders interacted with their subordinate. He insisted that his team, rather than asking his permission to act, simply told him what they intended to do and allowed him to interject if he disagreed.

In effect, he passed psychological control from the leader to the followers. It empowered the crew and allowed them to react quickly to change. The idea is so simple, yet influential, that I wrote a short article on the book (and accompanying video) here.

His message is about changing the leadership culture. But it is also about getting followers to take charge and get into the driving seat – essential for leading them through change.

David is now a business change consultant and works for major worldwide companies on improving their business leadership culture. He does not often speak in the UK. This will be a genuinely rare opportunity to hear him speak about his experiences.

Inno-Versity Presents: "Greatness" by David Marquet - YouTube

How to be there

In all, the event looks to be superb. Full disclosure: I’ve been offered a free ticket to the event, but that hasn’t changed the views I’ve expressed here. I genuinely looking forward to a unique event that focusses on the lessons of change leadership.

The conference is in association with the Sandhurst Trust and you can book the few remaining non-MOD tickets on their website here (for full price) and here (for students, charities and academia).

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve asked the Centre for Army Leadership for a discounted ticket rate for subscribers to the site. If you who want to take one of the last few tickets you can get them at 10% off the full price.

If you aren’t already subscribed (in which case you’ve already been sent the link) you can subscribe here and you should get an email within 24 hours with the discount details.

Subscribe here for your discounted tickets to the Army Leadership Conference 



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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright under the Open Government License

The post The Army Leadership Conference appeared first on The Army Leader - Practical Leadership Tips and Advice.

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Most Read Army Leader Articles of the First Year

One year ago, I launched The Army Leader, based on the view that when peers share their leadership experiences and understanding it improves everyone’s collective leadership ability.

Over the last 12 months the site has had almost 90,000 visitors reading 40 articles. Over 1,200 people subscribe and get emails whenever a new article is published. As well as readers in the UK, I’m grateful for the large number of regular readers from the US, Canada and Australia – and of course further afield. Particular thanks to the one reader in Syria, wherever you are…

16 authors, both serving and former military, have written for the site. Five of these have been current or former soldiers, reinforcing the fact that leader development isn’t just an officer sport.

Below are the five most popular articles from the site’s first year, ranked by number of views. Two of the articles reached over 5,000 readers in the three days after publication – huge for a site of this size.

So, what do the five most read articles of the first year tell us? I think they tell us that soldiers and officers have plenty to share; that RSMs maintain a special place when it comes to teaching us how to lead; and that articles with teaching value keep getting read.

Here are the top five articles.

1. WO1 (RSM) Steve Spud Armon. RSM Common Sense

Over 19,000 readers

Steve Armon’s reflection on his leadership experience was by far the most popular article of the year; it was read more than the next two most popular articles combined. It’s not often you get advice so succinct and to the point. Steve had five pieces of advice for aspiring junior commanders based on his common sense approach to leading soldiers in combat. It was good enough for Johnny Mercer MP to simply tweet “Read. This. Blog.” Read it here.

2. CSgt Aaron Kerin. The Unpopular Man – Leading as a Lance Corporal

Over 9,000 readers

Aaron Kerin reflected on one of the most difficult ranks in the army – the first rung of leadership: Lance Corporal. Why is it to difficult to lead your friends and what do you do when you have to grip those friends? Aaron’s candid advice included his thoughts on getting it wrong and the advice his father-in-law gave him about leadership. Units and Army Education Centres asked to use it in their JNCO CLM and leadership development packages; as a result, the article was turned into a downloadable pdf with a question set for discussion. You can download the pdf here and read the article here.

3. Maj Will Meddings. The Lord Down Here – Discipline Lessons from RSM John C Lord MVO MBE

Over 9,000 readers

Published on 16 April, the anniversary of the liberation of Stalag Luft XIB, this is the inspiring story of RSM John C Lord’s role in restoring the prisoners’ will to live. JC Lord was the first RSM of 3 PARA and was captured at Arnhem. His conduct in Stalag Luft XIB makes him sound like an old-school RSM. The reality is that he was a modern leader who motivated and inspired his followers. If you enjoy the article check out the link to his speech to the Army Staff College. He was the first soldier to lecture to the officers studying there, and explained to them the importance of discipline and self-discipline. Read the article here.

4. Maj Mark Shercliff. A Junior Officer’s Thoughts on Staff Leadership

Almost 8,000 readers

Every couple of months there is a spike of about 400 readers of this article, which leads me to think it’s included on a staff college reading list somewhere. Mark Shercliff wrote what a generation of young staff officers wanted to tell their SO1s and Assistant Heads – but weren’t asked or never plucked up the courage to say. He went on to present his article to the General Staff Induction Course, providing them the benefit of these same views. If you are leading on the staff, or simply toiling as a staff officer, his article will remind you the leading on the staff is as important as anywhere else. Read the article here.

5. The Army Leader. James Mattis’s Leadership Philosophy

Over 6,000 readers

Everyone loves a bit of James Mattis. Earlier this year I received an email from a friend in PJHQ, who had been sent it by a USMC colleague, who had got it on a round-robin email making its way around the USMC. Whatever the provenance, it was a round-up of leadership (and policy) quotes and statements from the current US Secretary of Defence. It makes an insightful read and gives you an armful of leadership quotes. Read the article here, and if you enjoy it you can also read his email on the importance of professional military reading, here.

What could next year hold? Well I haven’t had a submission from the Royal Marines or RAF Regiment, or from a serving 1* or above. Let’s see what the next 12 months deliver.

And to those of you who’ve been part of making the first year such a great success, thanks.

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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright under Open Government Licence v3.0, authors’ own collections and open source.

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Know Your Role and don’t be a NOBA!

In the Sub-Unit Command Series we’ve had advice from different ranks, branches and jobs in the British Army. I wanted to finish with some advice on sub-unit command of my own.

My interest in leadership began shortly before I took command of my sub-unit. You would have thought that this interest would have held me in good stead – and of course it did. By the time I arrived I’d thought hard about the detail of what I wanted to do. But the reality of command is that the more you get involved in the detail the more difficult it is to see the bigger picture. This is the case in most jobs; yet in command the pressures are much greater.

For me, this is the critical part of leading a sub-unit: looking at the bigger picture and converting what you see into actionable direction to your team.

It comes from knowing the roles in which you add value, avoiding becoming involved in activity where you add no (or negative!) value, and passing on your knowledge to those junior to you.

Know your role!

What’s the role of an OC? In his article Dave Godfrey argued that the Company is “the point in the Army’s hierarchy where the email stops and the people start…  your core purpose [is] translating higher intent into military effect through the application of leadership and management.”

He’s right, of course. But when it comes to how you do that it is worth working out where you add value. Bill Sharpe, author of Three Horizons (Sharpe & Williams, 2013), believes leaders need to simultaneously hold three horizons while steering their organisation. These three horizons are:

  1. Managing business as usual today
  2. Innovating continuous improvements in outputs, processes and capabilities for tomorrow
  3. Creating the right direction for the business, looking well beyond tomorrow

Sharpe argues that we tend to prioritise 1, 2 then 3. In fact, he believes, a modern leader has to prioritise 1, 3 then 2. And the proportion in which you deliver these functions depends on how senior you are in the organisation. It’s best displayed as a graphic:

What is your role?

CGS is right up on the right-hand side; a strategic leader is all about setting the strategic direction. In fact, an OC sits less than halfway up. But Bill Sharpe’s theory suggests an OC needs to spend more of their time (by comparison to the rest of the sub-unit) on creating the right direction and environment for the sub-unit than each of the other two horizons.

Imagine this situation. An OC is putting her sub-unit through a range package. If it’s done well it will increase their capability. She won’t run the range – this is business as usual for the troop commanders and she knows it would be a waste of her effort. She could get involved in improving the ranges. She’s got plenty of experience that means she can improve each range to make it 10% better; she could ensure the training programme puts the squadron’s best shooting coach on every range.

However, the real value she can add is by appreciating that her sub-unit needs to re-role to a new vehicle fleet in the next 12 months, and her best coach will add the most value by going on a Driving and Maintenance Instructor’s  course during the range package. This is adding the value that no one else can; often the value is not in the glitz task.

Of course, being an OC is about more than range packages, but the principle holds true. Identify where you add value in a disproportionate amount to the rest of the team. Concentrate your effort there.

Carving out the space to do this can only be done by not doing some activities that you could do better than your subordinates, but don’t have to do. This is the importance of delegation. Not that it frees you up to do more stuff, but that it frees you up to do more important stuff that only you can do.

Know your role; then understand what of that role only you can do; then focus your efforts on that.

Understand what others can do well enough; accept that they should get on doing it.

Finally, understand what not to do…

Don’t be a NOBA!

Last year a retired Major General told me a story from his time as an OC.

“It was the end of an exercise and my company were unloading their kit from the back of the 4 tonner. I had nothing to do; the exercise was over but I didn’t want to slip away and leave the guys to do the work. So I started to get involved, telling soldiers where to put kit and, generally, getting in the way by confusing things. My CSM came over to me.

‘Sir, stop being a knobber.’

‘I’m sorry Sergeant Major, did you just call me a knobber?’ I asked him.

‘No sir,’ he replied (smiling, because he totally did just call me a knobber). ‘NOBA. N – O – B – A. Not Officers’ Business: Administration. Go away and leave me to do this, you’re getting in the way.’

So I did.”

There are some activities where you add the most benefit. There are some where others can do the job well enough. Finally, there are activities where you will end up being a knobber if you get involved.

In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth Chris Hadfield makes a similar point.

“In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.”

As the OC, you’ll be the senior person and you’ll want to add value everywhere you can. Just be aware that being in charge doesn’t make you a plus one in every endeavour. In fact, as you begin to step outside of your core role as OC you start to transition more towards being a zero. Keep going and you become a minus one.

Officers are comfortable with admin being minus one territory. Just watch out for other zero or minus-one zones.

And remember that if your involvement has a value of +0.05, but comes at the expense of disempowering your subordinates, then in the long run you are probably a minus-one. And you are probably being a knobber.

You will always add value when you pass on wisdom and knowledge

There is one activity that, without doubt, is core to your role and where you will be a plus one – developing your subordinates. During my initial interview as an OC my commanding officer (now commanding a brigade) told me about his biggest surprise from when took over as an OC: just how much more experience he had than his officers.

This might seem an obvious statement. But you will likely have some troop or platoon commanders who have been commissioned less than a year. Your second-in-command, unless they are an LE, will probably have less than three years under their belt. In comparative terms, you will have between four-times to ten-times the experience of your junior officers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself wise; you are still, without doubt, experienced.

You learnt lessons in Regimental HQ, on tour, in your Initial Grade 2 appointment. These lessons – on tactics, management, leadership, analysis and even human nature – need to be passed on as quickly and effectively as possible. I made a similar point about personal development in an earlier article; these advantages will compound if you do them right.

As Patrick Marriot wrote, ‘ultimately, the winning officers will be those that lead and think well, not lead and run well’. I would add that the same is true for your NCOs as well. Some of your Sgts will have been Cpls a couple of months ago.

So claw out time to develop them. Run a mock promotion board with SNCOs and officers grading. Invite your young officers to observe Bn-level meetings. Run table-top MAPEXs or MODEXs. Talk about risk analysis, attached arms, how the AGAI system works. Refresh them on report writing – you will benefit in time saved on rewrites.

In the time running up to command start writing a list of the things you wished you’d known as a young officer. Then go further; what had you wished you’d known before you were Ops Officer? Finally, ask your subordinates what they want to know more about. You’ll soon end up with a list that will fill two years.

There’s a pragmatic reason to do all of this. The better your subordinates are the more times you become a zero. The more often you can add zero value the more often you get to concentrate on the areas you add value:  zone three, creating the right direction for the business beyond tomorrow.

You won’t get it all right

Finally, remember you will get things wrong. Sometimes because you pushed the envelope and it went wrong. Sometimes because the nature of the job is high-risk and high-cost. Other times you will just have screwed something up.

You will trust a soldier you shouldn’t have. You will not trust one you should have. You will miss great opportunities and maybe you will push the sub-unit too hard when you should have let off the steam. Remember that mistakes are normal and happen when you push the boundaries and try new things. How you deal with failure will be noted by your team.

Bill Slim had a great quote about regrets (you can read the complete quote here).

I had a sort of a motto, “No details, no paper, and no regrets”…

… When I say “no regrets”, that is important. You do the best you can. You may have gotten it wrong; you may have lost a battle. You may even have lost a good many of your men’s lives which hurts more, but do not have regrets. Do not sit in the corner and say, “Oh, if I had only gone to the left instead of the right,” or “if I had only fought in front of the river instead of behind it.” You have done the best you could – it hasn’t come off. All right! What’s the next problem? Get on to that. Do not sit in the corner weeping about what you might have done. No details, no paper, no regrets.

In Summary: work out the value only you can provide; delegate the rest; watch out for areas where you think you are a plus-one but you are really a zero or minus-one; continually pass on wisdom; and do not regret failures.

These lessons took me two years to learn. They still hold me in good stead.


You can read the rest of the Sub-Unit Command Series here.

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Media Credit: Images © NATO under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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