I think you’ll find the Army style of leadership won’t work here…

By 27th February 2019 Resources, Training

It’s a phrase I’ve heard a few times if I’m honest, or versions of it. One time springs to mind immediately and it was when I started consulting on a contract and a gentleman told me, very confidently, “I think you’ll find the Army style of leadership won’t work here.” He was certain in fact.

I did what I think any normal person would do; I asked him exactly what he thought the Army style of leadership was. His answer, whilst a little short-sighted perhaps, was not entirely his fault; but, somewhat predictably, the Army style of leadership, it would seem, is shouting and barking orders. That’s it. Just shouting.

Why did he feel this way? Well, it is in part due to TV documentaries being edited in a specific way to present a brutal, high volume type of Army leadership in order to sensationalise it and make it appear so very different to life outside of the Armed Forces. An Army officer talking to their soldiers in a measured manner and asking their opinion simply isn’t going to make good TV now is it?

Furthermore, films also add to the shouty impression with Full Metal Jacket and An Officer and A Gentleman springing to mind.

In fairness, initial (or Basic Training) does tend to involve a fair bit of shouting, this is done for a reason and is aimed to disorientate and create a distinct change in culture from that which recruits have come from before.

There also was a time when shouting was indeed prevalent throughout the military, but thankfully those days are gone and Service personnel are significantly more measured, because they have to be.

As in any leadership situation, as an Army officer, I would need to assess the situation and act both as required and as appropriate, taking into consideration the team around me, the individuals within it and the desired-end state of the task at hand (you’ll recognise John Adair’s Team, Task and Individual here).

As a leader, I would also need those under my charge to be able to talk to me about worries, concerns and issues that they were facing, as well as their own idea of how things might be done; they would not do that if I was a shouter! Shouting also demonstrates a lack of self-control and if there is one thing that the vast majority of Service personnel are good at, it is self-control.

I would on the whole only ever shout in any one of three broad situations:

  1. If the environment I was in was noisy and I needed to be heard over that noise.
  2. If someone was about to get hurt, or there was a risk that they might get hurt, and I needed to get people’s attention quickly and unquestioningly.
  3. If I lost my temper and, frankly, let myself down by shouting.

My experience of being in the Army and serving alongside colleagues from all branches of the Armed Forces is that there are very rarely times when commanders and leaders shouted; to do so demonstrated a failure in leadership terms.

The Army released a Leadership Code in 2015, it consists of the same values and standards as before but also added in 7 behaviours.

They are presented in the image below.

As you might expect, the code includes a descriptor for each of the behaviours [1], but importantly, these are only a demonstrable formalising of what had always been in my 20 years of Colour Service. The vast majority of commanders had been doing this for years anyway.

If not shouting, then what?

Simply put, storytelling and trust.

The ability to tell a story is critical to any form of leadership and is incredibly well documented. In the military as well, leaders are required to tell an incredibly inspiring and rousing story, how else does one get young men and women to expose themselves to life threatening situations? Shouting? No, not by shouting.

In the military this type of story is more commonly referred to as the Commander’s Intent. It is expressed in such a way as to motivate, inspire and clearly describe the desired end-state and the why, or the purpose. This ‘why’ is also referred to as the ‘unifying purpose’. For example, one might hear the phrase “in order to” which is in every single mission statement in every set of orders, and it informs all those present that the unifying purpose is about to be announced. It is everyone’s why.

The story of what is required and why, is made explicit through the orders process in the military. This intent is then achieved through mission command [2], or trust. The idea here is simply to act only in a manner that will achieve the intent (the why) and relies on 6 principles:

  • Unity of effort. Achieving the why and is achieved through the telling of an inspirational story (the intent). Within which, the communication of the priorities is required as it ensures everyone is aware of them and, critically, what the top priority is within the intent.
  • Freedom of action. Within any resource or process constraints those tasked to carry out elements of the intent have absolute freedom to act in the manner they see fit and are trusted to do so.
  • Trust. If those delegated to are trusted then the speed of decision and action at that level is increased as there is no need for things to be endorsed, signed off or any other such control measure, or bureaucracy. To impose these things, implies a lack of trust and micro-management, which crushes innovation, empowerment and belief.
  • Mutual understanding. Which is established again through known business processes, familiarity with one another and, once again, effective communication of the intent; or story telling.
  • Timely and effective decision-making. This allows individuals and teams at every level of the organisation to work efficiently and effectively, without the requirement for constant sign off of actions and decisions. To employ this requires absolute trust but also a culture in which any genuine mistakes that are made are learnt from, and not unquestioningly punished. A shouty leader here would not get that feedback and thus the organisation would not learn lessons.

So there you have it. Somewhat disappointingly for some, veterans aren’t going to be that shouty, stereotypical Windsor Davies (RIP) type of person.

In fact, they are much more likely to be an empathetic individual who thinks about the situation they are in and amends their leadership style accordingly and, importantly, appropriately.

They will lead by example and they’ll get the team on board by communicating the intent, the purpose, the why very clearly indeed.

They’ll then trust those around them to get the job done.

[1] https://www.army.mod.uk/media/2698/ac72021_the_army_leadership_code_an_introductory_guide.pdf

[2] Also referred to as Intent Based Leadership.

Paul Kinkaid

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