I’m a leader right? I spent a year at Sandhurst, the prodigious leadership academy which is a rite of passage to every British Army officer. I sat through numerous lectures on leadership, I have a handful of certificates stating that I’m qualified as a leader. Oh and I led men on operations three times as well as in training and in barracks. Yes there were some hard lessons to learn
How to get the best out of your men?
How to keep them going when the shit hits the fan?
How to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic event?
How to keep them on the straight and narrow during the quiet periods?
Some people like the theory side of things, some people prefer the practical application. I guess I’m more of the latter but that’s fine, each to their own. I developed my own leadership style based on experience so looking back can see how it evolved, matured even. I learned afterwards that I’m an ‘Inspirational Leader’ but if you want to check out more about the theory side, there are far more qualified people on the web than me.
As I saw success with this approach I was able to delegate to a greater extent until I was able to observe more and interfere less. That’s the only way to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
At first I also wanted to be liked by my men, I figured that like mates, if they liked me and I was the popular guy, they’d do what needed to be done. This is a risky approach and many would fail at it as their subordinates would see it as a weakness and take advantage. Somehow I managed to not get burnt but saw that it wasn’t the best method. We were taught to always keep a separation from our subordinates but I saw how others took this too far. They were aloof and used their rank to bully their men into doing things. Their men hated them. So what was the middle ground? Not to close but not too far. I discovered to the answer to this whilst on operations. Respect!!
In my opinion, if subordinates respect you they will do what is required because they don’t want to let you down. If they see you enduring the hardships they endure, leading from the front in all ways from your appearance to in battle, they will follow. Basically never ask someone to do something that you are not prepared to do yourself. In this way your team will see that you are someone worth following, you’re likely to look after them, stick up for them, get them the best deal and in return you’ll get loyalty and respect. Others may not like you for it because they cannot do it but that’s their problem.
So you need to know your men, they need to respect you, what else? I think the other key thing is to be all over your brief. As I spoke about earlier, you need to know everything about your team to get the best out of them. Similarly you need to know every detail about whatever it is your doing. You need to be confident and not umming and ahhing when asked a question. People will watch you and if you crumble under pressure they’ll quickly lose confidence in you. To give an example, if I devised a plan for an operation and then under questioning didn’t know an answer, I’d look ill prepared. If I was in a business meeting and didn’t know the specifications or delivery time of a product, it would have the same result. Sure it’s impossible to know everything about everything and if you don’t know an answer you shouldn’t try and blag it but still, knowing the detail is important to good leadership.
In my opinion, the final part of leadership which arguably is the most important is the ability to stay calm under pressure. No one wants to follow someone who crumbles into a heap at the first glimpse of stress. I recall many times throughout my army career where I was put under pressure, whether during a presentation or a firefight. It’s one of the things the military is good at, preparing someone to face extreme stress and still be able to function. I remember the first time I was shot at. I’d deployed to Afghanistan ahead of my men and was desperate to get it out of the way before they arrived. I mean, imagine you are trying to maintain respect and appear as the Alpha male leader and then you jump into a bush and piss yourself at the first burst of fire. Well Afghan being Afghan I didn’t wait long, my first patrol to be exact. I was moving along the wall of a compound when I noticed the stones near my feet skipping about, then the noise. Oh shit, that’s bullets!!! So we all dropped down and returned fire and that was it. I’d passed, no panic, no fear, just reactions. The tour continued in pretty much the same vein for 6 months, I was shot at daily, blown up three times, but all that means is that nothing is ever going to come close to phasing me again. Surely a good thing when trying to keep your head!!
Okay so onto the crux of the blog, can those leadership skills honed in the military be utilised in the business world? I’d argue yes. Besides the fact that ex-military folk tend to exude confidence, look sharp and well maintained and are good at public speaking we also have a bank of experiences to fall back on. During an interview if you are asked to recall a time when you had to deal with a stressful experience, how would you respond? How good would it sound if you referred to the time that you had to deal with a firefight in the aftermath of an explosion whilst attempting to deliver textbooks to a school project in Helmand Province?
To summarise, in the business world, there are no training exercises where you can make mistakes to learn from. It’s always operational. Therefore strong leaders are required to ensure their team hit the ground running. They will reap the rewards but also feel the wrath for mistakes. Therefore a lot of the points I covered would be relevant in business world. The need to know your brief and team members intimately, the confidence to delegate effectively, the need to remain calm under pressure. All of the leadership traits learned in the military are of benefit in the business world and as long as you know the details inside out, it’s likely that you will be a massive benefit in the future, whether as a team member or leader.