‘We’re living in an uncertain world. All of us, me included, are running our businesses, striving for improved productivity and growth against a backdrop of constant change and technological developments that make long term planning a thing of the past. The chain of events following the EU referendum in June are just one example of that. And productivity has a particular importance here in the West Midlands where our output is around £4,000 per head, behind the national average.
Things are tough. So what does it take to maintain high performance under pressure? From the military to an investment bank and now as a chief executive I have found myself relying and falling back upon skills and behaviours nurtured in the Army. I have narrowed my thoughts to three key recommended leadership topics that are tried and tested on the battlefield, but relevant in the corporate environment and anywhere in between.
The British Military has defined leadership in the title of the book given to each Officer Cadet upon arrival at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: ‘Serve to Lead’. Leadership is not about authority born of position or ego, but about being focused on your role as a leader.
Many a junior officer misinterprets their role as to be a ‘super-soldier’, able to run faster and shoot straighter, but may miss the major opportunity to be able to deliver the whole team and its range of skills and experiences to the challenge of the mission. The core belief of the Leadership Trust encapsulates elements of this through the leadership mantra ‘winning hearts and minds to achieve a common purpose’. A sound plan will develop intellectual buy-in and being credible will enable the emotional, but the combination of the two is the winning formula.
The uncertain environment is hard to define, due to political, economic, societal, technological, legal or environmental factors. This extra challenge can become the focus if the foundations of the operational performance are not strong, with people forgetting that there remains an objective to be achieved.
The first of the three key recommended leadership topics is to ‘understand’. For example, the origin of a task has a need to be met, and completing the task will require appropriate resource and the team has strengths and weaknesses.
Any military or business planning process must start with understanding the context of why a task must be completed and establishing whether the task has been assigned appropriately with sufficient resource. The key to unlocking the issue is with someone else; whether attempting to destabilise a terrorist network or increase commercial penetration into a client, it may be the person at the centre is not the individual to work on as the influence sits elsewhere.
Additionally, there is the understanding that comes from learning. If new equipment or techniques are to be used, the day of the race is too late to identify issues. Leadership needs development, but this does not need to be cost or time prohibitive.
Formal development work should be used to address needs that cannot be met internally, in the same way a sports professional asks a coach for assistance with a particular skill. Regular meetings to voice constructive criticism that results (and must result) in actions can be time well spent.
‘Formal development work should be used to address needs that cannot be met internally, in the same way a sports professional asks a coach for assistance with a particular skill.’
Rehearsal can be a huge benefit to understanding and underwriting delivery, where teams can explore potential challenges and pitfalls, in addition to making strategic changes towards a new direction and prepare for any drops in income.
Finally, learn ‘one up’ and ‘be ready for anything’. In war what can go wrong will, and after all the enemy has a vote too. So no matter how well the ground is prepared, the real-life situation may be different. Therefore a team which is comfortable to step up is an advantage. After all, it will always be a Friday evening once everyone has gone home when the issue will arise!
The second topic is ‘clarity’. This is crucial for everyone, in order to understand what is required of them and how leaders can expect to give sound guidance to their team. After having received a task in the military, it is expected that a leader would refer questions back to the source, which provides the opportunity to challenge as necessary, but also to understand why the task must be completed.
Through setting sights on a clear objective and knowing the desired outcome, the leader and their team are able to work in unison and remain mission-focused, operate freely but within agreed boundaries, build contingencies and maintain the ability to anticipate and react as the situation changes.
Clarity also helps to build trust as the team will not waste time questioning why they have to complete the task, or feeling unsure that they can complete it. Finally, there is a need for ‘resilience’, a critical attribute of successful leadership and organisations, but often intangible and difficult to judge.
Leadership is often described as a lonely place and at times it must be. Personal resilience in leadership is hugely dependent upon the capability and capacity in the team, as no one person will carry an organisation.
‘Leadership is often described as a lonely place and at times it must be.’
Resilient leaders may have their foundations in a clear vision that they can focus on and whatever friction they encounter is dismissed as something that needs addressing, but is merely an inconvenience. Their resilience may come from having created a strong team and knowing it has the flexibility to react to a changing situation, or the resilience may be a confidence in their own abilities and experience of similar situations.
Resilience could be compared to courage and whilst much is written about both, my experience of courage in the most extreme of circumstances is that it is not inexhaustible.
Courage has been described as a finite resource that were it a substance in a vessel, it would need topping up to ensure it does not run out. The challenge for leadership is to ensure time is taken to refresh and maintain perspective. In a combat situation this could be achieved by getting a break away from the ‘front’, but in a different context this may manifest itself as making time for physical exercise, delegating non-essential activity or consciously deciding to shelve certain projects.
In summary, humans are difficult creatures to influence. We have inbuilt and strongly reinforced biases that persuade us to see the world in our own, individual, way and accept our perceptions as truths. So effective leadership, which pre-supposes that we intend to get people to behave and perform in ways they’d be unlikely to do without our intervention, can be complex and perplexing. Being good at it takes courage and practice.
But the effort is worth it. At a personal level, winning the hearts and minds of others to overcome challenges as a team is among the most rewarding and fulfilling things we can ever do. For our businesses, activating that leadership at every level will help us turn an uncertain world into an outstanding future.
The Leadership Trust
Based in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, The Leadership Trust has more than 40 years of experience in understanding the pressures today’s business bosses are under. It has developed specialist leadership development programmes based on high-impact, experiential learning, seeking out and developing the leader in everyone.
This article appeared in the Business Quarter, 9th September 2016