Leadership: learning the art of leadership by example

Leadership. Whether it is in the field of battle or in running a business, the basic skills are the same. Planning, preparation and communication. In a new book on leadership Bob Stewart draws on his experiences as a military man.

Colonel Bob Stewart is convinced that leadership skills on the battlefield and in business are two sides of the same coin. In his new book on the subject, the veteran of high-pressure campaigns in Northern Ireland and Bosnia concludes that leadership isn't just a great privilege - it's a great thrill.

He wasn't always as confident. His first exhausting months of training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst convinced him that "the Army would rumble that I just wasn't good enough". But the longer he survived at Sandhurst the more his confidence grew. The tipping point came when a Colour Sergeant instructor told him he might make a good officer: his confidence took a dramatic boost.

As commander of the first British battalion sent into the Balkans under a United Nations mandate, he was ordered to severely restrict the use of force and get results principally through negotiation. In battle, however, he favoured the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz's dictum of moving to the schwerpunkt - the point of most concentrated effort, in a position to supervise or control the action - at least where he could understand events at first hand.

As an officer cadet, Bob Stewart spent more than half of his time directly learning how to lead. Since leaving the Army in 1995 he recalls he has met and talked to a great many business executives, many of whom seemed "excellent leaders… but what always surprised me was just how little time they have spent learning or practising leadership skills." Some clearly shocked him when they admitted they had had no leadership training whatsoever. "If leaders don't continually look for different ways to do business," he writes, "they will get stale or lose their edge." He's got a point, but would military-style training really help?

Military techniques in business

Can a military technique like 'mission command' really have an equivalent in business? In Bob Stewart's view it can. Mission command stresses decentralised command, freedom, speed of action and initiative. Officers are told what effect they've got to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved. It's then up to each officer to decide how best to achieve his or her own objectives.

In business he sees 'mission command' as the equivalent to empowerment. But has empowerment really caught on? Where empowerment works it operates not only at leadership and executive level, but also at workshop level, which is still the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, in business he found new executives are often left to find their own feet, to be fully up to speed from the moment they arrive, receiving very little guidance on company etiquette, which seemed wrong to him and counter-productive. "I never received any formal induction training in the two big appointments of my business life and I certainly felt such training would have helped." Wider business experience might have challenged that view.

As an officer, Stewart learned from John Adair, the leadership expert, that cadet officers had to understand three separate but related needs. First, the task to be achieved; second, to get people to work together as a team; and third, to identify the needs of each individual in the team.

Leaders, as he discovered later, come in many shapes and sizes "but I am convinced they can be made or improved by training." Personal style clearly matters a great deal, according to Stewart. "The best leaders definitely have charisma. Sometimes it is a very quiet appeal without the need to be noisy, up-front or in your face." On communications, he writes pungently: "in the military world you sometime have to communicate or die. In the business world you have no choice; you have to communicate or fail."

On the joys and challenges of leading, he describes watching his battalion driving out of Bosnia at the end of its time there. "I stopped on a ridge overlooking the huge plateau stretching below me. I could see for miles and watched company columns of armoured vehicles as they drove south towards the Croatian border - I was thrilled by the sight. There were my soldiers; we had done our job to the best of our ability - I was immensely pleased with our achievements. It was a fantastic feeling. What an honour it had been to command such people who had done so much good despite the vicious battles in which we had been involved. As I watched well over a hundred vehicle dust trails in the distance I experienced the greatest professional joy of my life."

Leadership principles, he found, are universal - no different in the army or in business. Business executives don't have to make life-or-death decisions. But their choices can affect people's lives drastically: they can hire and fire and send employees on danger missions.

The army, like many companies, has its own style and norms of behaviour, but is clearly much stricter in a way that can teach business a few lessons. Army regiments keep officers 'under instruction' until they find their feet. "There is a hierarchical structure and new officers getting it wrong are corrected, sometimes rather publicly, by their brother officers, company commanders and especially the regimental sergeant major who can be terrifying to second lieutenants!"

By contrast, in business Stewart seemed surprised to find new executives are sometimes expected to be fully up to speed from the moment they arrive, receiving very little guidance on company etiquette or how to behave. "That seems wrong to me, and it must be counter productive."

But are companies guilty of failing to give executives who are sent on missions overseas clear ideas of what had to be achieved? On a reconnaissance trip to the Balkans where he was to be deployed in a conflict zone, he was given no clear idea of what had to be achieved or what his mission was on the ground. What was clear was that international politics was still being determined.

As he writes, "Every leader, military or civilian, needs a clearly understood mission, objective, aim or goal from which they can plan." Seven years later when he was out of the army and a regional managing director of a multinational company, he was amazed that the parent company didn't once give him any aims, objectives or targets.

'Leadership Under Pressure' is a candid, personal account of what it's like to be a leader on the front line during the conflict in Northern Ireland and as Commander of British Forces in Bosnia.

 

'Leadership Under Pressure', by Colonel Bob Stewart is published by Kogan Page this month (www.koganpage.com [new window]), £14.99

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