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What the army can teach us about leadership

This excellent book implies a compliment to the reader. Instead of offering a brisk answer to a leadership problem and challenge, The habit of excellence explores a number of fundamental contradictions that all leaders must deal with. But it is impossible to completely resolve these contradictions and balances. Langley Sharp, Lt. Col. in the British Army, takes us not only to the heart of the battle, but to the heart of the matter: leadership is chaotic, endless and full of painful compromises. Indeed, if leadership is easy, it probably isn’t happening at all.

This book redefines the genre of popular science fiction about coolers and sounds. Rather than taking a complex idea and turning it into delightfully simple and contradictory, she takes a popular concept and explores its complexity and subtlety.

Sharpe describes a series of balances that effective leaders typically maintain and nurture: planning and instinct; tradition versus innovation; loyalty to the subgroup (in the case of an army, regiment), but also loyalty to the whole (army); having a basic level of conformity, but leaving room for dissenters; requirements of professionalism in tension with the need for space and freshness; encouraging risk-taking in the context of responsibility. As always, finding the right balance in each of these situations depends primarily on common sense.

Another contradiction is found in the origin of the book: between theory and practice. “Later, you will be called upon to become the brain of the army,” the French general told young officers over a century ago, “so I tell you today: learn to think.” Sharpe is the head of the Army Leadership Center (CAL) at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. Its mission is to provide and refine intelligent models that will help leaders make better decisions. However, the army has trained its future leaders at Sandhurst for centuries; CAL has only been around for a few decades. The habit of excellence it is therefore an expression of a relatively recent mission: to provide a useful theoretical framework that integrates and also interacts with the historical patchwork of inherited wisdom and practice.

[See also: A new era for defence]

One of the characteristics of effective leadership is to pay due attention to different types of knowledge: what is learned in the abstract, as well as what is acquired through experience. There should always be two-way traffic, and theory and practice should be interesting and refreshing to each other. Accordingly, above the famous steps of Old College at Sandhurst, there are two statues: Mars and Minerva, the god of war and the goddess of wisdom.

At Sandhurst, the past and future of the army intersect. It is a mistake to think that the past always has its finger on the pulse in this conversation. “Don’t let us be hypnotized by what worked in past wars,” Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote in 1954. “We must take our hats off to the past and roll up our sleeves for the future.” Symbol and ceremony – a cap, a badge and a parade – are effective tools for creating a sense of identity and belonging. They should not be confused with living in the past. “Modernization is continuous,” writes Sharpe, “and must move at the same speed as the environment that surrounds it.” This is why the civilian descriptor “modernizer” is so limited. Everyone in power should be a modernizer – to the appropriate degree. Tradition and innovation cannot be separated: every innovator must be aware of the aspects of tradition that need to be protected; every traditionalist should know when to give up and move on.

[see also: Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard exposes the failures of the British army]

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Mission command doctrine is the structure of the army to manage other tensions: the need for planning versus the need for adaptability. In command of a mission, the commander establishes “intent,” but explicitly allows that intent to be interpreted in the field. “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy” is one of the most famous military aphorisms. No plan can survive without adapting to an ever-changing environment that no one can fully understand. The former head of Sandhurst asked the winners of The Sword of Honor (the highest honor for cadets), “What have you learned about leadership?” He rated “Sacrifice Control to Gain Power” as the best response he has ever received.

This is the paradox of effective leadership. Good leaders take risks and take personal responsibility for it (taking the risk is proof of their investment). But they also encourage those below them to take risks and seek similar responsibilities. Thus, leadership is not a zero-sum game in which responsibility is “shared” among people (a classic flaw in organizational design). Instead, true leadership amplifies the impact by increasing the capabilities and capacity of the entire organization.

The book clearly shows both the strengths and possible shortcomings of the regimental system (the army is a “tribe of tribes”). One of the lance corporals of Sharpe’s regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of his actions while serving in Afghanistan in 2013. Under enemy fire, Joshua Leakey rescued a US Marine captain who was wounded. “I did it for this, – he said, pointing to the badge of his regimental cap, – I could not let the reg.” But Sharp also explains how over-association with the regiment can lead to narrow-mindedness and narrow-mindedness. Sport provides examples of the same tension. The great West Indies cricket team of the 1980s and the Australian team of the 1990s and 2000s were fueled by inter-island and inter-state rivalry. But when they played for the West Indies and Australia, the teams came together. In contrast, prior to Gareth Southgate’s skillful leadership, the former players admitted that England’s football team has sometimes been weakened by Premier League club cliques.

Readers who believe the military rely on blind obedience will be surprised to find that the military teaches the art of intelligent defiance. “Knowing when and how to disobey is a higher order skill than just obeying.” Just as weak leaders surround themselves with friendly friends, a confident leader exposes himself to constant risks – and therefore opportunities – to face challenges.

As the name suggests, The habit of excellence explores the Aristotelian art of teaching how to live well in order to lead well. The most compelling, powerful, and communicable passages focus on a concept that brings together all aspects of military leadership and all the themes of the book: moral courage.

Good organizational “culture” is not only a fluffy mask of ineffective politeness, but also a daily battlefield. Doing the right thing, especially when it’s inconvenient, requires that those in charge are always ready to “court unpopularity”. As Sharpe explains, effective leaders must protect their distance and perspective. Leadership is not only an ability, but also an effect. And it often becomes clear how much we all rely on good leadership when we see the outlines of organizations that have abandoned it.

Sharpe concludes: “A leader who is consistently on the path of least resistance encourages behavior that undermines discipline and cohesion when they are most needed. On the contrary, someone who is willing to make an unpopular decision and insists on the inconvenience of high standards makes a significant investment in future success. More broadly, they enable you to do the same, building up a collective pool of moral courage. ”

No two readings of this book will be the same. But it’s hard to understand how no leader, regardless of their field of activity, would benefit from reading and rereading.

The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works
Langley Sharp,
Penguin Business, 336 pp., £ 20

Ed Smith is the director of the Sports Humanities Institute and former collector of the England cricket national team.

[see also: The new age of American power]

This article was published in the October 6, 2021 issue of the New Statesman. Unsafe places



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