Sep 05 2020| Leadership | crisis
by Phil Eyre Founder
As part of our series of interviews showcasing leadership in different organisations, Phil Eyre spoke to Lt Col Langley Sharp about how the Army’s leadership responded to the Covid pandemic, the importance of trust and its focus on agility.
Langley has served for 20 years in the Parachute Regiment and heads up the Centre for Army Leadership. He recently co-authored Leading Through Crisis: A Practitioner’s Guide, a publication issued by the British Army as part of its mission to develop leadership across the organisation and to work in concert with other parts of the public sector.
Phil: The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges worldwide within all types of organisations. What makes you proud to have been part of the British Army over this difficult time?
Langley: Firstly, as a country the response to the pandemic has been remarkable, the shared sense of purpose has been impressive and I feel proud to be part of an organisation that has helped our society and our nation.
As an organisation we pride ourselves on our agility and ability to adapt, to move forward under intense and sustained pressure. The pandemic has been complex and unpredictable - these are exactly the conditions we train for.
Responsiveness, agility, preparedness and a sense of service to broader society are ingrained in us in the Army and I am proud of how these characteristics have been brought to bear during these difficult times.
Phil: How has the RMAS motto ’Serve to Lead’ been lived in practice over this time?
Langley: Much of what we have done has been living this motto and whilst it is the maxim of the officer corps, it is applicable to all ranks of the British Army. Service to others gets to the very heart of the British Army leadership philosophy - servant leadership, putting others first, meeting the needs of others before yourself. This is an extremely powerful foundation for any organisation, irrespective of the context.
This sense of service has been ingrained in us all, in our culture, traditions and through our training and education. We serve the man or woman to our left or right, as well as our Regiments, the Army and of course, our nation.
This has played out during the pandemic through supporting different activities; we have served those who have been serving others.
As an example, led by the General Staff Centre, military soldiers and officers have provided mentorship to NHS leaders throughout the crisis. We also helped to design leadership support packages. The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL), reinforced by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, provided a small team, which offered advice, leadership content and helped shape NHS thinking.
Phil: Which leadership qualities have been particularly important in your recent work?
Langley: Our support role has highlighted the need for emotional intelligence and cross-cultural leadership, being able to translate your experiences into someone else’s language - the military way won’t always land!
Humility of course, which is a critical leadership skill, particularly when you are working in new environments, with new teams, as we have been during Covid, because humility underpins trust.
General leadership capabilities such as planning and problem solving, understanding the context, the environment, and the intent of whoever is directing the task, have all been critical - and when executing the plan, being able to adapt. As we say in the Army, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’.
Core leadership skills always come into play, whatever the situation - good communication, decision-making and managing risk.
Finally, self-resilience; how you sustain yourself as a leader over an intense period of time, under sustained pressure.
Phil: Have decision-making processes changed during the pandemic?
Langley: The very nature of any crisis situation is characterised by the pace of change and the pace of decision-making.
We live by a philosophy of mission command whereby a leader clearly states his or her intent to the people they are leading, allocates appropriate resources and boundaries to work within, and empowers them to deliver, whilst remaining ready to support their people if or when they need it.
You can speed up your actions and responses by devolving some of your decision-making and risk management down. If your organisation is very hierarchical and decision-making is constrained at the top, consider how your might flatten that structure and empower more people.
A good example from the military’s response to the pandemic was in support of mobile testing. Early in the crisis, four corporals, junior leaders, were tasked to undertake training to deliver these tests, and it quickly became apparent they needed to train more people. So they designed, developed and delivered a ‘train-the-trainer’ course. A small team of empowered leaders were responding to strategic level demand. They understood the intent, had the freedom to deliver and took the initiative, but all the while knowing they had the support and guidance of their chain of command should they need it.
Phil: The importance of trust stands out in your responses. The Army seeks to continually build trust, empowering others, and the mission command approach is underpinned by trust.
Trust is based on creating a morally robust culture, with strong, clear values and standards. Can these qualities be learnt, and can they be learnt at any stage in life or is the adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ true?
Langley: We preach and we live values-based leadership, and yes absolutely we can learn to create these behaviours. We are products of our experiences; leadership skills, traits and personal characteristics can be nurtured.
In the British Army we are enriched by recruiting individuals from all over the world. Some of our soldiers, through no fault of their own, may not have been afforded an upbringing that has given them the moral foundation that we expect or need, so it is the Army’s responsibility to embed our values and standards into our people.
To put in context, you may have a young woman brought up in a disadvantaged area of the UK, who within 12 months of joining the Army, may be deployed on operations, on the front line, where she is required to instinctively make a life-or-death decision. Evidently, we need such decisions to be morally robust.
Leadership is an art not a science. Some people, by their very nature, can be selfish, they live by their own goals and putting others first is not easy to do. From a power perspective, if they have positional or personal power, they want to hold on to it. The irony is that empowering others heightens your own power, but people too often look in on themselves. In crisis, this can be exacerbated. Under pressure, people go into survival mode. If you build the team, based on trust, collective identity and a sense of partnership, it makes things easier in a crisis or challenging situation.
Phil: How have you adjusted your usual approaches as a result? Were there any surprises? What’s worked well and what’s not worked quite so well? Will you carry any particular practices on into the future?
Langley: One thing that has worked well has been our ability to rapidly deploy a network of personnel across government to understand, inform and, where necessary, advise. We sent out a large team of liaison officers, advisers and planners and we intend to capitalise on maintaining those relationships at a local level.
As always, if you have prepared pre-crisis and if you have nurtured those important relationships, then you can be more effective when the time comes to respond.
At a micro level my team adapted rapidly to working from home, supporting the NHS in multiple teams with leadership products and a mentoring capability. We also increased engagement with our own people and our productivity notably went up.
Working with the Army HQ we are looking at how we can take forward our collective lessons into future ways of working. As an organisation we thrive on collaboration, living, working and ultimately fighting as teams. But other aspects of our work can be delivered just as effectively, if not more so, at reach. Leading remotely. It’s about trust. It’s a mindset.
Phil: The Army is a huge organisational machine, how important is it to put people at the heart of your strategy and build engagement?
Langley: We are a people-centred organisation. People are the Army, not just in the Army. Looking at the health and wellbeing of our people is front and centre. How we balance that going forward when we have some people in work, and some dispersed, will be the next challenge to consider.
How you lead effectively when you have split teams – this also plays out on the battlefield, forces have to be dispersed by their nature - is one of the challenges of leadership.
And yet it goes back to mission command - the leader must create the right climate to build trust by giving clear direction, resources, freedoms and constraints and empowering their people, unleashing their talent. It’s also up to the leader to understand the context and ensure their people consistently understand the evolving context. Communication!
Phil: Which leadership skill do you think you’ll need to draw on most in the coming year?
Langley: By its very nature of course the future is uncertain but the crisis does make that sense of uncertainty feel heightened. Principally we need trust amongst our teams if we are to truly enable our workforce, wherever they are located.
One of the advantages of the crisis has been that leaders have been forced to trust their teams more. So how do we harness this in the future?
‘Me first’ doesn’t inspire trust.
It’s also a two-way relationship - leadership and followership. A good leader has to create good followership. Followership is not about blind obedience, but proactive, innovative, committed people who are willing to respectfully challenge, or in the extreme, display intelligent disobedience when required.
Phil: Clearly the Army’s leadership philosophy is grounded in a belief in values-based leadership, and the Army subscribes to ongoing leadership development, but how is leadership development evolving in the British Army?
Langley: Continually, and with conscious effort. Leadership development is a continuous process. We have come far in the last few years having only codified our leadership philosophy four years ago. The Army doesn’t always get it right, but we have 300 years of experience to bring to bear. We are incredibly focused on professionalising our leadership and our leaders - and that is not just focused at our Centre for Army Leadership; it is everyone’s business.
It is worth saying that whilst we take pride in our leadership across all ranks, we are not perfect, we do and will get it wrong; leadership is a human endeavour. That said, we must never stop improving. Listening to people and learning from others outside of the military is really important to us, allowing us to continuously calibrate our thinking. The day you stop learning is the day you stop being a leader.