Leadership without levers

From ship to shore, wardroom to boardroom, ships of oak to the big smoke

One minute you’re on the bridge of a warship, master and commander of all you survey, a modern day mix of Nelson and Beatty with perhaps a dash of Bond thrown in if anyone’s listening, which they often aren’t. The next, you’re a communication consultant in a foreign land and stripped of your ship, crew, rank and pretty much whatever else augmented your (hopefully) natural authority. Aside from the opportunity to reflect back on my 27 years in the Royal Navy, I thought I would briefly discuss how leading in these two environments compare.

In the military, specifically as a captain at sea, leadership is about having sufficient Emotional Quotient to strike the right balance between confidence and empathy. With this in place, teamwork and trust will follow. The challenge, and reward, lies in the variety of situations you find yourself having to apply this in. Being in the South Pacific with the ship taking on water and putting out a mayday to which no one responds…because there’s no one there; deciding whether to shoot down a helicopter that, according to the criteria, is a threat to your ship and has just departed a country with whom tensions are high. We make much of the loneliness of command in the Royal Navy – it plays to a Nelsonian image of operating miles from home, without orders – but I’m not sure it’s accurate. Even when no one responds to your mayday, you’re not alone at all. You have 20+ years of training to fall back on and there is an architecture around you, a system that is almost quantum in not requiring actual communications for it to work. Then you have a ship’s company who know what to do anyway but if you do intervene, will basically do as you say. In other words, you have a large and well-defined set of levers, up and down, through which to apply your own leadership.

International Communications Consulting is a different beast. Here you find yourself equally far from home and still making career-defining decisions but in the absence of a system or levers. The client wants help and is prepared to pay for it, but they’re not your friend and sometimes they are ‘not very nice’. They may also just want you there, rather than listening to what you have to say. These are generalisations, but what you can be sure of is that you will be operating ‘doctrine-free’. Stripped of the architecture and authority that supported you previously, and totally reliant on the client’s ongoing sponsorship of your work, the deference gradient becomes vertical. This is particularly unnerving because if you can’t persuade, and it’s not going well, your options are very limited. Your team will be small and bright and therefore agile but will have come with varying backgrounds and experience. They need to be moved in whatever environment the deference gradient has created and in the absence of a preordained methodology. And getting it right matters. I was certainly guilty in the past of believing that anyone who didn’t have human life at the end of their decision train had no right to feel pressure. A misstep in this industry won’t usually result in physical harm, but the effect can be equally immediate and damaging.

If there is a lesson in this, it’s that if as a military leader you relied on rank, uniform and orders then you may struggle when it comes to ‘leading from astern’ in the corporate world. If you understand that most of the time, leadership (in all environments) is the ability to listen, empathise and confidently move towards what you are trying to achieve then you may fair better. But don’t underestimate the challenge just because you’re not managing human risk.

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