RSM Common Sense
It’s 2002. I’m a newly promoted Cpl in the Vikings waiting to go in front of the CO and be read my Section Commanders’ Battle Course report. I am arrogant, overzealous and thirsty to fight any enemy that comes my way. The only thing that matters in my bubble is the 10 men in my command. I am naive to the bigger picture and I am the best section commander in the Battalion. I am a leader!
Surely I’m right and surely this is the way I need to be and think?
While I am waiting to go in front of the big man I use the toilet. There is a presentation piece hanging on the wall. It has a good layer of dust on it and it is in the style of a sort of London Underground advertising poster. It is at eye level so I can’t help but read it. Written on the poster is a poem by a bloke called Roger McGough. It is titled “The Leader”. It reads:
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?
And now I’m stood there thinking “Is this bloke incompetent? Or just open to suggestions?”
It isn’t about power. It’s about responsibility
The poem had a real impact on me and got me thinking about the way I do my business. Being a leader isn’t about power. It’s about responsibility. I’ve always been very fortunate throughout my career. I have had some very inspiring people command me, be it the skinny moustache-wearing hard-man section commander in training or the short-but-fearsome RSM I had as a Platoon Sergeant. I have taken a piece of all of these people and I feel that it makes me the leader I am today.
Shortly after promotion to Cpl I was sent to the Army Foundation College in Harrogate as a Phase 1 recruit instructor. I remember the long drive up there, asking myself how I could get the most out of these young lads. What will my approach be? How would I teach and mentor them? It was during this posting that I really discovered my style of leadership and I started to try and fine tune it.
Whilst I was working at the Infantry Battle school I was given the nickname “CSgt Common Sense”. I clearly investigated this. It turns out that every course would try and work out who their directing staff would be, what they were like and then give them a nickname accordingly. Given that names such as “The Daysack” (he’s always on your back) and “Morale Hoover” were also used, I think I did ok!
It turns out that the students gave me this name because, from start to finish, I maintained a relaxed approach and always listened to and asked for the opinions of the students on the course. Given that I was instructing experienced senior Corporals on the Platoon Sergeants Battle Course, this meant the world to me. I really felt that my leadership style had peaked and I’d achieved the style which I’d always aspired to having.
Speak to people like humans
Speak to people like humans, pay an interest in them and identify where they are strong and what areas need work. Letting people fail and learn from failing is vitally important to self-development. We mustn’t be part of an Army which is scared to make mistakes in training. Clearly mistakes are sometimes a bad thing but we need to understand that training is there for us to experience failure. For me, making people understand where they went wrong and then physically seeing them improve is everything.
Never look upwards
I also think that being a good leader, perhaps especially in the infantry, is about never looking upwards. Always look forward – look at how you can progress and grow your people through whatever journey they take in the unit. Most importantly, and always, look downwards. Look at the soldiers at the lowest levels and empower them. Listen to them. Make them feel valued and always give them constructive criticism. Ultimately, soldiers are people, people that have a personal story and a past.
It’s not what you have done; it’s what you do now
I always like to use the phrase “it’s not what you have done; it’s what you do now”. Your soldiers should feel confident that when they make mistakes (which they will and should) they are able to have the integrity to come forward and air the issue without getting a good quality, mid-90s style, yelling at. I think that the soldier of today is bright. They have a lot to bring to the fight if you will let them.
Be yourself. But be good at it!
I, the same as most of my generation in the infantry, have been lucky enough to experience combat on several occasions. Leadership in combat is, to me, what matters the most. To my mind this is where it is most important to not only be yourself but to fully understand how you are and act in high tempo and dangerous situations. If you are a leader who runs around yelling with a wonky helmet, then fine. Seriously. But be good at it. If you are a calm decisive and laid back leader, again that’s fine. But you still need to be good at it!
When it comes to leading men in combat I like to use this acid test:
Imagine a wounded soldier lying on a stretcher awaiting evacuation. He is strapped in, looking up at the sky above wherever he might be in the world. A figure leans over him and says “its OK mate, I’ll get you out of here”. If that soldier has faith in you and his mind is put at rest then you are getting it right as a leader.
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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright under Open Government Licence v3.0 and the author’s own collection.