When I’m in charge, I will do things differently
By H Halawi
Over the years I have been in various positions of responsibility and authority, as well as being on the receiving end of some good, as well as some not-so-good, leaders and managers. I remember always thinking to myself ‘if I was in charge I would do things differently – and better’.
In ‘real life’, I am a Facilities Manager, but in my spare time I have been a member of the British Army Reserves for many years. Why? Primarily, because it is fun. You get to do things that other people would not normally be able to do (or, yes, have to pay a lot of money to do). You meet different people from all walks of life and you share a common bond of comradeship. But this is not an advert for joining the Army Reserves.
So, back to the title. I got the opportunity to really be ‘in charge’ or, in military jargon, ‘in command’ last year. Not on a weekend or two-week exercise in the middle of a training area in some bleak countryside, but deployed in an operational environment abroad. I’ll admit it was a benign area, i.e. it not a shooting war. So how can I write about command and leadership when we were not being exposed to danger every day?
I think that the conditions we were under might have pushed certain commanders’ leadership abilities to the limit. Soldiers had access to alcohol and the freedom to go into town – and be exposed to the delights those towns had to offer. It could be, in some cases, a more challenging leadership environment, albeit less physically dangerous.
I was to be in command of a company of soldiers drawn from Army Reserve and Regular Army units as part of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR). This was my chance to ‘do things differently’.
Being in charge
The first thing that struck me was what a privilege it was to be chosen as the commander for this mission. It was huge. I was being put in charge of a group of soldiers who were young, intelligent and full of energy. Some had been on deployments previously and some were less experienced. I felt truly honoured to be in this position, and I remembered how I had felt on my first deployment almost 18 years earlier as a young soldier. I really wanted to make this experience for the younger soldiers one they would remember with fondness and look back on with a certain amount of pride.
I don’t like the term ‘commander’. It suggests barking orders with authority, telling people what to do and how. I prefer the term ‘leader’. The Business Dictionary defines a leader as “A person or thing that holds a dominant or superior position within its field, and is able to exercise a high degree of control or influence over others”.
I suppose I was in the ‘superior position’ due to my years of experience and having proved over various courses and examinations that I am eligible to be promoted and be in such a position. Is all that enough to make us good commanders or leaders?
I had decided early on, after being told that I would be the commander, that I wanted to try something different. I saw my role as setting the conditions for the team, to enable them to have the freedom to conduct their roles the way they wanted to. My role would not be commanding them to do things the way I want them done, the way I did them years earlier.
Experience vs growth
The British Army’s command philosophy is Mission Command. It states that:
This philosophy is founded on the clear expression of intent by commanders, and the freedom of subordinates to act to achieve that intent. Army Doctrine Publication AC 71940, Land Operations, Chapter 6, p.6-1.
I have heard, over the years, many people talk of Mission Command but seen fewer actually practice it. One of the problems with a military force is that it is a hierarchical organization. People progress up the ranks. When they are then put in charge they order their subordinates to do something and tell them how to do it. Why? Because that is what they did when they were that rank and in that position.
The problem, in my view, is it may have been 15 years ago that they were in that position and rank. If you insist on your subordinates doing what you did 15 years earlier what progress has been made? What development will this give your subordinates? In turn, what progress does that give the organisation?
There are sometimes too many ‘old sweats’ and ‘old school’ thinking in the military. Such old sweats are often revered as gods. The good ones will be excellent at mentoring the junior soldiers and will pass on relevant experience. The less good ones will revert to being ‘old school’ and try to tell the juniors how things should be done, i.e. the old way.
These people are not ‘old sweats’ or ‘old school’. They are simply old and outdated. They have not bothered to keep up with changes or tried to develop. And this will ultimately keep the younger soldiers from developing.
Luckily for my team this was not the case.
I remembered what it was like for me years before as a subordinate. I could empathise with my subordinate leaders, being told what and how to do something. I was determined not to take this approach under my leadership. If nothing else, the younger subordinates should have learned new skills and techniques over those years. If not, I told them this was their chance to develop new techniques and procedures.
Being in a benign environment, I positively encouraged them to challenge what they had been taught and see if they can develop something better. My only constraint to them was, ‘if you were going to do something different and make a decision, before you implement that decision, step back and think of the consequences of that decision if things don’t go to plan. If the worst consequence is you would look foolish for a few minutes, then go for it and try it. If the consequences would be that someone could be seriously hurt or worse, think again or seek guidance’. I wanted them to push the boundaries, try, experiment, take risk. But not be reckless.
I will admit that at first it was hard for me not to meddle in the detail. I had to consciously stop myself from interfering in the planning that my subordinate leaders would conduct prior to going out on their tasks. But even early into the tour I became more comfortable with not getting sucked into the detail. In time, I stopped giving guidance because I wanted subordinate leaders to develop themselves. I felt that by giving too much guidance, that would detract from their development. However, I was always there should they need it.
Give less and less guidance
I was pleased to see that, as the mission progressed, I was being asked less and less for guidance. This was probably due to a better understanding from all sides of what was expected and what was acceptable. I gave subordinate leaders trust. They had the confidence to make decisions knowing they had someone looking up and out of their little organization. It gave them the space to operate more freely.
With higher formations I was able to set the right conditions to enable my team to operate to the best of their ability. In effect, I became an umbrella. By dealing with higher formations, in-theatre and back home, I was keeping unnecessary trivia and administration from the teams on the ground.
I had the utmost confidence in the team I had with me, from the senior operations team (planners and controllers) to the teams that would go out on the ground and conduct their missions. I knew that they would do the right thing, every time, even when they were not being watched. I believe this comes from instilling in them the trust that you have for them, and empowering them to do their best in everything they tackle. This trust must be worked for and it must be maintained, and the best way to do that is by your actions.
My subordinate leaders were empowered to plan, make decisions, explore new avenues and experiment with new techniques and procedures to suit the environment. The only real parameters were to stay within the law and the values and standards of the Army.
Discipline and self-discipline
Too many times I have seen groups being penalized for an individual’s wrong action. I had a group of personnel that were young, yet mature. To treat them like school children would have been an injustice. By treating them fairly, empowering them to make decisions, instilling early on a strong ethos of what is acceptable and what is not, we concluded the tour without the need to discipline a single individual. In effect, the subordinate leaders and the individuals policed themselves. The Senior National Representative in-country thanked me and the team for not burdening him with disciplinary issues. This was a huge compliment.
As mentioned earlier, alcohol was readily available. Alcohol is often the catalyst when things go wrong. The only hard and fast rule I insisted on at the start of the mission is if anyone was driving, there would be a zero-alcohol consumption policy. I did not want to go down the line of enforcing any kind of limit on alcohol consumption, as these rarely ever work. I found that during the working week, people were not drinking, but rather concentrating on their preparations for the next day’s tasking’s and maintaining their fitness levels.
Alcohol was consumed at the weekends. But within limits, ensuring people did not make fools of themselves and bring our organization into disrepute. This was a great example of how the subordinate leaders and the soldiers under them policed themselves in a mature way. I would like to think that by treating them like adults, they behaved like adults.
Appreciate the privilege
I was extremely privileged to have had such an outstanding team working with me. I sometimes think that some leaders do not fully appreciate the privilege of their position. If our teams are not performing well then, in the first instance, we must look to ourselves as leaders. We must set the standard and be seen to maintain that standard. By example we lead. We must be prepared and able to develop our subordinates, to become better leaders themselves.
Listen to your subordinate leaders and junior soldiers. They have some impressive ideas that may be outside of what we know or understand, but they work. I wanted to give the subordinate leaders the opportunity to develop and try out their ideas. The success of that tour was down to them and their teams delivering on my intent. I did not do the work, I just tried to set the conditions for them.
The problem with success
Yet here is the problem that I found with success. Yes, the team did a magnificent job in terms of their outputs. They all worked in conjunction with each other, for the success of the whole team and not just their small group. So, when a trivial issue reared its head, because of how well everything was going, that little issue would appear to be a major problem. My observation was that when all is going well, you must keep things in perspective.
Often when we are being successful, we see minor things that don’t go quite the way we wanted them to as big problems. Instead of seeing the huge success we have achieved, we tend to focus on the trivia. I did exactly this on a few occasions. My advice is: don’t!
Instead, remind yourself of how successful you are being and how well the team is operating. Remind your team often about their successes. Highlight to them where things have gone well. Praise them and pass on praise from others outside your organization. I was very humbled every time when senior officials would praise our team’s efforts.
So, when it is going well, do not look for something bad. When something does not go to plan, remind yourself of the successes. Do not over play something that did not go as you wanted; just ensure that the lesson is learnt and the team moves on. Mistakes can be fine. Do not punish mistakes that happen as a result of people trying to genuinely try something different with good intention. Encourage different. If it does not work, learn from it and move on.
Socialise, yet be apart
Before I deployed, my commander said to me ‘command can be a lonely position’. I suppose it can be. And some would argue that it is that way because as the commander you are no longer ‘one of the boys’ and you should keep your distance. I disagree. I think this needs a judgment call. You should not distance yourself from your subordinates. At the same time, you must be able to give them the space (whether socially or at work) to be themselves and relax without feeling that they are being watched.
Do take time to socialize with them and do take time to genuinely interact. Equally, you need some space to yourself and you must find the time for this. I enjoyed their company socially and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them succeed in their missions and tasks. I enjoyed watching that little smile come on the face of soldiers when they are told they have done a good job and have been thanked for it.
So how did I do?
So, did I succeed in doing things differently? Did I do a good job of it and lead a great team of outstanding individuals well? I am not the one to ask. I would like to think that I succeeded in setting the conditions to allow my subordinate leaders and soldiers to do their work unhindered by trivia. I hope that I allowed them the space to make decisions and take some risk.
What did I learn from this? A huge amount. It is a real privilege to lead an outstanding group of people. It reminded me what it had been like for me as a subordinate leader all those years ago. These were my main lessons.
Have empathy with your team. Help them develop trust in you, and trust them to make decisions. Allow them to take calculated risks just as you, their leader, need to take calculated risks. Empower them to do as they see fit to achieve your intent. Encourage, praise and develop them whenever possible. Remember and acknowledge success and don’t focus on trivia. Always look for, and offer, solutions not problems.
I have now started a civilian employment in a foreign land with differences both in organizational culture and national culture. I will be transferring these leadership qualities to a different organization. But the common thing will be, I hope, having the privilege of working with outstanding individuals.
If you want more advice for sub-unit commanders then check out the Sub-Unit Command Series. It is a series of articles written by brigade commanders, senior officers and former sub-unit commanders, all aimed to make you the best OC you can be.