Don’t Airbrush Leadership
On 15th and 16th of May 2017, 13 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas stood on the summit of Mount Everest, the first serving Gurkhas ever to do so. The Gurkha Everest Expedition 2017 was the culmination of a 5 year journey. It was the most successful mountaineering expedition on Everest in some time. Non-Sherpas fixed ropes to the summit for the first time. It achieved a 100% summit success by the summit team and it returned all members without any serious injury. It was, without question, a huge achievement.
When accounts of military leadership skip over the detail and iron out the creases, vital lessons are lost and opportunities missed.
How it was achieved is important because, in my experience, when we are successful we are even less likely to engage with the subject of leadership.
Leaders should be willing to acknowledge and reflect on the messy realities of leadership in practice. This both makes us more humble and honest and gives us a chance to consult others about our own leadership – something that is rarely done, and even more rarely done well. It also helps other leaders learn the genuine lessons from our collective experience. It could even be used as a tool to develop our personal leadership via syndicate discussion, case method teaching or online 360 reporting tools. I want to expand on this using the Gurkha Everest Expedition as an example; I am not, in any way, attacking the expedition or its leadership.
The good leader/bad leader story
Leadership literature from military writers often falls victim to a false dichotomy. Success meant impeccable leadership. Failure meant blithering idiots in charge. We like heroes and villains in neat narratives. Most of the lectures we get are from ‘good’ leaders, or from historians talking about ‘bad’ ones. Norman Dixon, in ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’, gives many good examples of why this can be a problem.
The good leader/bad leader story hides a much more varied and common reality. It is a reality we should become more comfortable with, and more willing to acknowledge and explore after the event. Most of us can make real gains in the quality and consistency of our leadership by simply engaging better with the subject.
When accounts of military leadership skip over the detail and iron out the creases, vital lessons are lost and opportunities missed. The best leadership writing is often written by notably successful people rather than day-to-day leaders. Slim’s ‘Defeat into Victory’ and McChrystal’s ‘My share of the task’ are obvious examples. What we need are more ‘warts and all’ accounts. Honest accounts help to dispel an unrealistic expectation of perfection and defend against hubris.
I could wax lyrical about how the Gurkha Everest Expedition success was down to textbook leadership not seen for generations. I would be lying. The expedition, over 2 months long with years of build-up training, involved friction, argument and uncertainty. Constant questions were asked of the leadership. Mistakes were made, leaders were challenged robustly and disagreements were sometimes lasting. Does this mean the team and leadership was weak? Not in the slightest. I am extremely lucky to have been in and learnt from such a team. I strongly believe that without the balance of personalities and styles the entire enterprise would have been lost very early on. Mistakes are human and disagreements signs of a healthy culture. What matters is how they are dealt with.
Leadership, to followership, and back again
Our expedition had various levels and styles of leadership, and was open-minded enough to let these change as the situation dictated. Most were comfortable moving from a role of leadership to one of followership, and back, as the situation changed. Our hierarchy was never flat, but was flexible enough that the right person could be at the top of the tree at a given time. Financing, equipping and training a team to climb Everest requires a different approach to leading a team of mountaineers to the summit through waist high snow to seize a fleeting opportunity to fix the route to the summit.
Similarly, leadership knew when to empower the individual but shoulder the risk. Allowing small teams to move independently on the mountain gave us the agility required to guard against exposure and exploit success. But it could easily have gone seriously wrong. In short, there were many occasions where the leadership on paper differed from the leadership in practice, and it worked.
What I took away was that we should be more comfortable in this sort of environment. And more willing to acknowledge it in public and to analyse it for future benefit. Of course there is a fine line between such leadership producing creative, empowered individuals and degrading into a toxic mess. The job of the leader is to be confident navigating this fine line. Developing this leadership style will come partly through sharing and analysing experiences openly and frankly so we can learn from each other.
Success often removes the incentives for developing our leadership.
Leaving Everest with a missed opportunity
Our success on the mountain, however, means we may have missed an opportunity. We have left the mountain to great acclaim without seriously reflecting on the journey and meaningfully engaging with the subject of leadership. The opportunity is clear; we have a team that has detailed knowledge of each other’s characters in the most trying of circumstances. We can identify strengths and areas for development and give tailored feedback – whether as part of a formal 360 type tool or simply by letting your subordinates write your MPAR. The value of this, and the incentive to do so, decreases with time.
My view, in short, is that success often removes the incentives for developing our leadership. For any team, the fear of airing our dirty laundry in public is understandable; it detracts from the appearance we like to apply for external audiences and our peers. It can have measurable consequences for recognition, future funding and the like.
However, denying there were issues airbrushes leadership, hiding lessons from those hoping to learn from such experiences. We need to accept that good leadership is not perfect or conflict free. It embraces conflict, solves problems, overcomes dissent and revels in creativity.
As leaders, perhaps if we take this latter view we may actually realise that our teams’ laundry isn’t that dirty after all.
You can read more about the realities of leadership, as opposed to it’s myths, in our review of Stan McCrystal’s book Leaders: Myth and Reality