Honesty and Inspiration – An Interview with Maj Gen Paul Nanson
By The Army Leader
Since 2015 Major General Paul Nanson has been the Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the British Army’s Director Leadership. During his tenure he launched the Army Leadership Code, oversaw the publication of the Army’s first leadership doctrine and established the Centre for Army Leadership. During his command there has been a significant period of revitalisation in how the Army teaches and understands leadership.
I had the opportunity to interview Nanson in his office in Academy Headquarters, the 1960’s concrete monstrosity that is, understandably, hidden behind a treeline in the otherwise-historic grounds of the Academy. During our conversation it was clear that he is a deeply practical soldier who cares about the point where theory meets practice. The value of leadership is, for him, in how effective you make your team.
Perhaps that is because of his operational pedigree, having commanded his platoon, company and battlegroup (twice) on operations, as well commanding 7 Brigade and being Deputy Commander of Regional Command (Southwest) in Southern Afghanistan. Interesting, then, that he reflected on the shortcomings of an operational leadership background and how it does not provide you with the right leadership mindset for leading at the most senior levels.
General Nanson is also commander of the ARITC – the Army Recruiting and Individual Training Command – so right now his focus is on recruiting and training. ARITC includes Recruiting Group, the much-maligned Capita partnership, and all of the British Army’s basic training. His priority is encouraging applications, turning them into recruits and then getting them through basic training.
I asked him about his leadership philosophy, how the Army develops a wider breadth of leadership skills, and about the moment he felt his personal leadership was most tested.
You have been the Commandant of Sandhurst, and the Army’s Director Leadership, for nearly four years. This must have given you plenty of opportunity to think about what leadership is and how it is best done. What have you come to think of as your leadership philosophy?
Just the other day I was trying to think about how I might describe my leadership philosophy. Was I ever taught leadership? I don’t remember thinking at Sandhurst that I wanted to be this style of leader or that style. Sandhurst develops leaders through practise and so your style develops as you practise.
I think in the Army, particularly in the Infantry, we are lucky. In our early years we have no choice but to practise leadership because we are so intimately involved in the lives of our soldiers. I was lucky when I was a junior leader because I joined my battalion at a busy time. We were in Northern Ireland and on exercises in Germany. When you are constantly living cheek by jowl with your soldiers you practise leadership and improve because of it. You could almost say my soldiers taught me leadership.
But if I had to choose a single principle that I consider central to effective leadership I would choose honesty. The most important aspect of leadership is being honest with your people. And that is largely about your character. You would call it authentic leadership nowadays. It is about turning your personality and character into something people can believe in and trust. That is what I have tried to have as my principle throughout every leadership role I have been in.
The principle of honesty, does it become more difficult as you become more senior?
More difficult? Yes, because the decisions are more difficult. But do you still have to stick to it? Of course. Wherever you are, people need to be led and led by example. The more I work with civilian organisations, the more certain I am that the way the Army describes leadership is absolutely right. It genuinely is about inspiring people. Whether you are sat in a board room or stepping out of the FUP to cross the line of departure, it is about inspiring people. People have got to believe in you. If they do not believe in you and trust you then you are lost.
The position of the commander
As soldiers we understand the FUP part. It is in our nature. How have you applied the principle of honesty and authenticity as you have become more senior? It is not as simple as leading out of an FUP when you are at the battalion level or above.
Perhaps, but it is still about the position of the commander. It is about where you are, how you are seen and how you communicate.
At my level, a ‘Town Hall’ is as important as an O Group. Both of them are about persuading people that the direction of travel is the right one, whether it is on a change programme or during a battalion operation. People have to know they heading in the right direction and it is a leader’s job to convince them.
I have found this particularly in my current line of business. Recruiting is an emotionally tough area to be involved in right now! My team – military, civil servant and contractor – have been battered and abused for the last five years. They have been described as shit, nicknamed ‘Crapita’, and had politicians, retired officers and armchair generals calling them incompetent. But I still need to carry those people forward in this difficult and critical endeavour. Which means I have to stand up and inspire those people. When the going is tough your people have to believe in you, that you can get them through the tough times.
In some ways, the principles of leadership are still the same. Where leaders make a mistake is in thinking that they don’t apply during their time leading on the staff. They think they can become a business manager: an efficient number cruncher and process ninja, and that leadership and inspiration is now irrelevant. Does an SO2 or civilian in a staff job still want to know that you care about them and believe in what you are all doing? Of course they do. The personal connection between the leader and the team is still important.
Can you give an example of how that personal connection works in practise on the staff?
I can, but first let me link it back to the FUP and the position of the commander.
I remember speaking with a guy who had been a platoon commander at Goose Green. He said that in the FUP ahead of the attack he had moved around his platoon to speak with the guys. He had spoken to and had some sort contact every one of them, individually. A pat on the back, a touch on the shoulder. Nothing more than that. He said that after the battle his soldiers remembered that one small contact with him more than anything else. I think that endures in an office as much as in a battle. I know I do not do that enough. I need to get out of the office more often. But when I do, two things happen. First, I get all this useful feedback that I would not have got otherwise. But, far more importantly, people notice that their boss cares enough to visit them. Sam Walker wrote something similar recently in his book The Captain Class. Leadership is about reaching out to individuals in a way that they value, not in a way that you value, or that is necessarily efficient or easy.
Go around peoples’ offices, sit down and chat with them. Find out what has been going on in their lives. It is important. I once worked in a headquarters where a former commander had sucked the enjoyment out of work. The DCOS, Command Sergeant Major and I went about putting it back in to the programme. The enjoyable activities had been removed because they were seen as inefficient wastes of time in the programme. In fact, they gave people the opportunity to bond and for leaders to connect with their people.
Town Halls illustrate this point. Just because I have everyone together every few months does not mean I have inspired them. Town Halls do not create the personal touch. They are important, but they are not enough.
Peter Wall was amazing at the personal touch. I would meet him and he would ask after my wife and my children – all by name. When he did, it meant something to me. He did it so effortlessly and not everyone is good at doing it effortlessly.
Equally, I remember a CO I had when I was in First Fusiliers who used to know everything about everyone. He would come on a visit and he would stop by a sergeant as say “Hey, Sergeant Jones, how’s Kimberley getting on after the new child? And how’s the boy getting on?” I always wondered how he did it – because the effect it had was so important. I later found out that he had a fantastic driver. As they were driving to visit one of the companies the driver would tell him “Don’t forget to speak to Sergeant Jones. He has just had his first child, a son. His wife’s Kimberley.” So he was always prepped. It was not natural, but it was effective! You might argue that this was a bit dishonest or not actually leadership on the part of the CO. I would argue that it was about having a good team that supports you, and knowing that you need to build a personal connection with people – and that is about leadership.
The shortcomings of operational leadership
And how about you? Are you good at remembering names?
Sadly I am terrible with names! Great with faces, terrible with names. I try and get around it by having a system to help me remember. Just like so many leadership skills, you have to work hard to be good at it but you have no choice. It is too important. And besides, I think leaders should always be developing themselves.
And are there any areas where you think you could still improve your leadership?
But if I was to criticise my own leadership more deeply, I would say I have never moved far beyond an operational style of leadership. My company command included an operational tour. My battalion command was mostly on operations – two tours of Iraq. I commanded a Brigade that was preparing for operations. So I’ve had a theme of operationally focussed leadership – even when I was on the staff my jobs were operational.
I had always assumed that an operational leadership style would be sufficient throughout my career. But, as I’m about to say to the new cohort of General Staff officers, at the General Staff level you become more of – it is a horrible term – a business leader. While the foundations are the same, there are nuances that higher leadership demands of you that you simply do not learn in operational, field army role. So I have found my leadership lacking in my current role. I am missing certain skills sets that I am trying to catch up on. I’m now finding I have not got as wide a repertoire as I need in my current job. So, if I had my time again, I would broaden my leadership portfolio.
Do you think there is a gap in how we develop these kinds of skills in leaders?
I would not describe the problem as a gap. It is about having a mind-set. Organisational design, fostering innovation, systems thinking – things the business community understand – I now find myself trying to grasp for the first time. Getting innovative ideas up from the bottom and into business as usual, for example. Understanding how to use money to best effect, where and when. You might think these things are about management – but they are not. They are about leadership. And they are especially important in my current job in ARITC
I feel we have got to develop this mind-set much earlier in officers’ careers. I failed to broaden my leadership early enough.
Do the opportunities to broaden our leadership experience exist in the Army or do we need look outside?
We do need to look outside but that is only part of the solution. We do not need to send every leader to industry for a year. What frustrates me is that we send people outside the Army to get these external experiences yet we fail to exploit their knowledge.
When people return from operations we ask them to do ‘reality of conflict’ talks where they discuss the leadership insights they learnt. They write post-operational reports. We do not do that with those who return from secondments to other organisations. So we do not pass on what they learn. I would love to have these people come back and give a ‘realities of leadership’ talk. Something like “I led an extremely complex acquisition project. It was as complex and difficult as anything I’ve done on operations and here are the leadership lessons I learnt.” We are missing an opportunity.
The Toughest Challenge
You described leaders as being developed through practise. In that vein, could you to share the moment when you feel your leadership was most heavily tested, and what you learnt from it?
It might sound strange, but my biggest leadership test was when I was on BATUS as Commanding Officer of the First Fusiliers Battle Group. I say strange, because I took the Battalion on operations in Iraq twice during that command but the biggest test was not during those tours.
We had gone through the majority of the BATUS rotation and we were going into ‘Totalise’ – the final test exercise when the gloves come off of the free-playing OPFOR. We were absolutely shattered by that point, having lived out of our vehicles through several tough weeks of training. Totalise consisted of a series of missions, I think it was seven missions over a ten day period. The first mission went really well but in the second mission we got utterly taken apart. It was a defensive mission, so we had been digging in for over 24 hours. And the enemy just walked straight through us. Frankly, it was humiliating.
We then had to recock and go into an offensive set of missions. There was a period during the switch of phase when I was literally falling asleep standing up. We were a demoralised battalion who thought the end of the world had happened. Everyone likes success. At that point we were clearly, unquestionably, an unsuccessful battalion. I had to stand in front of the Battle Group and motivate them to give their best. It was a moment when I had to use every ounce of my leadership and inspiration.
I have lost soldiers on operations, including losing soldiers to friendly fire. I’ve spoken with their wives and parents afterwards. That was tough. But it was an expected part of the job. In terms of having to deliver leadership at a tough moment, it came during an exercise when I needed to inspire a demoralised team when they needed it the most.
The secret, I think, was appealing to soldiers’ professional pride. I was not concerned about the career implications of failing that mission, I was concerned about the reputation of the Battalion. And that was something that every soldier and officer in the Battle Group had a stake in safeguarding. There was a job that needed doing and we had to do it well because of that age-old Fusilier pride. Soldiers do not let their mates down and they certainly do not let the previous generation down by allowing their regiment’s reputation to be tarnished.
There was nothing there that was rocket science. I appealed to something greater than us, which is what I learned to do as a junior officer all those years ago.
That, I think, is my biggest lesson. Yes, we need to broaden our leadership development beyond the purely operational. Yes, we have lessons to learn from outside the Army. But even so, much of good leadership is straight forward, as long as you choose to do it.
And that would be my biggest single piece of advice to junior leaders: trust the foundations of our system of leadership development. Be honest with your subordinates, be someone they can trust, and inspire them. This, I believe, is a leadership philosophy that is absolutely fit for purpose as the foundation for everything we do.
If you want to hear from another senior leader in the British Army then see what Lt Gen Richard Nugee said when we asked him how senior leaders ensure they get input from the bottom of their organisation. You can read his interview here: The ‘Adding Value’ Dilemma: An Interview with Lt Gen Richard Nugee