Role Models and Vulnerability
By Richard Clark
If you read any book on military leadership then you will quickly realise the importance of relationships; trying and exert authority without the approval or consent of your subordinates is destined to failure. No one will work for a prick, it’s as simple as that. The importance of this approval can be seen in the TV series Band of Brothers. Captain Sobel (played by David Schwimmer) pushes his men repeatedly to ensure they meet the tough physical requirements of war. Yet he treats them badly in doing so and because of this he is loathed by his men. As a result he is eventually relieved of his command. By comparison, Major Dick Winters is a role model to the soldiers and NCOs of the company. He has the respect of his men to the extent that when Captain Sobel launches a Court Martial against Winters a number of the Easy Company NCOs give their CO an ultimatum : either Sobel is replaced, or they surrender their stripes. As a result some of the NCOs are demoted and transferred out of the unit. But the point is made: the men fear Sobel’s leadership so much that they were willing to put their careers on the line to make sure that he is gone. Put simply, leaders are empowered by the consent of those who follow them. But the very best leaders go further still. They become our role models, those we want to emulate. I’m sure we can all think of someone we consider a role model. Even so, I think it’s important to discuss the attributes of those we see as effective role models. Role models must be seen as human and as people with whom we can relate. Why? Because the British Army is built on relationships and we can only relate to humans.
Being a Role Model
Role models are defined by the very people who consider them as such. No one applies for the job of being a role model. Instead it is bestowed upon a person. Perhaps it is because of their position and rank. In some cases their age or their human attributes. But ultimately, it is the way they behave and the standards they uphold that sets them apart. Role models are those who epitomise the values of the group. In a military context they are normally the people who are the fittest, strongest and most tactically capable. People look to them and aspire to emulate them.
I have many memories of discussing people I work with in some god-like way. Usually the story would start with “Did you know such-and-such?” or “I was told that so-and-so…”. Then a feat of human endurance or moral courage would be shared. Perhaps he ran the Brecon 2-miler in 11-minutes, or he carried the weight over 20 miles without a complaint. Maybe he told the OC it wasn’t going to happen, he stood up for the blokes, or he led his men on operations despite being a Late Entry officer. I remember one such example fondly. There were all sorts of stories about a formidable man in my Battalion. He was the ultimate soldier; he even called his kids Charlie and Delta. When I joined the Black Watch in Fallingbostel this Colour Sergeant (as he was at the time) was held in such high regard he was known by everyone. He would later promote to Captain and lead from the front on operations. As I write this now I’m confident that anyone who has been in the Black Watch over the last 25 years will immediately know who I mean. Probably more so than anyone else from his generation, he is a living example of what it means to be a role model.
From the outset of one’s service, we are exposed to role models. They are the people who enlighten us on all things ‘army’. I suspect most people reading this will remember their training staff as role models. Most probably it will be the section commander who brought them through training, the person who was tough on you but only with the sole aim of ensuring you positively contributed to your unit when you made it – because whether one admits it or not, after passing out of training you carry the instructor’s reputation. My instructor was a Jock, an RHF full-screw. Because of his approach (now nearly 19-years ago) I have always seen him as a role model. To this day we still speak, admittedly on a less frequent basis, but when I was a section commander I based my approach on his example.
After my first tour as a section commander I was posted to be an instructor at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick. I was in Anzio Company and looked after the lads who had attended Phase 1 training at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate or other Army Training Regiments. Most people who go to teach at the ITC have a good time and think back fondly. I recall how privileged I felt to have been put in such a position of responsibility. For section commanders it is the first step on the mentoring ladder. Prior to starting my posting I attended the Army Staff Leadership School, a train-the-trainer course dedicated to instructor training and excellence. It was apparent to me after attending the course that my role was going to be much more than an extension of what I had done as a section commander in my previous unit. As a result I would need new role models. An my new role models were not the folk who instilled fear, who bullied, cajoled and intimidated. They were the guys who took time to pass on their experience, the people who had inspired me to improve and resolutely ensured the team took precedence over everything else. In some cases, they were visionary and absolute in their pursuit of the mission. These people became my role models. (The evolution in soldiers’ training and the need for instructors to break the mould, is covered excellently here).
I also value people who stand up for what is right. I considered them role models when I served and I still do now. Anzio Company had an old-school Late Entry officer. Personally, I had very little interaction with him, but I recall the animosity towards his style of leadership. People didn’t know whether they were coming or going. It was creating tension and undermining the Company. It all came to a head during live firing training at Warcop. A Rifles Captain stood up and spoke out against the OC. It was a brave act of moral courage and it led to the LE Officer being ‘Returned To Unit’. It was extraordinary to see and the respect this Captain earned he probably still carries today. I certainly remember him as another role model.
But what if you are not this super-human role model? Everyone wants a capable leader to fight in their corner and you might not always get it right. Us soldiers are a judgmental bunch. Jocks, NCOs and officers, no matter their seniority, will quickly work out if their leaders are capable or not. But on the other hand, if you are not always right, do not worry.
Consider this. Is showing vulnerability really a weakness? Or does it, perhaps, show those people who might consider you a role model that you are human? And that, as we are humans, none of us are perfect? I don’t think any leader can be 100% right, 100% of the time. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes. For me this is ok – the worst a leader can do is pretend that they are perfect. The pressure to be ‘on it’ all the time is crushing. Cracks will begin to appear.
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If your people look to you see you as arrogant – as the type who will never lose and will take whatever actions are required to succeed, no matter the consequences to the team – then I would argue they will be less forgiving when mistakes do occur. I believe people are more likely to relate to a leader who recognises their imperfections and is fearless about sharing them. The same is true of the business world.
Not all of us can be role models, but we can all be human. My advice is to try and be the best version of yourself knowing that occasionally mistakes will occur and that it is ok so long as you work hard to mitigate the scale of the impact, especially on your people. If your soldiers know that you truly have their best interests at heart, they will always work for you and will get you through the days you are not 100%.
A Final Thought
In today’s army it’s not enough to rely on that much-overused statement “in my day things were different”. The reality is that they probably were, but why should that point of view be relevant to those serving now? Of course your experience is important but do not presume people will follow you on the basis of that experience alone. No army stands still and in an ever-evolving world where those who stagnate are left behind. Be the best that you can – be competent and morally courageous – and people will follow you as a role model. And if you struggle to be excellent every day, remember that all is not lost. There is a need to be human and to admit mistakes too.
And sometimes, in doing this, you can be a role model too.
If you want to know more about acting as a role model for your followers then read one of our most popular articles of all time – an infantry RSM’s final advice at the end of his career: RSM Common Sense