Leading Through Crisis: An Interview with Lt Col Langley Sharp
By The Army Leader
In June 2020, as part of its mission to develop leadership across the British Army and to work in concert with other parts for the public sector, the Centre for Army Leadership published Leading Through Crisis; A Practitioner’s Guide.
The new guide is designed to offer advice to military and civilian leaders on how to lead in a crisis – a skill that is common in the military but not often tested in the public or business sectors. It is based on the Army Leadership Model that will be familiar to every Army leader, but specifically focuses on reacting to crises, with sections on planning, decision making, risk, communication, followership and looking after yourself. At around 20 pages long, it is a useful primer for anyone who feels that COVID-19 has exposed a weakness in this element of their leadership.
In July the team from The Army Leader caught up with Lt Col Langley Sharp, the officer who heads the Centre for Army Leadership, to discuss how the Guide came into being, where the advice in the Guide came from, and some wider reflections on leadership.
Provide the opportunity for others to succeed
As the Head of the Centre for Army Leadership you must have had time to reflect on your own leadership style, what would you say your philosophy is? And where do you draw it from?
It is interesting talking about reflection. We currently have a team of three Lieutenant Colonels working with the Centre for Army Leadership studying leader (as opposed to leadership) development across the Army. One of the things that they have rightly identified is that development as a leader starts with self-awareness. I think, as an organisation, we do not spend enough time reflecting on ourselves as leaders. It’s something we need to get better at. I have reflected at times over my career, but probably never more so than now in this role – which one might argue is a bit late!
I am not sure I have a leadership philosophy per se but I have certain tenets that are important to me, as a leader. First, ‘treat people for who they are, not what they are’. I am a strong believer that everyone has value to add but that not everyone in life may have had the opportunity to demonstrate or appreciate that value. That leads on to my second point; ‘a leader’s role is to provide the opportunity for others to succeed’. On reflection, this is the one thing that has brought me the most satisfaction throughout my career – providing others the opportunity to succeed – and, in turn, seeing those individuals achieve above and beyond, either what they expected of themselves, or what others expected of them. I think the British Army is a fantastic organisation for this. There are plenty of people who have joined the British Army who, through no fault of their own, haven’t been afforded the opportunities in life to truly develop themselves, and yet the British Army has proved a great vehicle to enable this. That’s key for me.
‘Lead by example’; I would say this is fairly obvious, but I do not see how you can be a leader without leading by example. Another tenet would be ‘doing what you know is right.’ I think I have got a fairly good idea of what is right and what is wrong. And I do try to live by these. I am by no means perfect; I have certainly fallen on the wrong side of these on occasion. Haven’t we all? But I try my best to do what is right and to stick up for others. No philosophy per say, but those are my key tenets.
Where do I draw these from? On a personal level, I think I got my leadership style largely from my mum and dad. They are the most influential people in my life having brought me up. I was very fortunate to have a stable family life with two loving parents who sacrificed a lot for me. I got strong morals from them and they gave me huge opportunities in life that have shaped me most as a person. By default, they’ve shaped me as a leader. I would also say my wife; she is a strong influence on me today.
In the Army there are individuals, and we all have them, who are a notable influence on us. I look back through my career and identify individuals who taught me the most – for different reasons, different characteristics. But I also believe we are susceptible to the micro-influencers. I can think of lots of individuals who have inspired me at different moments. When I was in command of a Parachute Regiment battalion, pretty much every day I would see people, of all different ranks, do things that inspired me in one way or another. Such micro-influences develop who you are by osmosis.
So how did the Practitioners Guide come to be published?
Early on in the COVID crisis we were approached by NHS England and Improvement asking us to support them in two areas. The first was a mentorship programme, which is now up and running, led by the General Staff Centre with military leaders providing mentorship to NHS leaders through the crisis. The second was to help design leadership support packages. The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL), supported by friends from RMAS, provided a small team, which over two weeks offered advice, leadership content and helped shape their thinking. At the end of the project we looked at what we had done and realised we had developed some really useful products. We then had the idea of producing the Practitioner’s Guide. We did it because we thought it would be useful to both an Army audience and the wider civilian community. At the time, we had about 25,000 soldiers on standby and a number deployed forward supporting the NHS and we thought it would be a useful guide for them. For the external audience – and we do a lot of work here at CAL with multiple cross-sector partners – our guide was an offer to them. It is important to us that we continue to calibrate our thinking and learn from others. In day-to-day life, you can just get sucked into just ‘doing’ and you need to force yourself to stop and ‘think’. It was a really valuable opportunity for us to do just that.
In the guide, it talks a lot about relying on subject matter experts and breaking down hierarchy to get the best ideas from people. What is the best way of doing this in the Army without stepping on anyone’s toes?
Ultimately it is the role of the leader to set the climate. It goes back to one of my previous points about treating people for who they are, not what they are. Treating people for what they bring to the party, not necessarily for the rank they hold. Rank and hierarchy is important in the military. It is a very important function for us, but you have got to get past this and see people for who they are. Inevitably the higher up you go in any organisation the less specialised you become. You have got to trust the specialists around you. If you do not instil that trust, you are not going to achieve your mission to best effect. It is about leaders setting the climate to encourage talent to step forward. It is about being comfortable that you do not have all the answers.
It really brought it home to me when I was a company commander in Afghanistan. I remember we were conducting a joint operation with the US Marine Corps. We had to brief a US Brigadier and his operations team. There were lots of people in the room, most of them Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels; I was a Major at the time. We gave the core plan and it came to the air and joint fires part. I handed over the brief to one of my Corporals, a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller). He gave a faultless brief. He was asked several tricky and quite pointed questions and he answered every single one faultlessly. At the end the Brigadier came up to me and said it was a great brief, highlighting that he thought the Captain who delivered the air plan was particularly impressive. I told him it was not a Captain; it was one of my Corporals. He was staggered. These are the people who make our team, the specialists who really know their trade. They just need to be brought to the fore. I look back to many of my Privates and Corporals, they all have phenomenal knowledge and experience, they know their craft inside and out. They were a privilege to lead.
Intelligent disobedience and trust
What is the best example of intelligent disobedience that you have seen throughout your career?
Intelligent Disobedience – disobeying a rule because you know that following the rule will run counter to its intention – is important in a crisis. This came up the other week actually. Not necessarily related to my career or the British military, but the US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, very publicly declared that he was not going to order active duty military personnel to quell the unrest that we see in America. This was in stark contrast to the President’s direction, which I thought was impressive. A public demonstration of intelligent disobedience. He is a former US Army Officer, so clearly he has strong moral courage and strong values.
From a personal perspective, I cannot give too many details because of the individuals involved, but I have an example from a few years ago. One of my commanders – who is on my list as one of the individuals I respect most as a leader – he received direction from a senior officer but thought this would not serve the interests of the organisation. It was not the right thing to do. He not only ignored it but he contacted the senior officer and told him he was going to ignore it. I had huge respect for him for doing that. It clearly showed moral courage and an assured confidence that he knew what was right and that he was willing to stand up for it.
In the guide it talks about implicit trust and how this is vital to successful leadership so other than time and getting to know people, what’s the best way of building implicit trust?
Firstly, it does take time. I think that in organisations such as the Army we are quite fortunate that we have a shared culture and ethos. We are from the same tribe, albeit a diverse one. Broadly, we speak the same language, we wear the same uniform and have the same shared values. We understand what one another has been through, so immediately there is a foundation there. It does take time, though I think an effective leader can build trust very quickly. It is about the mindset of the leader. Are you someone who trusts people and allows them to disprove that trust or are you the opposite, you instinctively do not trust people and they have to earn your trust? I think you need to be the former – trust people first and allow them to disprove it. You have got to give people the opportunity to succeed, to demonstrate and build trust. It is about mission command; giving your intent and letting others act on that intent using their own initiative, judgement, and experience. You as a leader have to provide those opportunities for others.
Trust also radiates. When you are building trust one-on-one with an individual, the rest of the team are watching this interaction and seeing the dynamic. It then has a radiating effect. Interestingly, the more senior you are, the easier it is to have that effect more broadly.
The other thing about trust is that it is not enduring, you have got to consistently work at it.
Could you share a moment when you felt that your leadership was most tested?
I have a few. Outside of specific examples though, there are what I would refer to as micro challenges. Pretty much every day, we have small challenges presented to us. We are all faced with micro challenges that cause us to think, ‘do I let that go or do I say something’? Leadership is a learned behaviour and it is about how you act in these moments. I will be honest, I have not always done what I think is right, sometimes I have ignored such challenges, but in the main I do try and stick to what I think is right.
Leadership in barracks is always more difficult, particularly maintaining standards and discipline. Having to deal with senior individuals who have acted inappropriately, failed to meet the professional standards of their rank, or fallen notably short of the disciplinary standards expected of us all. Significant issues such as a soldier’s death have proved a challenge of leadership, though I have always been very fortunate in having a superb team around me in support.
On operations, I often reflect on my time as a company commander. Every so often I would have a closed-door session with my Corporals, an open forum where I allowed them to air whatever issues were on their mind. On one occasion they expressed concern that we weren’t taking enough risk. We had a string of recent operations that did not deliver the results we expected and were somewhat ‘quieter’ than they had experienced on previous operations.
I did two things. First, I brought forwarded an operational estimate to calibrate whether we were on track or whether we needed to change our focus. Second, I explained the broader context because, understandably, they were looking at it from a tactical perspective. They were comparing it to previous operational tours and I felt it important to explain our operations within the boarder context of the current campaign.
The two key lessons for me were communication and context. In the first instance listening, which people often forget when thinking about communication, as well as the opportunity for me to communicate my perspective. I summarised by explaining why I made the decisions I did. The other is context; context is key. We talk about it in our doctrine. Context is absolutely critical. Once they saw the bigger picture, it created better shared understanding.
Trust in locked-down leadership
With a number of Officers, SNCOs and JNCOs working home – just like many in the UK – how do you recommend leaders maintain trust in these unusual times?
It comes down to communication again. Communication is critical in a crisis, especially when you’re working remotely. Purposefully staying in touch with your team, which may mean conducting more meetings than usual, more one-on-one phone calls. It is important to make sure that everybody feels they have the chance to speak up. It comes back to the fact that you cannot lead people unless you know them. When working remotely it is even more important to understand the pressures that people are under in the current situation; home schooling, family members shielding, home life pressures …. it is about understanding your people. It is also necessary to understand purpose and focus. If people are sat at home bored without a clear purpose and focus it is going to be very difficult for them. Empower them with clear tasks and a reason for contributing.
I’ve seen some great examples in my team. They have been absolutely superb. Two individuals joined us about three weeks before lockdown. An Officer Cadet from Birmingham OTC and a Colour Sergeant from ITC Catterick. We barely met them in person before lock-down but both have been first class. Absolute team players who have delivered above and beyond because they felt part of the team and had defined purpose. They used their initiative, judgement, and experience; they brought it all to bear and delivered.
There are lots of similar examples I have heard across the Army of JNCOs and SNCOs very rapidly turning their hand to virtual training. Whether it be conducting PT online or delivering classroom lessons virtually. It is really impressive.
Do you think our leadership philosophy is applicable for civilian organisations operating out-with a military context?
I do; it comes back to operating within your context, yet the fundamentals endure. We work a lot with civilian partners across various sectors and we have yet to hear from anyone who says that they cannot relate to our perspective on leadership.
The fundamentals endure but the context differs, which means that leaders need to adapt their style and their approach accordingly. Ours philosophy is rooted in values-based leadership, set on the values and standards of the British Army, which in turn are based on the ethical roots of British society. If you look at our values and standards, I do not think there is anything that would shock or surprise anyone. They would absolutely resonate elsewhere and that is why a lot of civilian organisations look to the military for how we do business. It is tried and tested over hundreds of years and under some very testing conditions.
That said, we cannot be complacent. We do not always get it right and we can always learn from others, which is why it is so important to maintain relationships with external partners. We consistently need to calibrate our thinking, learn and adapt.
So just to finish off, if you had a single recommendation for junior leaders what would it be?
Lead by example. Set the standard for others to follow.
You can download the British Army’s new booklet Leading Through Crisis; A Practitioner’s Guide here.