Learning to Lead – The Hard Way
By LCpl David Griffiths
It is easy to write about leadership. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard is the easy part. It takes no real effort and can be done from bed. The real difficulty lies in practicing leadership.
I have learnt this the hard way.
I owe my continued interest in leading (and, indeed, being led) to a previous Platoon Sergeant of mine. What I have learnt since beginning to lead (as a Guardsman) and leading (as a Lance Corporal) is that it is not smooth sailing. The road, like Brecon, is boggy. It is full of obstacles that will trip you up and is often harsh, dark and lonely. I want to do well, as I am sure you want to do well in whatever role you find yourself. Unfortunately, life being what it is, this does not always work out.
I polish my boots every evening. I iron a sharp crease into my trousers. I wear my badge over my left eye. But what I have learnt – the hard way – in my first few months as a Junior Non-Commissioned Officer is that sometimes this is not enough. Erwin Rommel said that you must be an example not only in duty but in your private life as-well. This has only recently sunk in, for me.
“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t, in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”Erwin Rommel
In the summer, following a meal in town, I put myself into a situation that a Non-Commissioned Officer should not have been in. At that moment I thought nothing of it. In my head I was still ‘one of the boys’. It took me a few days to realise that I had acted unprofessionally and that, by allowing myself to get in that position, I had fallen short of the values and standards I hold myself to – and that I have written about holding myself to. I was, despite my best intentions, a hypocrite. I had failed.
I was bound to fail. That is not an excuse, but I was.
How can we learn to lead if we first do not make the mistakes that we do not want our men to make, or make again ourselves? Like I have said before: mistakes are good only as long as we learn from them. Learning to lead is learning know yourself. So how do I improve? How could you improve?
Not making the same mistakes again
When I finish my day, I think about it and I think about myself. What could I have done better? What did I do well? And more often than not, owing to my own nature, I consider a number of points that I can improve on the next day, usually filling a page of an imaginary notebook in my mind.
This is, I think, a good quality. Maybe you could try it if you do not already? Finish your day and write down some points, as though you were briefing a section after an attack.
“How would you have done that differently?”
“Now you are standing on the position, how would you have used the ground differently?”
This is an unusual job we are in. The possible damage your failure can cause is huge. That is why it is so essential to learn from our mistakes.
Have I learnt from mine, you ask? When I think about that question, I consider what Bill Gates once said:
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it’s more important to heed the lessons of failure”Bill Gates
I have learnt, the hard way. I will not make the same mistake again but, more important than that, is that I can help others not to make similar mistakes.
Four questions to ask yourself
If you find yourself newly promoted to a command position then consider some points I go over in my head at the end of most days:
- Did I achieve what I wanted to?
- What are my work-on points?
- What do I want to sustain?
- How have my subordinates viewed me today?
The fourth point is the most important one for me. It is something I have started doing in recent weeks. It is not about vanity but instead about figuring out where I stand in the eyes of those who I am bound to lead. If, just once, they see me in disarray and not upholding the values and standards then I need to be better. If they see it consistently then do I deserve this position of high honour I find myself in? Probably not.
Learning to lead the hard way
For me, learning to lead has been learning the hard way. I have made mistakes and I am – slightly – glad for them. Time will tell whether they make me a better leader and a better man. Perhaps they will provide inspiration for future leaders and future articles?
Our people are everything, our Guardsmen, Privates, Troopers and so on. I am learning to lead them through good choices and bad and I suspect that will continue this way throughout my career. What is important to realise is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to lead. All we can do is try, learn and hope that one day after the next, we get it right.
After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the greatest glory in life lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.
You can read David Griffith’s thoughts on the leadership he experienced as a Guardsman in Lockdown Leadership: A Guardsman’s Perspective. For another view on learning from your mistakes a as new leader, read WO2 Aaron Kerin’s reflections on being a Lance Corporal in The Unpopular Man: Leading as a Lance Corporal