LION Culture – A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Potential of Every Soldier.
By WO1 (RSM) Joseph Fleming
In recent years the Army has spent real time and energy emphasising leadership. The introduction of the Army Leadership Code has been the most obvious example, but the establishment of the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) and the near constant barrage of Army personnel (mainly officers) publishing videos, blogs and papers on leadership are further evidence of a change of both focus and culture.
The Army Leadership Code has proved to be genuinely far reaching. I do not believe that there is a soldier in the Army who is not aware of it. The LEADERS mnemonic is regularly referred to in every unit. I have used it myself. I find the structure and the concepts helpful in understanding leadership theory. But I have also found it to be lightweight on the practical application of the concepts it promotes. The Vision-Support-Challenge cycle gives a theoretical model, but I do not believe that this has enough practical utility for the Army’s junior leaders. When discussing the Army Leadership Code I often hear the argument that it does not represent anything new, that it is just a re-packaging of how we had always delivered leadership. I think that this attitude is evidence that the Army Leadership Code lacks a useful practical means of bringing it to life; without a real-world mechanism to apply the code leaders can dismiss it as a window dressing exercise and that in turn is reason enough to carry on as before.
Not that we were doing much wrong. The Army Leadership Code is explicit that it builds on leadership techniques that ‘have been practiced instinctively or consciously for centuries’. Even so I believe that there is value in sharing a practical model that brings the Army Leadership Code to life. I have found this model useful in achieving results with those I have worked with and I hope that other Army leaders will also find it a useful tool to assist our soldiers in achieving their maximum potential. I call the model the Lion Culture.
LION Culture is designed to give an individual greater self-awareness so that they understand their own decision-making, why they succeed, why they fail and are better prepared to handle challenging situations in the future. The model helps them establish clear goals and objectives and understand the support network that will enable them to achieve success. LION Culture is also all about empowerment. It encourages soldiers to take ownership of their actions in order to achieve their potential. Too often we let our subconscious influence our decision making without taking the time to realise the consequences of our actions. We need to educate our soldiers, so they make informed decisions with their eyes open. At the heart of the LION Culture is that every individual is responsible for their own decision-making process.
Soldiers can apply LION Culture to themselves, but it is really a practical tool best used by coaches and mentors. It works equally well whether one is coaching or mentoring but, recognising the Army Leadership Code’s emphasis on coaching, I will use the word coach throughout the article.
LION Culture is broken down into four stages:
It is designed to be a simple model that can be adjusted according to situation.
Stage 1 – Listen to yourself
Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.– Sun Tzu
In Stage 1 the coach creates an opportunity for the individual to explore their strengths and weaknesses through self-reflection.
Understanding our strengths and weaknesses is critical to success. Self-awareness allows a soldier to maximise their strengths and address their weaknesses. As a result, the soldier is better placed to set realistic goals, as a result be more likely to achieve them and, ultimately, achieve their full potential. The Army Leadership Code makes several references to this – it is the ‘R’ in LEADERS – and outlines some basic coaching skills as a means of achieving this. LION Culture Stage 1 builds on the attributes listed in the Army Leadership Code booklet by placing them at the start of a coaching process. It uses the following methodology:
Stage 1 requires the individual to do the self-analysis to understand their strengths and weaknesses. With some people you can launch straight into it. For others, talking openly about their own strengths and weaknesses can be uncomfortable and they will not readily engage. Others are self-delusional and have an artificially high or low opinion of their capabilities.
I recommend approaching this by talking at first about someone else and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. This could either be a real person (be careful here, better to talk about Mohammed Ali or Lionel Messi than LCpl Smith in B Coy) or an abstract or generic individual (for example, a top third’ soldier). This method works because it is easier to analyse and criticise other people than oneself and because it will spark conversation and engagement both in group settings and during a one-on-one session. The coach can make this a wide-ranging discussion about multiple individuals but, in the end, they must bring it back to the individual(s) being coached. This can easily be done by getting them to assess themselves against the strengths and weaknesses they have just established. The aim is to create a safe environment for discussion, where subjects participate freely and engage with the process.
The outcome needs to be recorded in order that it can be refereed back to in later stages but also as comparison should the coach wishes to redo this stage later. I suggest that the subject records their individual strengths and weaknesses using a table. By identifying these areas, we are better placed to set realistic goals and be more inclined to achieve them.
Stage 2 – Identifying your motivators and de-motivators
During Stage 2, the subject is encouraged to identify what their motivators are (what makes them get out of bed in the morning) and what de-motivates them (their excuses for not achieving their goals). The coach explains what they are and asks the subject to record their motivators and de-motivators in another table.
Motivators are the reasons why people strive to succeed. They are the reason people choose to perform actions: the greater the motivation, the more a person is willing to do. The right motivator can be a very powerful tool and can make people achieve amazing things. Motivators can come in many forms, from wanting a new house, to making more money, to just being recognised as having done a good job.
Money is often cited as a motivator but, as with any motivator identified, the coach must dig deeper. Money is a means of obtaining something you want. So, what is it you want? Why do you want it?
The best motivation is often an emotion, so try linking it to that. As an example, consider this soldier I worked with. He wanted to pass his JNCO Cadre, to get promoted, to get the pay rise, to buy a new car, to give him status amongst his civilian friends from who, so far, he has always had to get a lift from. As a coach I reinforced this motivator by getting him to visualise the scene: the new car smell, the touch of the steering wheel and how he imagined he would feel driving into town on his first period of leave.
De-motivators, on the other hand, are the negative thoughts that potentially deter an individual from succeeding. These normally come in the form of excuses as to why they might have failed.
A de-motivator may be an old injury, it could be a family situation or just a feeling of being out of place. They are thoughts that the subject will try and use as justification for not achieving, or trying to achieve, their intended goal. They exist in the human subconscious and everyone has them. Most of the time they remain dormant until an individual is pushed beyond their comfort zone. They will appear when you are vulnerable, tired or in challenging positions. Identifying them early and placing mitigating factors against them will help to reduce or even eliminate their effect on performance.
If you imagine that your motivation was a strength 10 and the work required to achieve the goal was a 6, then you would succeed as the motivator is greater. The issue comes when the de-motivator emerges (when vulnerable, tired or challenged) and if the de-motivator is strong enough (strength 5) it will change the outcome, resulting in failure. A coach must help each soldier understand their demotivators and downplay their significance.
Once a coach has helped the subject identify their strengths, weaknesses, motivators and demotivators, they can start getting the subject to set goals
Stage 3 – Own your future
This is the vital stage. It takes the self-analysis of Stages 1 and 2 and turns them into a practical plan of action. In Stage 3 subjects receive a one-to-one interview with their coach and work through a goal setting exercise, focusing on the points identified in the previous two Stages. The coach lets the subject take the lead in this exercise as it is vital that the subject has ownership of the goals. Where necessary the coach asks leading questions to assist the subject. The subject and the coach agree goals and set a timeframe to complete them using the SMART Model as a hand rail. They ensure they make a goal setting agreement and set another interview date to discuss progress and revise goals.
Exactly as the Army Leadership Code explains, goals follow the SMART format. Each goal should be: Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic and Time Based.
Stage 4 – Never alone
The last part of LION Culture is “Never alone”. The idea is that whilst the subject has set themselves goals to achieve and areas of self-improvement, there will be times when they require support and encouragement to maximise their performance moving forward. This process will be planned and resourced in advance by the coach.
With the right support and a planned approach, the effects of strategically placed encouragement could mean the difference between a pass or a fail, a person succeeding or being unsuccessful. Once the subject has worked through the first three stages of the LION Culture model it is down to the coach to look at the subject’s path ahead and plan a support programme to give the subject the best chance of success. The programme needs to identify vulnerable areas and challenging moments they may encounter whilst navigating their path to achieving their required goal.
These interventions could take the form of a revisit of the whole LION Culture or might be as simple as a text message the night before a test. Ideally the subject should be unaware of this element in order that it feels genuine and not simply the coach ‘going through the motions’.
I believe that if you investigated every happy solider, you will find that almost all of them feel valued, challenged, accountable, and rewarded appropriately. LION Culture ensures each person who takes part in the process feels all those emotions.
For example, the fact that the chain of command has taken the time to work through the LION Culture model and understand the subject on a personal level indicates that they are invested in and valued. Individuals work through goal setting exercises with the coach on a regular basis, they reassess their goals as they approach completion, making sure they are constantly challenged throughout the process. They are held accountable against the goals that they have set themselves and agreed with the coach. As goals are reached, their rewards for achieving them are visible to the individual and the chain of command.
Ensuring we have happy soldiers is a retention-positive exercise. But, far more than this, the LION Culture ensures our soldiers are challenged to achieve more and are intrinsically rewarded when they do.
LION Culture in Action
I came up with the LION Culture idea whilst working as the Training Wing Warrant Officer. The CO at the time asked me to give the SCBC and PSBC lads a quick pep talk prior to going on course, he asked me to give them a “good bloke chat”.
I started the conversation talking about how to be a “good bloke” and not “Jack”. That lead onto why it is important to understand yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses and what you should do with the findings. We profiled what a top student on SCBC looks like and asked the audience to characterise him. They came up with around 10 facts and they then graded themselves from 1 to 10 for each quality.
With the self-analysis complete the conversation then when on to the reasons why they wanted to pass the course. What was their motivation for completing it? I pulled from my own past experiences of my JNCO Cadre. I explained that I realised I had many reasons (motivations) for passing. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) was pregnant with our first boy Joseph, she was due to give birth in four months. We had no house, limited income and no real prospect of a career. I told the lads that I attended that course with two broken knuckles and limited experience but that there was nothing that could have deterred me from completing it, even doing so with a top grade. I went on the course, it was hard, and many good people fell by the wayside during it. Was it because I was stronger, bigger, had more military experience? In fact, the difference was because of my personal situation and the need to provide a home, security and prospects of a future for my family. I explained that with the right motivation, great things can be achieved, and they should never underestimate the depths someone will go to achieve them.
I asked individuals what their reasons were for attending the course and what would be that thing that would make them keep going when everyone else was stopping? A lot of the time people mentioned money as their reason. So, I explained that money simply enables you to buy something. The conversation lead onto emotion and we made the link. I then asked them to make deductions based on their self-assessments and we set them some goals. I delivered another session on LION Culture on the first day of 2 LANCS pre-SCBC screening. I explored the reasons why people fail, the excuses we tell ourselves to justify us failing. The next day we started the 2-mile assessment. About three quarters of a mile in we hit a gradient and one of the JNCOs that was leading at the front suddenly slowed down. I overtook him and as I looked back, he started walking. I thought that he had given up. We carried on but as I approached the finish line that same JNCO ran straight past me.
After I gathered my thoughts (and sucked in some oxygen) I asked the JNCO what had happened on the hill. He explained that he had previously attended a screening cadre the year before but had collapsed during a physical assessment and was taken to hospital. The doctor prescribed him medication for an issue relating to his heart. He had been off medication for a while and was given the all clear from the doctor. He told me that as he was running up the hill, he could feel himself struggling and thought back to the time earlier when he collapsed. He had convinced himself that it was going to happen again. As he was falling back during the 2 miler he remembered the LION brief and realised he was making excuses for himself that justified him falling back. The penny dropped, and the fight to get back to the front started.
The second story is a little self-indulgent, but it is a good tale and just goes to show that the model works just as well on school kids who do not have the inbuilt motivators of professionalism, discipline and camaraderie that soldiers have to help them. After the success I had with the pre-screenings I thought I would try LION Culture on my eldest son Joseph. Joseph is a keen boxer and has been training since the age of 11 years old and I wanted to see if it would help with his boxing development. A bit sceptical, he sat down and we discussed the areas mentioned. We profiled a great boxer. I asked Joseph what made him great, what his best qualities were. Joseph mentioned speed, strength, discipline and a load more. I asked him how he compared to the list he mentioned. Joseph made his deductions and we came up with a training plan to move forward with.
I asked about his motivation for wanting to be a great fighter. He said he wanted to make me and his mum proud, he wanted to show all the kids and teachers in school how good he was and he wanted to be known as a great fighter amongst his friends. Simple motivations but very effective. I asked leading questions, allowing him to explore more deeply and picture a scenario with all the emotions of pride, excitement and glory. We chatted about setting a few goals and agreed a training regime. He agreed to train Monday to Friday and do some skills work with me Saturday morning. We chatted through the plan and looked at some potential frictions he might come across during his programme: school homework, his personal life, friends and some other sports clubs he attended. After agreement from everyone we fixed our sights on entering the regional junior Amateur Boxing Association competition and began the 8-week training pipeline.
As anticipated, during the 8-week training program there were a few issues with homework, friends and other events but because we had already worked through his potential de-motivators and friction points there was already a plan in place to work through them and he was able to get back to the plan.
Whilst Joseph had been training for years. He was inexperienced and had only had nine fights before entering this competition, a national event with the best boxers from all over the UK. Joseph progressed through the rounds and won the Merseyside and Cheshire Final, beating lads much more experienced. This alone would have been enough when we set out, but he now had the chance to fight in the national quarter finals, far beyond our expectations.
Joseph was paired against a lad 10 months his senior who had won a national competition previously and had far more experience, but we took the fight anyway. Joseph excelled, he boxed like I’d never seen him before, mature, measured and with a real will to win. The victory got the attention of the England national coaches and he was subsequently asked to attend the England development squad a few months later. Joseph went on to fight in the national semi-finals, where he was beaten on a split decision in very close fight that could have gone either way. Joseph achieved his goals and more, a young lad with minimal experience finishing in the top four in the UK was an amazing achievement. We both agree that LION Culture played a part in helping him to unlock his potential.
The future of LION Culture
LION Culture is currently being practiced in 2 LANCS and, having shared it with the rest of the Specialised Infantry Group, I am looking forward to seeing it being used more widely. Thus far I have been involved in each instance of the delivery of LION Culture and I am keen to find out if the it will prove useful to others. I believe that it has real utility, in part because it is so simple but also because it fills a gap in the Army Leadership Code. I believe the idea is more than just another model, more than a mnemonic to follow or try to interpret; LION Culture is something that is tangible, visual, physical and can be used in a practical sense by individuals and commanders as a hand rail for leadership and development.
If we can make our soldiers more self-aware, see obstacles as opportunities, give them the tools and support to overcome challenges then we can raise the bar and collectively increase our operational output. But more than that, we can improve our retention, build individual wellbeing and General Nick Carter said in the foreword to the Army Leadership Code, “unlock the potential of every soldier”.
If you would like to know more about coaching then check out RSM JJ Fraser’s article: Respect and the Modern Army.