Do Not Take Leadership for Granted: An Interview with Major General Charlie Collins
By The Army Leader Team
Major General Charlie Collins commissioned into the Royal Green Jackets in 1995, beginning a career that has seen him deploy around the world for over 25 years, preparing and deploying light combat forces on operations. Between 2012 and 2014 he commanded the Fifth Battalion, The Rifles, including its deployment as the last manoeuvre battlegroup of the Helmand campaign. He went on to command 7 Infantry Brigade, the Desert Rats, before moving to the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters as Assistant Chief of Staff (Plans) in 2018. Working out of Northwood for the last two years, he has been busy leading the tri-service teams responsible for planning the UK’s overseas operations. It is a role in which he has learnt to act as a “connector… a mentor and guide”, as well as seeing and comparing the leadership styles of officers from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
This year he takes over as General Officer Commanding the 1st (UK) Division, based in York – the same Division for which he was Chief of Staff. Moving from planning to executing, he knows that the operations his teams have been planning from Northwood are the same operations he will be deploying soldiers on during his command. And he is clear that the Division’s operational commitments are one of its best characteristics: “Seize every opportunity”, he says, “seizing opportunities to gain experience is the only way anyone will learn about the world and learn about themselves”.
The Army Leader team met with Major General Collins to talk to him about his experiences of command and leadership, his reflections on two years in the Permanent Joint Headquarters, and his thoughts on leadership in the 1st (UK) Division. His themes? The importance of delegating and of allowing your junior subject matter experts to use their talents. That you should not take leadership for granted – it must be worked at. And finally, the importance of learning about your profession and then getting out there and ‘doing stuff’, practising and learning from the experience.
Returning to the Field Army
After a couple of years in the Permanent Joint Headquarters, you are coming back into the Field Army to command the 1st (UK) Division. What you are looking forward to, having been away leading on the staff?
Well, the first thing I will say is that these are exciting times for the Army, I think. Why is that? First you have got the evolving geopolitics. The CDS and CGS would both say we are in an era of constant competition. Working here in PJHQ, great power competition is something one sees on a daily basis. And that means we cannot take anything for granted in today’s world. So that is the first thing: the context makes the Field Army, and 1 Div, an exciting place to be.
The second thing is getting back to soldiering. Soldiering is the trade I joined in the mid-nineties. It is what I have always enjoyed and very much part and parcel of soldiering is being around the soldiers and officers that make up the Field Army. So I am getting back to the trade I know, but where the context has changed. The final thing I will say is that I am looking forward to the new challenge of leadership and command at the two-star level.
One of the wonderful things about our profession is that you learn as you change each job. If you are like me, you will keep learning until even the last day of your job. And I have not been a two-star GOC before, so I look forward to that challenge. I expect my command to be an indirect style of command; we are very dispersed as a division, as all divisions are, but enabled by technology. It is such a massive span of command. With eight brigades you cannot help but be indirect.
Yet in other ways, it will be very personal. As a GOC – just as with being any leader – you represent the organization. Command and leadership, being an officer in the Army, is about celebrating human endeavour. To get the best out of people you have to interact with them personally at some point. Command will always remain so, I am sure.
Delegation and communication
Right now, Commander Field Army is talking about encouraging greater dispersal in tactical command, making us harder to target on the battlefield. To do this we need leaders who are comfortable with a dispersed way of commanding. Do you think we need to learn to command in barracks in a way that enables us to command in a dispersed, more flexible manner on the battlefield?
My experience of having been Chief Staff for the Division and then in charge of the Desert Rats, 7 Brigade, was that we were working dispersed then. 7 Brigade had eight units. It had soldiers all over the world, from Op Shader in the Middle East, on Short Term Training Teams in Nigeria, through to exercises in the United States. So these days I think a leader has got to be comfortable with that. You definitely cannot micromanage.
The flip side, of course, is that the subordinate junior commander has to be comfortable being delegated to as well. Having been in that position myself as a junior commander, it does put freedoms on you but also pressure. We always complain about the hierarchy being on our backs but there will be times when people would probably prefer to have an OC just round the corner, because you cannot just pass the buck up when you are on your own. So these small dispersed deployments are good for building future leaders who are comfortable being under a dispersed command. I think 1 Div are already there, in a way. Certainly, based on my experiences in 7 Brigade. The likes of a company commander training a specialist Nigerian unit for a month on his own and regularly working to a Nigerian one-star without the ability to speak to his CO in the UK. That kind of deployment makes us comfortable with dispersed command. They are awesome opportunities and we need to embrace them.
Of course, you have got to have trustworthy people in order to be able to do all of this. But it is not just about the subordinate. Dispersed command also places a huge emphasis on how the commander communicates with their dispersed people. My experience from 7 Brigade was that a half hour call each week was enough of a touchpoint to keep us all informed and to pass down my intent: to keep people on track, as it were, and to know what the organisation was up to. And it would only take half an hour. It never ran over for some reason. Successful communication can be made up of many short, focussed interactions. Infrequent but extremely long meetings do not work so well for routine.
Is this different from the physical character of command and leadership that we have used in the past? In some ways. In other ways, dispersed command still requires you to explain an intent and communicate over radio waves, which you could argue the Army did in Battlegroups in the eighties. Even then a leader did not necessarily command face to face. So perhaps we should not think we are being too revolutionary here.
As you have moved through different levels of command, company to battalion, brigade and division, how has your style of leadership and communication had to change?
I think the underlying principles, philosophy if you will, are probably the same: leading by example, delegating, not doing a job that someone else is already doing well. I think at the tactical level, if you take my experiences as a platoon commander, leadership is obviously face to face. You are within a platoon and you have to roll up your sleeves and do things yourself all the time. But as a Commanding Officer you perhaps have to delegate more. And as an OC you sit in between those two: delegate frequently but be prepared to roll up your sleeves; you are often the most qualified and experienced person in that organisation. So I think the principle of delegation remains the same throughout but just changes emphasis.
How you communicate is important throughout. Telling your platoon what is happening and how you intend to go about business is important. But from what I have seen of four-stars deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is just as important at their level as it is at platoon level. Summarising the situation and constantly repeating what you are trying to aim for.
I think those basics of leadership do not change whatever level of leadership you are at. I think what you do get, as you get older, is experience. You may know more intuitively what the right thing to do is. That makes decisions easier, but there again, the further up you get the task becomes more complex, right?
And there is always a balance between delegating versus the point when you know you must personally get involved. How do you judge the difference between the moment to stand back and the moment to actually dive in and roll your sleeves up?
In many ways, leadership feels more demanding at the tactical level because you have to meet a clearly defined objective with little room for failure. You have to make sure your team has got all their medical checks, is fit for purpose, fit for battle if you will. There’s no leeway.
Now further up, it may seem that there is still no leeway but the truth is that the tasks are much more complex and so the challenges are often insurmountable. As a result, success is about judging the most acceptable compromise. The further up you get the more you reach the point where success is an 80% solution. Where you say ‘that looks good enough because perfection does not exist’.
In these circumstances one often does more harm by reaching down into the subordinate’s space hoping to achieve perfection than one does by giving guidance and then standing back. So to answer the question, you have to have make a very careful judgment about which area you want to get nearer to a 100% solution and which area you are happy to expect 80%.
When you do get involved you also have to be careful. One of the other reasons it is better that the team does it their own way is that you think you can get the solution to 100% but often you are wrong. It is rarely the case that you can simply squeeze out the last 20% yourself. That is because when you get involved there are unintended consequences.
I think that is the part of the judgment call that not everyone gets right. Not just ‘can I get involved to make this better’ but ‘what is the cost of getting involved to make this better’. Choose your words and how you get involved carefully! Think about the ripples that form after your words, often in unexpected ways.
Leadership in the 1st (UK) Division
As you arrive as the GOC, what is the leadership philosophy and style that you would like to see from the officers and NCOs in the Division?
The first point I make is: do not take leadership for granted. I think it is too easy to forget where one stands as the leader. You have got to lead. You have got to set the example. You have got to inspire the teams that are around you as much as you can, in your own way. Do not take that leadership role for granted and simply go through the motions.
Doing all this requires energy and it requires thought. There is a good reason for why we go in and out of command and staff roles. It is because you are a better commander for having been a staff officer. That staff time allows you to think about your command time. So that is the first thing: do not take your leadership role for granted. Lead, set the example.
The second point is that I expect leaders to be good at their trade. Take a professional interest in what you are paid to do. I think often we have a tendency to ‘think at a higher level’ and that sort of thing, and that is great. We need officers to do that. But we also need them to be really good at delivering what they are being asked to do right now.
Having said that, you have got to take professional interest in the context of our profession at the moment, because I genuinely believe we are at one of history’s tipping points. And I certainly do not have the answers as to how we need to change to face modern challenges. As someone in their late forties, I look to the younger generation to continually ask themselves how we should fight in the modern age. So be good at your trade, but also engage with the development of it; we are in a changing environment.
The third thing I would just say is ‘do stuff’. Do not sit and write and think too much when, especially at sub unit level and below, you can get the most out of practising, experimenting and learning. I think too often we do not seize the experiences sitting right in front of us, especially in 1 Div. Some might call a task ‘Defence Engagement’ or ‘Capacity Building’. Whatever you call it, you are out actually interacting with other cultures, learning about other armies and working with other people. These are important experiences and build important skills. All that is much more important than sitting around thinking about it back in UK.
So at the junior level I would say fill your boots doing stuff, get out and practice. Get on a local training area and just go through your drills – I should add that this will also build a strong, invigorated team – and similarly seize every opportunity when you are overseas, be it training or any form of operation. Seizing opportunities to gain experience is the only way anyone will learn about the world and learn about themselves.
If that is what you expect to see more of in 1 Div, what would you like to see less of? Is there anything that we are doing that we could be better at or you wish could be consigned to the rubbish bin of leadership?
I do think we beat ourselves up about leadership. Sandhurst is a great institution and provides our junior officers a year of intense leadership training. And across our organization we have whole-career education; not just for officers, but for all ranks. And that provides us great management and leadership training. We have a fair discipline system, I think, and we have the Service Test. So we have all the hallmarks of an organization that develops leadership and reinforces values and standards. We are good at developing leadership. But that does not mean there are not ways we can be better.
I think the Army can get better at getting the subject matter experts to the decision maker. I think we are still quite hierarchical in that respect. Although there has to be an element of hierarchy to command a huge organisation, in terms of ‘command support’, there is an expectation that the only person who knows the answer is the person with rank on their shoulder. So we go down the route of having the senior officer brief rather than getting the junior subject matter expert to provide the answer. And this is wrong. Getting the subject matter expert, no matter what their rank, to the decision maker is something I would like to see more of.
How have you seen that done in PJHQ?
Working at PJHQ has been a great learning curve for me. The question I keep asking myself here is ‘are the two- and three-stars getting the info they need?’ And if they need a brief on something… well, this place is as tightly manned as anywhere else in Defence… so there is probably just one person who knows the information and they might be an Initial Grade 2 Major. In fact, the person who is my subject matter expert on Ukraine is in fact an IG2 Major. So when Commander Joint Operations or the Secretary of State for Defence wants a brief on Ukraine it is that individual who goes to brief them. And I may or may not go and sit in. If I do, I am on a sort of ‘listening watch’ because the Major is on point.
So this place has actually been really refreshing in that sense. Here at PJHQ I am not expected to stand up and brief on everything to do with plans. I see myself as leading the plans division – managing capable teams that are looking at different parts of the world and the macro issues across all the themes – and making sure that they are learning lessons between those teams. It is quite a privilege in a way, managing that talent. I think we need to get used to it.
A Royal Naval SO2 logistician on my team is just about to leave PJHQ. He was saying how refreshing it was, running our estimates on the broader Middle East two weeks ago. He was coordinating as chief of staff, if you will, tasking SO1s from across the Components and from other branches in PJHQ. Because that was what was needed to do the estimate and his rank was irrelevant to getting the analysis done. He was the expert and everyone worked to him to achieve the aim. We should be pretty rankless in a staff context.
If that is not the case, then I would like to make it the case in 1 Div. If it is not happening, I know it is not because SO2s do not want to brief! I know that that is not the case. I worry there is an expectation that full Colonels or one-stars should be the only ones there, or perhaps the Major is told ‘I don’t need you here’ or ‘If I want your view, I will ask for it at the end.’ We need staff officers to act as the bridge to the experts by bringing them to the brief, not by summarising their view, to use their talent.
At the tactical level, I am not sure there is much we need to change in our leadership. When it comes to closing with and killing the enemy you still need a sort of ‘gritty leadership’, for want of another expression. But that is not exclusive to an intelligent, rankless, leadership that is needed when we have to make complex decisions where expertise matters.
Learning from others
Working in a tri service organisation, have you picked up ways of working from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force that you think we should be following ourselves?
Yes, I have. The first thing I would say about being on the staff is ‘know your place’. I came from Brigade Command into PJHQ. What is a one-star in PJHQ? It is different! In fact, I am probably similar to an SO2 ISTAR in a Battlegroup headquarters: my job is to collect and fuse information and get that information to the decision makers, who in my case are the three-star or two-stars in PJHQ. Add to that, I need to link up relationships with the MOD and other joint organisations around the world. So I have learnt to know my place – I am a connector. Second thing, I see myself as more of a mentor, a guide. Joining the dots within the teams and between the teams. I think the lesson I have learnt looking at the other Services is that this is best done in an informal and human way.
In the Army, we are quite formal in how we interact with other organisations. Do not get me wrong, the Defence Crisis Management Organization, which I am part of now, is fairly formal in terms of notes and ministerial submissions, et cetera. But there is a way of working within the other Services, which is sort of ‘pick up the phone and talk through an issue’. I would describe it as ‘dialogue without prejudice’.
I am not saying the Army does not do it but I do think all the other services do it in another way, in a less formal but more routinely efficient manner. There is probably reason for that, in terms of culture.
The other thing I have found, especially working with Civil Servants, is that there is always more than one perspective. Listening to that other perspective and choosing your moment to respond is important.
Have you found the idea of ‘reasonable challenge’ is something that is really valued in a way that perhaps it is not across the army?
I think that here in PJHQ there is an expectation that you will challenge your boss. I mean, it probably helps that many of the issues we deal with are pretty intractable so there is a culture of challenge here. Just think back to what I said before. An SO2 is briefing. He will give his or her opinion and must do so without fear or favour. In fact, we just did a management board today where everyone was in violent agreement apart from the two-star, who made a very appropriate and reasonable challenge to the three-star in front of everyone. It developed our thinking on the subject. Reasonable challenge needs to go on at all levels and needs to be learnt early.
Dealing with failure
If you want people to challenge, you need to create a feeling of psychological safety where people feel able to speak up and to push the envelope, safe in the knowledge that they will not be punished for doing so – Amy Edmondson has written some great stuff on this subject. How do you want leaders in 1 Div to deal with mistakes? What does good look like?
Well, I think the first thing I would say is when we seek to make progress and try new things, mistakes happen. Mistakes are a side effect of human progress and of progress in our profession.
There are few who knowingly, deliberately make a mistake. Most people do not intend to make a mistake, right? Especially if you are a commissioned officer … well I should not generalise but there will be one or two cases of fraud or people knowingly doing wrong … but generally, there will be more honest mistakes than dishonest mistakes otherwise we would not progress as a human race or as an organization.
So my first test is ‘did he or she knowingly do harm or do wrong?’ The second is whether the person had enough direction or asked for enough direction. To those under my command, I would say ‘if you do not think you have enough direction on something, if you are not clear, ask’. Think to yourself, ‘if I have to stand in a Court Martial and justify my decision, would I be happy to do so?’ If you would be, go for it.
It requires judgment of course, and judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from seizing the opportunities I talked about earlier, and seizing opportunities often means you are going to make mistakes. So mistakes will happen on the way to building judgement – it goes back to the point I tried to make earlier about getting out and doing stuff.
John Manzoni, former Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, said that people who are in delivery need to have experience of delivering stuff, that they get that experience by being put in a place where they have to deliver difficult things, and this leads to people making mistakes as part of the process. We have to deal with mistakes because dealing with them teaches us lessons even if we wish they had not happened in the first place.
They say, “’I listen, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.’ Is that it? I think the more you get out, practice your drills, get out into a battlespace or an exercise area, the more you are going to learn. We are a ‘doing’ organization in the military and you before you turn up in jobs like mine you want to have as much experience as possible so you are best able to advise and plan.
Learning, reading and leading
And in your time out there ‘doing’, who have you learnt the most from?
I always tell future OCs, when they ask for advice, that one of your most important roles is looking after your platoon commanders or troop leaders. If I think back to my first OC, in a way he was one of a kind and set the bar quite high. He treated the Riflemen with respect, had a good dose of humour but was quietly demanding. He mentored and guided his platoon commanders without us realising it. He treated us as fellow officers. Of course, there was a chain of command but we really felt we were in his circle of trust and had to deliver ideas for him as well. I’ll never forget that.
I have also learnt a lot from reading. In terms of reading, people will read what they will but I cannot recommend the practise of reading highly enough. You do not need me to say that. In terms of history, I do think we should look further back than perhaps we do at the moment. You know, World War Two is fine; if there is one book that I always refer to it is Chapter 23 of Slim’s Defeat into Victory, where he discusses his afterthoughts of the campaign. If you replaced his comments on air power with artificial intelligence, cyber, or multidomain integration, I think it still stands the test of time for us as soldiers.
But in history we probably need to look further back to 18th, 17th century leadership and geopolitics as much as World War Two. I would also say that the evolving context of the world means we have to say to people ‘read about life’, as it were. Nassim Taleb always has something genuinely enlightening to say about the realities of the world. I mean, any of his books are genuinely mind-expanding. And then we must also read about the future of things, like the William Gibson Neuromancer trilogy. They give us a glimpse into what the future may look like.
In terms of other individuals I have learnt from, it has been a privilege to have worked on the flanks of Generals Petraeus, McChrystal and, still serving, Scotty Miller, who is now Commander Resolute Support. I admired their way of communicating their intent, how they personalised each relationship they made. They really cared about individuals. We should not make too many comparisons with Americans, or any other nation for that matter, because every nation’s culture, history, and resources are different. But I just think the confidence that they had in spending so much time communicating to their people, as well as investing in personal relationships, was impressive. And, in a way, not difficult to do especially with the technology we now have.
This investment is important, because we are all individual humans. It goes back to the point I was trying to make at the beginning about two-star leadership being quite indirect but also quite personal.
You have got to speak to people as individual humans or everything just becomes less and less meaningful in a way. That human interaction is important because it connects us. And as I said, we need to be connected so we can get knowledge to decision makers.
At the same time, as the GOC I have got to set the wider vision and pass it across a dispersed organisation. That part is indirect and less personal.
But once I have set the vision I need people to get out there and work it. People can only do that if they understand my direction and have the solid judgement required to follow it. Judgement comes from experience, which is why I want people need to get out there and ‘do stuff’. On the way they will make mistakes, but we need to be tolerant of that otherwise people will never seize the opportunities to learn and, as a result, we stagnate.
This is the sort of thing I would like to see when I get back into the Field Army and get back to soldiering again. I am looking forward to the challenge.
If you enjoyed this article you can read an interview with Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence People, in The ‘Adding Value’ Dilemma: An Interview with Lt Gen Richard Nugee.