From PNCO to Professor: The Leadership Lessons I Still Use from My NCO Cadre
By Prof Pat Tissington
I am a university professor who specialises in leadership. I teach students about leadership and management theory, work with doctors who are taking on leadership roles, assess leadership potential and run countless leader development programmes.
Unusually for someone in this sort of job, I am a former Junior NCO in the British Army, which is why I thought I might have something to contribute that’s of value to junior military leaders.
I did my JNCO Leadership Course in Cyprus in 1985. It was a transformative experience. I still have the course photo on my wall. The truth is that, despite all the time I have spent on research, building personal experience, reading and reflecting into leadership, the few weeks I spent on this course continue to form the foundation of my knowledge of leadership. I am quite sure I have forgotten a great deal of what was taught and probably embellished my memories in the intervening years.
But, for what it’s worth, there are five things I learned as a JNCO that I still use today when I teach leadership.
1. Leadership is about changing things
The role of the leader is to change things for the better. And humans really don’t like things to change. So they will resist the change. Which means that to be a leader is to experience people resisting you. This is true whatever you are doing. You might believe that as a junior leader within a disciplined organisation, you cannot change very much. But you’d be wrong. You can change things for the better and, what’s more, it is what you are expected to do.
2. You’ll need to get people to do things, whilst still being yourself
I clearly remember the first time I was in the field as a newly-minted Lance Jack. Something went a bit wrong and I began to notice that something odd was going on. I suddenly realised that the detachment were all looking at me rather than getting on with their work. They were literally looking to me for direction. And I didn’t know what to do either. That’s the difficult part; providing your team some direction even if you aren’t certain you know the answer.
But the easy part is that all you really have to do is be yourself. Putting on an act might seem a good idea but people spot this – and soldiers even more so. Remain true to who you are. It takes far less effort and is always going to work for best.
3. … Although sometimes you’ll need to put on an act
A leader will sometimes have to hold several apparently contradictory thoughts in their head. For example, having just said you shouldn’t pretend to be someone you are not, sometimes you do need to put on something of an act. You should always look calm, appear to be unfazed and look as if you are in control even when everything in your being is screaming.
So be honest. But also be prepared to put on an act when your team need confidence in you.
4. Take your time to think and check your assumptions
Always check that you have understood the situation properly. You may be under pressure and it might not seem as though there is any time. But there is always more time than you think. Whether you are a soldier or a clinician, ask questions, check your information, find alternative appraisals of the situation.
But most importantly, check your assumptions. Is this really what is happening? Is this really the best way? What would a different interpretation of this situation be?
5. You don’t need to be soft. But you do need to be kind
Being in the Army is a tough job – the demands placed on me in my short service in the Army made it, by a very, very long way, the most demanding job I have ever done, or ever will do.
Exceptionally high standards are demanded of you in very trying circumstances. And some times people fall short of expectations. There is an absolute need to hold them to account. But you can also be kind. It shows strength on your part, inspires loyalty from your troops and (most importantly) it is a better way to live. Whether or not people let you down, you still need to look after them. They are still your responsibility.
And leave a legacy
Now there are lots of other things I learned about. Tactics, map reading, explosives, drill and heaven knows what else. Almost all of these I can no longer remember. But these five things stay with me.
In fact, I was moved to write this after reading an article about WO1 (RSM) JC Lord. It reminded me what I learned about setting an example through the demonstration of unbelievably high personal standards. In my case I learned this (and all of the five points above) from WO1 Absolon, the RSM running my JNCO course. He has, I am sure, long forgotten the gangly misfit on his leadership course over 30 years ago. But I won’t forget what I learned from him.
And maybe that’s really what great leadership does – it leaves a legacy
You can read that amazing article about RSM JC Lord here: The Lord Down Here. Discipline Lessons from RSM John C Lord MVO MBE