Leadership in The Specialised Infantry: An Interview with Brigadier James Roddis
The British Army has been training, advising, mentoring and fighting alongside indigenous armies since at least the 18th century. Whether formal or informal, these roles have tended to attract soldiers and officers of a particular temperament and character. Brigadier Ian Gardiner thought so. A veteran of the Dhofar campaign of the 1960s and ‘70s, he was clear that a different sort of leader was required for missions working alongside indigenous forces:
“…The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with the less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of, and sympathy for, a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb to the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern Euro-Atlantic culture. The attributes, and the skills these attributes imply, often need to be taught in addition to purely military skills.
We seem to be able to churn out in large numbers officers who can manoeuvre around the high intensity battlefield in armoured vehicles by day and night. Finding and training people who have the necessary attitudes, skills and quality of character to live with, to be accepted by, and to lead successfully a group of Dhofari Firquat is another matter altogether.” Ian Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan
As a result, the British Army is creating four Specialised Infantry battalions – known as Spec Inf. They will be organised and trained to train, advise and assist partner forces around the world.
Selection and Training
I asked Brigadier James Roddis, the Commander of the new Specialised Infantry Group, about what he required in a leader in these new battalions. Brigadier Roddis has had a career full of experience of working with indigenous forces. He is clear that leadership in the Specialised Infantry will bring different challenges. So is selecting and training his group to ensure they have the right kind of leaders in the team.
Can you start by telling me what’s different about the Specialised Infantry role?
Working alongside partner forces to build their confidence and promote security is not new idea but having battalions dedicated to the task is a new way of doing it. Previously there was an opportunity cost for non-specialised units when they trained indigenous partners. The chain of command was committed to the task but lots of soldiers were left behind. What we are doing is improving the way the British Army do it. We are professionalising the way we mentor so that we are better at this role.
That is not to say mentoring is a job that most of the Infantry cannot do. it is rather that to do it well you need to concentrate on the skills. The complexity of mentoring operations demands it.
You seem to be saying you want leaders with specific attributes. Is your selection process about getting the ‘best’ leaders or getting leaders with the right character?
We are honest with ourselves. We run an assessment rather than a selection process. The majority of people pass. The failure rate is around two or three per course. Partly that is because the volunteers who come forward tend to be the kind you want. But also, because the British Army soldier is good at this type of work and I know the majority should be able to pass the assessment cadre – it is both aspirational and attainable.
The real benefit of the cadre is it gives OCs and CSMs a snapshot of the individual they are going to work with, so that they can develop the qualities required of that individual soldier over time. We do check candidates are suitable for the job, that they have patience and empathy. But principally it is about starting their development by identifying their strengths and weaknesses.
The assessment is a three-stage process: first there is a paper sift for JPA competencies, then there is an Assessment Cadre and finally, a training course. You must ‘pass’ all three stages and we have sent people home at the end of the third training phase because they were not right. They maybe great soldiers, they are just not appropriate for the mentoring role. This echoes Ian Gardiner’s views from Dhofar.
I need people who are patient and comfortable in their skin. People like that tend to be better at mentoring than your ‘top 10%’, ‘distinction from Brecon’ type leaders. Thankfully, the job appeals to those who are slightly more measured in their approach.
Leaders with Mature Egos
If the type of person you want is slightly different, how does a leader operate differently in the Specialised Infantry? How do they lead their teams differently?
Think about your normal infantry platoon. You have 30 individuals, across the spread of ability from one to ten. Leadership is about dealing with them all – and often that means looking after the lowest common denominator. But in a Specialised Infantry team you only have 12. And whilst they aren’t all going to be tens, you won’t have many ones, twos or threes. This allows you to assume a level of competence that means you can train to the best of your ability rather than just hitting the standard.
This has another effect – the leader must have the confidence to not have every idea. Sometimes we find that platoon commanders want to be at the front, have all the ideas, lead all the patrols. I don’t want that. They have to trust their Lance Corporals and Corporals to run more stuff.
Perhaps that is not different to a normal infantry unit, but the importance is accentuated in the Specialised Infantry. The Platoon commander must ask themselves “where do I add value?” The value commander adds is in the power of the written word, in engaging with senior host nation officers, DAs and senior visitors – the sort of things you would not necessarily do as a Platoon Commander or Company Second in Command in a regular unit. In a regular unit your frame of reference tends to be one-up. It needs to be higher than that for a leader in the Specialised Infantry.
What you are saying reminds me of the idea of a ‘mature ego’. A leader with a mature ego doesn’t feel the need to be at the centre of the spotlight, at the forefront. They are someone who has a bigger frame of reference and so doesn’t feel the need to hog the limelight.
Indeed. I like to think that Specialised Infantry commanders need to work two-up and two-back. That is thinking of developments in terms of their two-up commander, but also thinking of the impact of their actions for their successor’s successor – two-back in the deployment programme. Everything they do must be sustainable. A mature ego is important – do no harm must be the mantra. The worst thing you can do during your task is make your successors’ jobs more difficult. You can’t afford to do something so catastrophically bad that it might ruin a relationship built up over time. So, you must be comfortable in leaving tasks horribly unfinished because success, certainly in the initial phases of a task, might simply be being asked back.
I need leaders who can think in terms of a three- to five-year time frame. Leaders who are comfortable with the idea that they are setting the conditions so their two-back can really take things forward. That means leaders in the Specialised Infantry will need to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. They will recognise problems, accept the problems need to be solved, yet also accept that they will not be able to solve them in their own deployment cycle. All this leads to the acceptance that their role is actually laying the foundations for their successor’s successor to help the partner force blossom.
That will be hard for some people. It is different to the normal ‘task success’ focus we have in the Army. This whole ego maturity thing is about sublimating your ego to the mission. Not every leader is mature enough to accept that his reward is not going to be immediate and obvious, and that the best they might get is that, in two- or three-years’ time, they can look back and say “I played a part in that”.
Remember – in a mentoring role, your whole job is making your partner force leader look good. It’s not making yourself look good!
Leaders Who Understand Risk
Can we talk about risk? When I served in an OMLT a decade ago I realised there was a risk to the mission that had nothing to do with the enemy. I could fail my mission without ever getting into contact if I ruined the relationship with my Afghan commander. Does risk need to be understood differently in the Specialised Infantry?
I think you have put it very well. For me it is about understanding three things: the operational effect that needs to be achieved; what is essential to achieve that effect; and what might achieve the effect but risk damaging relationships. Commanders need to think “these are the factors I’ve identified; and this is where I need to push the partner force to generate an effect; but these are the areas where I don’t need to push.”
Do I want teams that will risk breaking their partner force in order to achieve a training mission? Almost certainly not. In many cases pushing hard for change is the wrong thing to do – during the first few iterations of a mission the most critical task is establishing a relationship.
We also need to understand when our focus on our own safety will damage our partner force relationship or hinder the potential for that partner force to get much better and prevent them putting the theory of our training into practice. At present we are predominantly training partner forces in safe base locations. But this will only take these forces so far. If we can advise and assist these forces further forward we will build greater trust, reinforce our training and gain a better understanding of the tactical situation; however, this comes with greater threat to our own safety. So, it is always a balance but we must be honest in that if we always just train in low threat environments we will only take those we are working with so far.
It sounds like you are trying to build a culture that looks at risk in a different way. How are you trying to engender this risk culture in barracks and during training?
Well look, I am lucky. My training audience is stable and full of mature, experienced volunteers. During training I want my commanders to think of risk through an operational effectiveness lens. I want risk assessment to be one of the decisions made during a commander’s estimate, rather than a separate consideration.
So, when we talk about minimising heat injuries on exercise in Belize we consider the value of pushing our teams as soon as we arrive in theatre. Does this improve our operational effectiveness? No; because when we are deployed at range in austere conditions any injury in a small team is difficult to absorb. So, we must husband resources. I want commanders to think first about whether the risk they are about to take improves their chances of achieving the mission, and then be guided by policy when making these decisions.
Or take live fire tactical training, for example. I can offer the company commander dispensation to use reduced safety arcs. But just because I have given the commander the dispensation doesn’t mean they have to use reduced arcs every time. I want Commanders to make a risk-based decision, considering the training audience, the previous levels of training and the different skill levels of everyone. But most importantly, I want the decision to be theirs and I want them to make it.
The Specialised Infantry Attributes
What would you say are the attributes you want for leaders in the Specialised Infantry group?
All this – balancing risk to life with risk to mission; understanding and owning risk with a long-term view; thinking two-up and two-back, and having a mature ego – means that I need commanders who are measured and weigh their words, thoughts and deeds carefully. These young leaders will be making decisions and will have to justify them at a senior level if something goes wrong. But we prepare them for this.
Some might find this ‘freedom with responsibility’ crushing. Others will flourish under those conditions. Those are the people we need in the Specialised Infantry. And so far, most individuals have fallen into the second category.
Finally, above all else, I want to reinforce three attributes required in the Specialised Infantry Group: Humility, self-reliance and restlessness.
Of the three, people find the last one unusual. But I want restlessness! I want commanders who will make decisions, take opportunities, and ask me to give them more freedom. If they ask, sure, I might say no; but if they don’t ask, it will be as good as if I’d said no!
It comes back to how we’re brought up and the culture we operate in. I want people to be restless, seek opportunities and know when to ask for more. I don’t want to have to push the tiger out of the door, I want to be holding it back! A culture like that takes time to develop – but the raw material is good and we are working on it.
If you enjoyed Brig Roddis’s interview, you can read his book recommendation in our 2018 Christmas Leaders Book List.