Friday 29 July 2011

Climbing the Brabyn family tree part 2

Following on from my last post about the Brabyn family tree, I've found out about, which provides some interesting background to the family - and a colourful version of the coat of arms shown here.

This history is a a little different from my understanding (which is that the first Brabyns recorded in the UK were former Flemish mercenaries who settled as pirates in Cornwall in the 15th Century).

So are we pre-Norman Conquest pillars of Lancashire society, or more recently reformed mercenaries, pirates and wreckers?

Thursday 28 July 2011

The four Commando qualities

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own.

Adam Lindsay Gordon wrote these words in "Ye Wearie Wayfarer", and they sum up the Commando qualities that every Royal Marine aims to live up to. Each line of the poem covers one of the four qualities:


Together these qualities define Commando Spirit. But like Adam Lindsay Gordon I think they apply far beyond the Royal Marines - they form the bedrock of a good attitude to all aspects of life - and the poem captures them very succinctly. If you have any poetic advice for how to lead a good life, please share them below!

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

How to boost team performance without increasing costs

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

The Royal Marines specialise in creating high performing teams, and yet they don't pay exceptional salaries or offer annual bonuses. Much of their performance is driven by powerful symbolism and the sense of belonging and commitment that this creates. Most organisations can benefit from a similar approach, boosting team performance without draining the corporate coffers. The secret lies in engaging team members with the corporate vision - and often embodying that vision in simple symbols. I saved my employer many thousands of pounds when I learned this lesson.

Do you have a talisman that is always with you? Something which inspires and motivates you, like a piece of religious jewelry, a wedding ring or a photograph of your family? Something that identifies you with a group of people who share your beliefs, your support for a sports team, your DNA or something else? If you do, the chances are you will quickly identify yourself with that group if you are asked to describe yourself - it forms an important part of your identity.


Four weeks into my training as a Royal Marine we were sent on our first field exercise - Exercise Tenderfoot. This was a week-long camping trip designed to familiarise us with techniques like camouflage and concealment, navigation and communications. Every day began at 0600 with a full inspection every item of our equipment to ensure that we had cleaned, folded and waterproofed everything and shaved every single bristle. Those whose toothpaste tubes were not evenly squeezed, or whose socks were not folded the same way as everyone else could look forward to half an hour of "thrashing" - grueling physical exercise designed to reinforce the lesson that a good Royal Marine always takes care of his equipment and pays attention to detail.


One morning this routine varied slightly. We were led to a bleak part of Woodbury Common and among the gorse 2 Section (about a third of us) were called forward. Sergeant MacDonald, their section Sergeant, instructed them to strip to the waist and kneel down along a path. The rest of us watched as the sun rose on this scene and we wondered if we were about to witness a new order of magnitude of punishment for some misdemeanour we didn't know about. After a few moments, Sergeant MacDonald made a short speech. It seemed pretty surreal at the time - he informed them that they were about to take on an onerous responsibility, and that each of them would be required to look after a small stone. He then presented each kneeling section member with a pebble painted with the first three letters of their surnames. He explained that they were to carry this stone with them at all times (the only exceptions being when they were swimming or showering). Finally, and to no-one's surprise, he pointed out that the penalties for failing to produce the stone on demand would be severe.

We left the scene of this strange ceremony and returned to our training. Over the coming weeks and months, 2 Section's stones became a feature of their identity. At first the rest of us (in 1 and 3 Sections) felt we had escaped lightly as we watched hapless members of 2 Section running up and down various hills after failing to produce stones when challenged. But we also noticed that 2 Section welcomed their occasional hardships as a price worth paying for being a bit "special". On the command "With your stones, prove!" they would proudly scrabble in pockets or dig out specially created necklaces and present their stones for inspection. They quickly produced a much larger stone with "Sergeant of the week" painted on it which they presented each week to one of the training Sergeants.

From ceremony to increased retention

I noticed the effect that the stones had on 2 Section, and when a couple of years later I was training recruits, I copied Sergeant MacDonald's idea. In a cliff-top sunset ceremony I presented each of the recruits in my troop with a stone with their initials painted on it and explained that their membership of 736 Troop came with an extra duty. Like 2 Section, they were mystified at first, but quickly realised that their stones marked them out from the other recruit troops in training. Each week one person would be singled out to carry the Troop stone, a larger and heavier stone (pictured left) that added a couple of kilos to already heavy loads. The troop became fiercely possessive of these peculiar symbols and built a lore around it which intrigued other recruit troops and their training teams.

How this can save you money

But the real value of the stones was much more dramatic than bragging rights. 736 Troop had the highest retention rate since detailed records had begun 5 years earlier. In other words, fewer recruits failed the key tests that enabled them to progress to the next stage of training, and fewer opted to leave the Royal Marines, so the return on investment in the training of the troop was exceptionally high. On the few occasions when I had to "backtroop" a recruit, handing back his stone was the most poignant part of his departure from 736 Troop. Recruits worked extra hard to stay in the troop that gave them the right to carry a stone. A half hour ceremony on a cliff-top saved the taxpayer a small fortune. And when they passed out of training, my troop presented me with an enormous boulder bearing all their signatures.

If you are in charge of a team perhaps you have found ways to boost team performance that don't involve simply raising salaries. If you have, please share them here.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Initiation ceremonies - how to welcome new recruits

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Joining a new organisation (company, team, club) can be exciting and alarming at the same time. Some organisations make great efforts to welcome new members with introductions, mentoring, briefings and feedback forms. The Royal Marines take - or took - a rather different approach...

If you are responsible for helping people adjust, or if you are joining an unfamiliar organisation, you've probably given some thought to what creates a sense of belonging. Once new members feel at home in a team they are likely to adopt group values, bond with teammates and work more productively together.

Theorists often suggest that team formation follows a forming, storming, norming, performing sequence, and leaders usually try to usher teams through these stages as rapidly as possible - to get team members comfortable together and delivering results.

Few theorists mention the dread words "Initiation Ceremony", but I think it is worth considering the part that initiation can play in accelerating team formation. A quick immersion in a new organisation can dispel fears and build a sense of belonging faster and more deeply than more conventional confidence-building measures. Here is my experience.


I joined the Royal Marines at 1200 BST on 6 September 1995.  By 1300 the 36 new recruits of whom I was one had discovered the rumour that in parallel to the formal induction we were going through, we could expect an informal welcome to the Corps.  As we adjusted to the strange formality of our new home at the Commando Training Centre, we wondered what horrors this mysterious event would involve.  Since our first briefings outlined the busy timetable for the first few days, it looked as though the initiation ceremony would probably be at night.  We therefore braced ourselves for some kind of shock sometime that night.

In the event, our first night was uneventful (apart from practicing our newly taught ironing skills and folding almost every item of our freshly issued equipment into A4 size).  We rose at 0600 to clean our accommodation and prepare for day 2.


We soon learned that the intake of trainees who had joined before us were away on exercise. We had discovered that they were planning to "welcome" us so we were confident that nothing would happen before their return.  Sure enough, on the night their exercise finished, we were woken at 0300 by the sound of dustbin lids being clashed like cymbals, sirens and shouting. Well prepared, we raced out of the building already in our shorts, t-shirts and running shoes, only to be caught in the beams of several powerful lights and jets of water from fire hoses. Trapped, we formed into a group as unseen people behind the lights and hoses shouted instructions.

Three of us were immediately singled out for special attention. I had featured in a television documentary following the selection process for Royal Marines officers, while each of the other two had some previous military experience, one in the SAS and the other with the Parachute Regiment. While we were "encouraged" into stress positions, the remaining 33 recruits, still illuminated by a dozen torches, ran up and down a nearby hill.


After a few minutes, and to our great relief we were allowed to rejoin the fold. Together, we were commanded to run back and forth several times between various flashing lights. In the darkness few people spotted some ruts on our path. Two people fell over. One broke his leg immediately, while the other was unhurt by the fall, but not by the impact of the man behind him who ran over his body and broke a bone in his back. While 4 people were instructed to carry the casualties to the medical centre, the rest of us raced on towards the Bottom Field, home of the assault course.

The catalogue of challenges that we endured over the next 90 minutes is too long to list, but highlights included:
  1. "fruitbats" - hanging from rusty angle-iron beams and doing endless pull-ups
  2. baby-carrying each other up and down a steep hill in shuttle relays
  3. running out into the estuary mud and practicing leopard crawling
  4. a false finish in which we returned to our accommodation only to start again
Finally, we returned to our quarters and the torches were switched off. We saw our oppressors for the first time as they came forward offering us plastic cups full of rum and welcoming us into the Royal Marines. They assured us that our injured friends were receiving treatment.

The morning after - and we belong

With less than an hour of sleep after the ceremony, we awoke to start a new day. Though we had been in the Corps for less than a week there was a palpable change of mood. During a short, sharp and strange event, we had sampled - and survived - almost all of the challenges we would take on over the coming months of training. We felt confident that we were ready for anything, and also that we had sufficient humour and team spirit to see us through.

Another important if unpalatable factor in our sense that we had completed a rite of passage was the loss of two of our colleagues. Their injuries prevented them from completing their training with us (though both had recovered sufficiently to join the following intake), and this enhanced our sense that we were now part of a special club that ruthlessly competed and focused on performance.

Too high a price

Traditionally, the chain of command had turned a blind eye to the initiation ceremony, but with the loss of two trainees (at considerable cost to the taxpayer), this approach changed.  Our initiation ceremony was the last of its kind, and we welcomed the following intake with an elaborate but victimless practical joke.

The importance of motive, respect and humour

I believe that while the human cost of our initiation ceremony was high, it was a very effective introduction to our new profession. A brief shock gave us more of a sense of belonging than the issuing of our new uniforms, or words of welcome from high-ranking officers.

I would not recommend any attempt to try to recreate the ceremony I have described, but I believe that it is useful to abstract certain ingredients that can help teams to integrate, and new members to feel that they belong and are ready to play a full part in the team:
  1. the opportunity to confront the full spectrum of team challenges early
  2. recognition by established team members
  3. establishing the sense of the privilege of membership
Most important of all, our initiation ceremony was successful as a team development experience because the people who initiated us were motivated not by a desire to inflict pain or humiliation, but by pride in their organisation and the wish to test their newest colleagues. They treated us with respect and humour.

The Royal Marines use the expression "if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined". It was a harsh, brutal joke, but we enjoyed it, and we knew we belonged to the organisation we had so recently joined.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

12 pence - the price of humility

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

After 8 months at the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone in Devon, trainee Royal Marines are nearly ready to begin the month long Commando Course. At the end of this, if they are successful, they will be awarded their green beret.

But before they can begin the Commando Course, they have to get through the Bottom Field Passout. This is a grueling set of tests, all done while carrying 22lbs of equipment and a rifle (44lbs, 2 rifles and a friend for the fireman's carry). The tests include
  1. completing the assault course in under 4 minutes (see video here)
  2. climbing to the top of 30ft ropes (see photo above)
  3. fireman's carrying a fellow trainee 200m in under 90 seconds (carrying his kit too)
  4. crossing a rope bridge and performing a regain (recovering from a partial fall)
These tests follow months of preparation and practice, and by the time a trainee gets to attempt them he is probably fitter than he has ever been. And he knows that if he passes these tests he's got a good chance of making it through the Commando Course itself.


In my intake of trainees, all bar one of us passed our Bottom Field Passout one Friday in April, and we felt like superhumans. At a party that night we discovered some naval officers and they, together with various hapless members of the public, were thrown into a nearby swimming pool.  We felt invincible and probably immortal too.

Know your enemy - because he knows you

The staff selected to train Royal Marine young officers are all weapons specialists. However, many of them are also snipers. These men are experts in camouflage and concealment, and crack shots. They operate largely alone and roam the battlefield with one objective: to kill officers.

As a result, Royal Marine young officers have a good reason to listen very carefully to the lessons they are taught: they are learning from their own natural predators. By understanding the mindset and habits of the sniper the officer improves his chances of staying alive and in command.


Colour Sergeant Inglis was a sniper. His professional standards were second to none, and he believed in making training as tough and realistic as possible. He was my section commander. Shortly after our Bottom Field Passout, he assembled us together and, standing in front of us he bellowed

"Twelve pence gentlemen, twelve pence"

We stood in disbelief. Colours Inglis' temper was famous and none of us wanted to tempt fate. Colours paused for effect with the rhetorical skill and timing of a master. He paced up and down in front of us repeating "twelve pence" slightly more quietly a couple of times, like a thoughtful echo.

We wondered if this was a new game which would lead us out onto the estuary mud flats for an hour or two of staggering through the mud, or whether Colours was for some reason sharing a minor personal financial problem with us. We stood uncomfortably wondering what was to follow. He stopped pacing and turned towards us, looking at each of us with a sincere expression.

"Twelve pence is the cost of the bullet that will kill any one of us," he said.


Fitness and toughness, mental and physical, are great qualities - but some challenges render them useless. A lead bullet traveling at 3 times the speed of sound can outrun anyone and smash through the strongest muscle, just as illness or accident can upset the best laid plans of any of us. We are all equal before misfortune, and we are all vulnerable to it.

Humility gives us an accurate picture of our strengths and our vulnerabilities, so we are able to avoid hubris. Humility also makes it easier to empathise with others, and so to be unselfish - one of the 4 ingredients of the Commando ethos.

By choosing to say "us" not "you", Colours Inglis highlighted that humility is the great leveler. A bullet does not discriminate between the strong and the weak, the good and the bad, sergeants and officers, Royal Marines and civilians.


Like many people, Royal Marines push themselves to achieve, and to compete. They grow in strength and confidence. But this steel is tempered with humility so they are less likely to overestimate their abilities, and more likely to help those who are less able than themselves.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.