Thursday 29 September 2011

The darkest hour is just before the dawn

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

Royal Marines training gives everyone the opportunity to confront their limitations. In fact, it pushes recruits to the point where they have to, and then encourages them to explore those limitations and learn how to exceed them. It's a raw experience, and while some of it is very private - for example the personal battle between a trainee and the notorious Endurance Course - at other times it can be an experience that is shared with others. The intimacy of reaching personal limits together in training means that Marines are pretty honest with each other - no-one can maintain a facade for long when they are in extremis.

One dark night on Dartmoor I witnessed the moment where a friend reached his own limit and contemplated resigning from the Corps - but then gathered his reserves and pushed on. His moment hitting rock bottom and bouncing back has always inspired me, and together we learned an important lesson that night - one which I think has uses far beyond Royal Marines training - that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

Exercise Crash Action

Exercise Crash Action was designed to be the hardest exercise yet. It was the first major exercise of the 4 week long Commando Course, the culmination of 9 months of arduous training. The exercise began with a yomp up onto the northern heights of Dartmoor, and lasted for a week. The formula was simple: yomp all night to prepare for a dawn attack at some distant location, then grab a few hours rest between eating, replenishing rations and ammunition and preparing for the next set of orders and planning, then start yomping again.

This kind of exercise is surprisingly challenging. Unlike hillwalking, yomping is designed to maximise tactical options - so routes are chosen not for comfortable conditions underfoot or beautiful views, but for protection from observation. Each man walks alone, with at least 10m between him and the people ahead and behind so that if the line ahead is attacked those behind are free to manoeuvre to a position where they can counter-attack. We zigzagged back and forth across Dartmoor through bogs and over the notorious "babies heads" - ubiquitous tufts of tough grass that twist ankles and make walking at speed - especially with a heavy pack - arduous and uncomfortable. At one point the man in front of me collapsed into the darkness amid muffled swearing having walked into a shin-height stone forming part of an ancient stone circle. The "Troop Snake" extending over a quarter of a mile also had to cross obstacles from the roads and fences that cross the moor to the fast flowing leats and occasional bogs. And in addition to our personal equipment we were also carrying heavy communications equipment, including a Clansman 320 High Frequency (HF) radio weighing over 20lbs - an unwelcome and indivisible addition to someone's bergan.

The darkest hour

On the fourth night of the exercise at about 4.30am, we were heading south and crossed one of the few roads on the moor. As I approached a stone wall on the other side of the road, I met a friend who had stopped beside the wall before crossing it. We were moving in almost total darkness and there was no-one else nearby. He was exhausted, and faced with the prospect of continuing onto the southern part of the moor for yet more yomping, he told me quietly that he had had enough and was going to resign.

I knelt down beside him and pointed out that he would regret the decision to stop now - and that we would all be very sorry to lose him because he was a very capable guy. We knelt in silence for a few moments in the darkness. Slowly and painfully he stood up and climbed over the wall, setting off across the moor. Shortly afterwards, on our left hand side the dawn began to rise over the moorland.

We never discussed the incident afterwards. My colleague has gone on to a very successful career, and I'm very proud that I might have helped in a small way at what could have been a turning point in his life.

One step at a time

My colleague resisted the temptation of the road and stuck to his chosen difficult path. Each step on that yomp took him one step closer to his green beret. As I watched him tramp into the darkness and began to settle into my own walking rhythm 10m behind him I reflected on how although our ordeal was overwhelming we could get along perfectly well by breaking it down into single steps and enjoying every glimmer of light that shone on us on the way.

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

Monday 19 September 2011

Spoof - a training tool for cool, calm leadership through uncertainty

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

The essence of leadership is managing uncertainty. Leaders assess their environments with incomplete information, and then make and communicate decisions with confidence and charisma. For many people the hardest challenge of leadership is accepting that uncertainty and incomplete information form the base from which they have to advance.

This is especially true in military leadership where the ratio of uncertainty to certainty is exceptionally high. Enemy action, environmental factors and changing higher commander's intent are just some of the factors that can challenge the premises of a military leader.

Throughout their training, Royal Marines are constantly challenged to make decisions on the basis of limited information, and then challenged further with disruption after disruption. Like leaders in any field, they learn to improve both their analysis of uncertain situations and their ability to communicate effectively despite this through practical experience. Royal Marine training, lasting 9 months for recruits and 12 months for young officers, provides ample opportunity for this, and after basic training, exercises and operations both develop and test the ability of marines and officers to function despite the "fog of war".

While certain factors such as the weather are non-human, many of the uncertainties faced by a Royal Marine result from human factors such as enemy action, changes in the dispositions, actions and priorities of other friendly forces, changes in orders from above and changes of performance within the team. And of course this is true for leaders in non-military situations too, where competitors, regulators, suppliers, customers and colleagues can all increase uncertainty and produce surprises. So leaders both in the Royal Marines and beyond need to become as comfortable as possible in managing uncertainty by reading the behaviour and intent of other people.

While the huge resources available for leadership training in the Royal Marines are rarely provided by or available to civilian employers, there is one simple tool which I first encountered while in Royal Marines training, and which I recommend as a quick and easy way to practise reading other people and managing uncertainty. This is "Spoof". Spoof is a simple game, and unusally for a game, it has no winner, only a loser. All that is required is 3 coins or items of a similar size per player, and a consequence for the loser. Often spoof is used to decide who will buy the next round for a group of drinkers. As a result, it has a rather disreputable image, but I suggest that it's a great training aid.

In spoof, each player puts one, two or three coins - or none - into their right hand, and then each in turn guesses how many coins are in play in total (between zero and three times the number of players), choosing a number that has not yet been chosen. When all players have guessed, all reveal their hands, the coins are counted up and whoever guessed correctly (if anyone did) leaves the game. This continues until only one person is left, and they are the loser, buying the round or whatever the forfeit may be. You can find full details of the game in this article by a Professor of Physics attached to the Complexity Centre at the University of Warwick. As you can see, spoof is of academic as well as social interest.

So if you want to practise and develop your aptitude for dealing with the unpredictability of other people, I recommend taking every opportunity for playing spoof. Whether it is for the next round of drinks or to choose who undertakes some unwelcome but necessary task, it spices up the process of finding a loser and gives some great insights into how other people think. To add an extra lesson in maintaining an unflappable exterior, I recommend the "non-emotional spoof" variant in which anyone displaying any sighs of relief on guessing the correct number of coins is put back into the next round.

Spoof is a simple game but with many permutations. As well as providing insight into the behaviour of others it also offers a means to distribute bad news without someone having to make a choice. The loser is the person left in the game, not the person chosen by anyone else.

In my own favourite game to date, I went out for a meal with 11 Army officers and before ordering we agreed to spoof for the whole bill. As a result, each of us ate and drank everything we could, reasoning that there was only a low chance that we would have to pay. After a huge meal, we played 11 rounds of spoof to decide who would pay the bill that amounted to a month's salary. I was lucky; I came out in round 7. With each successive round the pressure mounted until two men faced each other. One guessed correctly and impassively thanked his opposite number; the other, with no trace of emotion, picked up the bill. Both unflappable in victory and defeat.

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

Friday 16 September 2011

The Loyalty Effect - a further interview with Sampson Hall

Following my interview with Phil Sampson of Sampson Hall, I met up yesterday with Phil and his co-founder Dave Hall.

The Sampson Hall team brings plenty of leadership experience to bear for clients, but there is nothing rigid about their approach - in fact they highlight that success is most likely for those who can adapt most rapidly to the ever-changing environment. They present against a backdrop of contours, the lines on a map that indicate the shape of the ground which every traveller must adjust to.


Phil points out that empowerment is the best possible response to this dynamic environment - delegating responsibility to the lowest level at which it can be exercised. Whereas hierarchical organisations struggle to adapt, those that empower their members harvest the full potential of their teams.

Phil provides an exceptional example of empowerment - the NASA cleaner who when asked what his role was as he swept the floor replied "to help put a man on the moon".

Expectations and Boundaries

Sampson Hall helps teams to improve communication. Phil points out that many problems arise when team members do not share a common understanding of their expectations and boundaries.

Dave recounts how providing free tea and coffee can mean much more than a pay rise in motivating and engaging some employees - often disjointed expectations between different strata within a business can end up costing more and achieving less.

The Loyalty Effect

With proper empowerment and clear expectations and boundaries, the scene is set for a fulfilling relationship between employees and their employers. Phil underlines the value of this for everyone involved by citing a PwC report that the total cost of replacing a typical employee is approximately the same as one year's salary.

In fact, I believe that the value of cultivating loyalty extends beyond employees to every kind of stakeholder, including customers and investors. For a very good analysis of the value of loyalty, I recommend The Loyalty Effect, by Frederick Reichheld

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Understand, Decide, Communicate, Motivate. The NHS takes on the Army

I was invited yesterday to observe an Introductory Briefing of the NHS Staff College, following a presentation I gave on the subject of Perseverance on August 9th to a previous course. The aim of the briefing is to introduce groups of senior leaders in the NHS to a leadership course provided at The UCH Education Centre in partnership with Philip Mostyn Associates (PMA).

For me this was a great opportunity to see a thorough assessment and analysis process at work. While the delegates were being introduced to the course and invited to explore various aspects of leadership, their syndicates and group activities were filmed in readiness for detailed debriefing which is being delivered today. The assessment and debriefing methodology are based on techniques developed over many years by the British Army, who prize leadership development beyond all other forms of personal development. Those delegates that opt / are selected for the rest of the course will attend separate modules addressing
  1. Self Awareness
  2. Self Management
  3. Leadership and Teamwork
As an organisation employing 1.3 million people, the NHS dedicates a relatively low proportion of its resources to leadership development when compared both to public and private sector employers, and this course is one of a number of initiatives designed to raise the quality of leadership in the healthcare sector.

To start the day, the directing staff led the delegates into a room with an instruction to say nothing. In silence they read further instructions on a flipchart and circulated around the room examining each other, restricted to non-verbal communication. They were then invited to separate themselves into various "Tribes". Separating factors included age, level of involvement with patients, gender, childcare responsibilities and style of dress. Having recently co-founded, I was pleased to see tribes used to describe the way people see themselves and their groups.

After this the delegates explored how leadership could benefit the NHS and patients in particular. One factor that was a common subject of discussion was "Silos". Delegates explored the challenges and opportunities posed by the co-existence of different tribes such as doctors, nurses, managers and physiotherapists. Communication and the need to coordinate the activities of teams made up of professionals from the different silos were key issues, and delegates considered the dangers of "Dysfunctional Tolerance" - the process of accepting poor performance out of a misplaced sense that challenging it is futile.

John Mackmersh provided a valuable distinction (following Grint's Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)) between leadership and management. He described "Tame" and "Wicked" problems. Tame problems require the application of known processes, whereas wicked problems require the asking of questions and the development of new methods. Tame problems are the domain of management and wicked problems can only be addressed by leaders.

Philip Mostyn Associates specialise in the leadership assessment techniques that were first introduced by the British Army in the dark days following the crushing defeats of 1940. As Philip Mostyn explained to the delegates, these techniques were gleaned by studying the leadership of the German Army, and in particular its use of psychological profiling to identify leadership potential in recruits. The British Army Officer Selection Board (of which Philip was President for several years) has developed and refined these techniques over the subsequent 7 decades, and they have also been widely adopted by private sector organisations in the UK and the US. An early adopter in the US was the Office of Strategic Studies, the forerunner of the CIA.

PMA applies these techniques previously used for selection to leadership development by sharing the perspectives of the directing staff with the delegates. By replaying video clips of their group behaviour, the directing staff help delegates establish an objective view of their role and behaviour within the team. Each individual is assessed - and invited to self-assess - according to their ability to
  • Understand
  • Decide
  • Communicate
  • Motivate
As Philip pointed out to the delegates during his presentation entitled "How leadership can help the NHS", it is usually easy to spot the absence of leadership by asking the question

"who is responsible to whom and for what?"

If you are unable to answer this question in your team then it's time to find, or give, some leadership. I'm very glad that the NHS is taking the opportunity to apply such well-tested leadership development techniques to its formidable clinical skills portfolio.

Friday 2 September 2011

Reputation management - are you cherishing your integrity?

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

The two most important resources a Royal Marine has are his rifle and his integrity. From the very start of training, recruits are taught that these two assets must be cherished so that they never fail.

Both also require constant checking and cleaning. If a recruit doesn't know what state his rifle is in, he presents a danger to himself and his colleagues with potentially fatal consequences. Likewise, a breakdown in integrity can destroy trust within a team and do untold damage.

The British standard issue rifle, the SA80, is a complex and carefully engineered automatic weapon, with dozens of components that must be carefully disassembled, checked, cleaned and reassembled each day to ensure that it will operate without jamming when required. Cleaning is a laborious challenge involving careful scrubbing of the many parts of the weapon that are covered in the residue of burnt gunpowder, and then the application of a protective layer of oil. Each Royal Marine always carries a cleaning kit that includes a variety of tools to assist in this process. The kit includes the regulation issued oil that protects the metal from corrosion and lubricates the action.

Oil be damned

Early in our training we discovered that while the issued oil was great for protection and lubrication, it was no help with cleaning the powder residues in the first place. Fortunately we discovered that WD-40, a light spray oil with a very distinctive smell, did a great job of cleaning the powder residue away.

On our first field training exercise, which involved a week living under the stars on Woodbury Common, I packed a small can of WD-40 together with my rifle cleaning kit which I used to speed the cleaning process and shared with the rest of my section. I was always careful to keep it out of sight when our equipment was inspected since I suspected that deviating from the cleaning process we had been taught could be frowned on.

The golden rule was to apply the WD-40 well before we were inspected and then cover the areas involved with the issue oil in order to mask the smell of the WD-40. Unfortunately, one morning, one of our section forgot to add issue oil, and during the inspection Colour Sergeant Inglis asked him ominously if he was using WD-40, an unauthorised oil, to clean his weapon. The Colour Sergeant explained that use of unauthorised oils and tools could damage the weapon - a very serious offence. My colleague denied that he had used any WD-40.

Confess or conceal?

This presented me with a problem. My rifle was certainly clean, but I now had to decide whether to:
  1. keep quiet and risk later discovery
  2. admit that I had some WD-40 and face the consequences
I realised that now we had been specifically told that WD-40 could be damaging I should come clean, but this would also implicate my colleague for lying (which he had done in part to protect me as the source of the WD-40).

Another part of the calculation was whether showing initiative and inventiveness (in bringing the oil) would mitigate against the crime of using a potentially damaging substance on taxpayer property (the rifle). I decided that although we were clearly encouraged to show initiative, this case was probably different since I knew that weapon care was a sacrosanct priority.

I had a quick chat with my colleague and explained that I intended to tell Colour Sergeant Inglis that I was the WD-40 culprit. He agreed that this was the best thing to do - he knew that his loyalty would count for more with the training team than the lie he had told when questioned.

Coming clean

I left the safety of the pack and went looking for Colour Sergeant Inglis. I found him nearby and said "Colour Sergeant, I have a can of WD-40 which I have been using to clean my rifle. I thought it was a good idea since it removes the powder residue very well, but I now understand that there is a possibility it might damage the rifle. I won't use it again."

Colour Sergeant Inglis glowered at me and said "Get out of my sight!" I considered this a very good result considering the alternatives I had expected, and quickly obliged!

But the subject wasn't closed. A few minutes later, Colour Sergeant Inglis called 3 Section together and led us through some gorse bushes. We suspected that we would soon be running through the gorse simulating an assault, diving into the prickly bushes to "take cover". But it didn't turn out that way. He stopped in a clearing, asked us all to sit down around him, and congratulated us: "I see real integrity in this section. Well done gentlemen." And there the matter rested. And from that time on, Colour Sergeant Inglis always seemed to trust me implicitly. Although we were often congratulated for physical effort and achievement, that was the first time that I felt I had built a little reputation for trustworthiness with a Royal Marines Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. Building on that trust (and keeping my rifle in good condition) was the most important theme of the rest of my career as a Royal Marine.

I no longer have a rifle to keep clean, but I believe that the importance of cherishing a reputation for speaking plainly and truthfully is as vital in civilian life as it is among Royal Marines. Without your reputation you are truly powerless and disarmed. It's worth being prepared to pay a very high price to protect your reputation for integrity.

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