Clarity, resilience, acceptance, responsibility, innovation, decision making and trust. Great words and could all be attributed to great leaders who have to cope with many challenges coming their way, but what if these challenges were a matter of life and death?
In my job and life I get to meet a lot of very interesting people, it’s one of my sweet spots. In recent weeks I had the pleasure to meet an Ex UK Army Officer who is now a very successful business man. Over a number of conversations, although he didn’t give details, he stunned me with tales of his past and what hit me was how the qualities that served him well in his army days, and had literally saved his own and others’ lives, were now still serving him well in his business life.
He talked about how with each assignment he had to spend the time to create a clear view of the strategy to provide the clarity his team needed to complete the mission but also to minimise risk. In his early days he talked of being cocky and self-assured but quickly learned through a number of near misses, to listen and respect the opinions of the senior guys and learn from others. Each soldier has to know from the outset the specifics of their job in a particular situation, what their decision making responsibility is and create an acceptance among them of the reality of what needs to be done.
Imagine being parachuted into a foreign land to tackle an uprising with no real view of what might be waiting for you…. The ability to quickly accept the reality of the situation is vital, this is the ultimate resilience test! If you don’t, you put yourself and others at significant risk. I could see he had to take full responsibility for making this work, and was innovative enough to keep improvising solutions as the team moved forward. This served him well and their mission was deemed a success.
As he talked, the appreciation of his fellow colleagues and his team were so paramount, he explained that although all of them were clear patriots of their country, what really made the difference was the people. “Men don’t die for their country, they do it for their friends, the men on either side of them”. He was one of them, he knew everyone’s role, lived their daily life, trusted them implicitly and was willing to die for them if he had to. He learned from the off that as a soldier, whatever your rank or role you are always only ever going to be a small cog in a bigger machine, and you can’t do everything on your own. In the Army the individual is often less than the team and this saves lives!
Above all else, in the battlefield there is no place for uncertainty or hesitancy and a very high level of confidence in decision making was crucial. He explained that there were a number of times when he had to make split second decisions when, for example, a mission had been compromised due to unforeseen circumstances, if he hadn’t made these decisions the whole mission would be under threat of huge failure.
It’s inspiring to talk to him, he is humble about his past and still sees it as ‘just doing his job’ but with the hindsight that you always have more to give. He frowns as his mind reflects over some of the memories, they still run deep but it is clear that before joining the army he really didn’t know his limits. He lives this philosophy today, it is now just part of his makeup.
In my line of work, tackling the mind-set of individuals and particularly leaders, to help them achieve more than they ever thought they could and enable their people to do the same, is vital in successfully delivering change. Knowing you have the capacity somewhere inside you not only gives you the confidence in what you’re doing, it’s the difference between success and failure. For my Army friend it was the difference between life and death. For me as a leader, the real lesson here is dig deeper into your reserves, walk the talk and you will be surprised what you have in there!