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6 October 2021

What the army can teach us about leadership

A commander illuminates the wisdom and moral courage that produces the best leaders.

By Ed Smith

This excellent book sustains an implied compliment to the reader. Instead of proposing a glib answer to the problem and challenge of leadership, The Habit of Excellence explores a series of fundamental tensions that all leaders must manage. But those tensions and balances can never be perfectly resolved. Langley Sharp, a lieutenant colonel in the British army, takes us not only into the heart of battle, but also into the heart of the matter: leadership is messy, never-ending and full of painful trade-offs. Indeed, if leadership doesn’t feel difficult, it probably isn’t happening at all.

This book inverts the water-cooler/sound-bite genre of popular non-fiction. Instead of taking a complex idea and repackaging it as gloriously simple and contrarian, it takes a popular concept and explores its complexity and subtlety.

Sharp outlines a series of balances that effective leaders usually maintain and nurture: planning versus instinct; tradition in tension with innovation; loyalty to a subgroup (in the army’s case, the regiment) yet also allegiance to the whole (the army); having a baseline of compliance yet leaving room for mavericks; the demands of professionalism in tension with the need for space and freshness; the encouragement of risk-taking within a context of responsibility. As always, finding the appropriate balance in each of these situations relies, above all, on good judgement.

The origin of the book reveals another tension: between theory and practice. “You will be called on later to be the brain of an army,” a French general told young officers over a century ago, “So I say to you today: learn to think.” Sharp is the head of the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. His task is to provide and refine intellectual models that help leaders to make better decisions. The army, however, has been training its future leaders at Sandhurst for centuries; CAL is only a few decades old. The Habit of Excellence is therefore an expression of a relatively recent mission: to provide a useful theoretical framework that unites and also interacts with the historical patchwork of inherited wisdom and practice.

[See also: A new era for defence]

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One trait of effective leadership is giving due respect to different types of knowledge: what is learned in the abstract as well as what is acquired from experience. There should always be two-way traffic, with theory and practice challenging and refreshing each other. Appropriately, there are two statues above the famous steps of Old College at Sandhurst: Mars and Minerva, god of war and the goddess of wisdom.

At Sandhurst the army’s past and future intersect. It is a mistake to think that the past always holds the whip hand in that conversation. “Do not let us be mesmerised by what worked in past wars,” Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery wrote in 1954. “We must take off our hat to the past and roll up our sleeves for the future.” Symbol and ceremony – cap, badge and parade – are effective tools for creating a sense of identity and belonging. They should not be confused with living in the past. “Modernisation is continuous,” Sharp writes, “and must move at the same speed as the environment that surrounds it.” That is why the civilian descriptor “moderniser” is so limited. Everyone in power should be a moderniser – to an appropriate degree. Tradition and innovation cannot be separated: every innovator must recognise aspects of tradition to protect; every traditionalist must know when it’s time to concede ground and move on.

[see also: Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard exposes the failures of the British army]

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The doctrine of “mission command” is the army’s framework for managing another tension: the need to plan set against the necessity of adaptability. In “mission command”, the commander sets “intent”, but explicitly allows for interpretation of that intent in the field. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is one of the most famous military aphorisms. No plan can survive without adaptation to the ever-changing context – which no single person can completely understand. A former head of Sandhurst used to ask the winners of the Sword of Honour (the highest accolade for cadets), “What have you learned of leadership?” He rated “To sacrifice control in order to gain command” as the best answer he ever received.

This is a paradox of effective leadership. Good leaders take risks and accept the personal responsibility for doing so (owning the risk is proof of their investment). But they also encourage those below them to take risks and seek similar responsibility. Leadership is therefore not a zero-sum game in which responsibility is “divided up” between people (a classic flaw in organisational charts). Instead, true leadership exerts a magnifier effect, expanding the capacity and bandwidth of the whole organisation.

The book is clear-eyed about both the strengths and potential flaws in the regimental system (the army is “a tribe of tribes”). One of the lance corporals in Sharp’s regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of his actions while serving in Afghanistan in 2013. Under enemy fire, Joshua Leakey rescued a US Marine Corps captain who’d been shot and wounded. “I did it for this,” he said, pointing to his regiment cap badge, “I couldn’t let the reg down.” But Sharp also explains how over-association with the regiment can lead to parochialism and narrow-mindedness. Sport provides examples of the same tension. The great West Indian cricket team of the 1980s and the Australian team of the 1990s-2000s were fuelled by inter-island and inter-state rivalries. But when they played as West Indies and Australia, the teams came together. In contrast, before Gareth Southgate’s deft leadership, former players have admitted the England football team was sometimes weakened by Premier League club cliques.

Readers who assume that the military relies on blind compliance will be surprised to discover that the army teaches the art of intelligent disobedience. “Knowing when and how to disobey is a higher-order skill than just to obey.” Just as weak leaders surround themselves with cozy cronies, a confident leader exposes himself to the constant risk – and therefore opportunity – of being challenged.

As its title implies, The Habit of Excellence explores the Aristotelian art of learning how to live well in order to lead well. The most persuasive, powerful and transferable passages focus on the concept that knits together every aspect of army leadership and all the themes of the book: moral courage.

Good organisational “culture”, far from being a fluffy mask for ineffective niceness, emerges as a daily battleground. Doing the right thing, especially when it is uncomfortable, demands that those in charge are constantly prepared to “court unpopularity”. Effective leaders, as Sharp explains, need to protect their own distance and perspective. Leadership is an effect as much as a capacity. And it’s often only clear how much we all rely on good leadership when we see the contours of organisations that have given up on it.

Sharp concludes: “A leader who consistently takes the path of least resistance is encouraging the behaviours that will undermine discipline and cohesion when they are needed most. By contrast, one who is prepared to take the unpopular decision and insist on the inconvenience of high standards is making an essential investment in future success. By extension, they create the permission to do similarly, building the collective stock of moral courage.”

No two readings of this book will be the same. But it’s hard to see how any leader, whatever their field, wouldn’t benefit from reading and rereading it.

The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works
Langley Sharp,
Penguin Business, 336pp, £20

Ed Smith is the director of the Institute of Sports Humanities and a former England national cricket selector

[see also: The new age of American power]

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places