Between 2006 and 2007, I led 150 Gurkha soldiers of 94 Squadron Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment in Iraq, with around 30 British specialists attached. On February 9, 2007, I was injured by enemy fire during a mortar bombardment at the Basrah Palace. The round landed very close, within a few feet of me. I was very lucky not to be injured more seriously – the entry wound was in my cheek – and others around me were hurt badly. We came under bombardment most days, with rockets and mortars landing in our base areas. The day I was hit I’d been on a logistic convoy between bases, and our role was very exposed, driving at slow speed in vulnerable trucks. We were constantly at threat of IEDs and snipers.
Good leadership in high-stake circumstances such as these is a balance of looking after people and getting the job done. Here are the key lessons I took away from this particular experience in the British army – transferable qualities that will help you successfully lead your team through challenging times.
1. Trust and empower
The job we were doing was essential. We were keeping the whole U.K. force supplied with everything from ammunition and medical supplies to water and clothing. My soldiers were very specialized, and I had to trust them to do their jobs. Many had spent 15 or 20 years learning their trades, so I learned not to meddle – I was there to support and enable, but often I had to leave the delivery to them.
2. Make an impact
A lot of leadership is about having an impact when it’s needed, so there’s a balance of trust and staying out of the detail but also knowing where and when your input a leader is required.
My squadron conducted one fairly major operation, which was moving our whole operation from one base to another – a move that involved hundreds of vehicles carrying ammunition, weapons and every other item of equipment needed to sustain the British force. The logistics were complicated, like running the Amazon under fire, and the road move was particularly vulnerable to IEDs and other attacks. So, the detail was kept as secret as possible and those in leadership roles were highly engaged. I learned that effective leaders know where they’re needed and when to have an impact and harness energy.
3. Know when to dig in
Leaders need to stay out of the detail, but there are times when you need to dig in and work with the people you lead. My squadron lived in tents, and mortar rounds could easily come through the structures. We built block walls around our bed spaces, so we would be protected from any rounds that didn’t land inside our own wall.
We managed to get hold of thousands of concrete breeze blocks after several weeks under heavy fire. I remember the night we worked as a team, and built walls around all 175 bed spaces. It was hard and dusty work and didn’t need my leadership at all, but there are times when leading by example is important and often that involves engaging in the least pleasant jobs. The trick is to know when to get involved with this sort of work, while not losing sight of your role within the organization.
4. Create fun and diversion
Despite being under constant threat, the sense of community and camaraderie we shared was important, and I remain friends with many of my soldiers to this day. When we were safe to do so, we had social events where we performed songs and dances – I had Commonwealth soldiers from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Africa, as well as Gurkhas from Nepal and a number of Brits, so we worked actively to bond. At the start of the operation when I took over the unit, I wrote a page in simple English, emphasizing the importance of looking after each other, enjoying our diversity, and being excellent in our jobs.
5. Get to know your team
I worked hard to get to know everyone on my team. I started almost every day with an hour’s conversation with groups of four or five soldiers, and with my Gurkhas, we tried to have conversations in Nepali. These were relaxed, open chats. Everyone had a tea or a coffee, we sat in a sandbagged area and got to know each other.
6. Reassure others
Often the role of the leader is to reassure. After particularly heavy mortar or rocket attacks, I would make a point of being visible to my soldiers, checking up on them and appearing calm. The mood and attitude of leaders are infectious – so I tried to project positivity and humor – authentically, as I generally see life in these terms. I was lucky, very lucky that none of my soldiers were seriously injured, but often when the sergeant major and I walked around, we found people who were shaken by the experience. In one case, one of my young British specialists was physically shaking after several months of daily bombardments. I think what he needed then was just some kindness, and someone older telling him things would be alright.
7. Support rather than compete
My relationships with other officers were crucially important. We were all carrying a weight of responsibility and shared similar pressures – trying to get the job done while looking after large numbers of people. Our team culture was one of supporting each other rather than competing, and I received a great deal of support and friendship from these relationships.
Sometimes, humor can alleviate pressure. I remember a large rocket landing very close to our tent late at night – I was still up with two other officers, chatting. We thought it was an aircraft at first, and once we realized what it was, we tried to take cover, but all three of us were drinking tea and we somehow bumped into each other.
The overarching lesson that came from my experience leading a squadron in the army is that leadership is a role in the team. The most effective leaders consider themselves to just be another team member, but one whose function is to lead. So, leadership is an act of service – serving the people you work with and serving the purpose that your team is working towards.
When you’re an effective leader, the focus is outwards on others and on the objective. When leaders connect with their people and look after them, a sense of safety is created, which allows people to thrive and perform well in their roles.
Five key mistakes leaders make
1. Being too busy
When leaders are too busy to think or connect with people and are visibly working crazy hours, it puts people on edge and leads to presenteeism.
2. Not being clear on what you’re trying to achieve
When everybody in your team is working, but not necessarily on the right thing. Every leader needs to know their organization’s clear and compelling purpose and make sure their team knows it too.
3. Putting strategy ahead of culture
You need both to be an effective leader. There’s no point in having a great plan unless you’ve built a great team and work culture. Bad culture kills.
4. Losing control
Leaders create a sense of safety within which people can thrive. Not knowing and controlling yourself will undermine trust. People won’t make decisions as it’s probably safer not to risk making a mistake and suffer your wrath.
5. Being in every loop
Leaders who want to be ‘kept in the loop’ and who want ‘no surprises’ end up controlling and having to understand every detail. It’s overwhelming and prevents them from focussing on leadership. It also stifles initiative and often leads people to work at a lower quality, as they know you’re going to change their work anyway.