Monday, April 29, 2013

Leadership Lessons from the Royal Navy

By Virgil R. Carter

While few environments may be tougher than a warship or submarine, it may be striking to many that much is done using “soft” leadership skills.  For example, officers leading small teams in constrained quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness and effective storytelling.  In fact, it’s said that naval training is predicated on the notions that when two groups with equal resources attempt the same thing, the successful group will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate.
Andrew St. George, writing in McKinsey Quarterly, writes, “I believe that the same principle holds true for business”, as holds true for the Royal Navy.  St. Andrew, a business school professor and communications advisor, wrote the Royal Navy’s first new leadership handbook since 1963, which was based on research “of unprecedented length and breadth.
Here are some of his findings:
Cheerfulness counts:  No one follows a pessimist and cheerfulness is a choice.  It has long been understood to influence happiness at work and therefore productivity.  There’s an old saying that every organization reflects the personality of its leadership, and mood travels fast.  Royal Marine commanders understand particularly well that cheerfulness is fueled by humor.  Conversely, empty optimism or false cheer can hurt morale.  As one naval captain put it, “Being able to make the uncertain certain is the secret to leadership.  You have to understand, though, that if you are always uber-optimistic, then the effect of your optimism, over time, is reduced.
The relevance of many of these techniques to the corporate workplace should be obvious, particularly given a world of rapid job rotation, team-based work, and short-term projects that may be set up in response to sudden, unexpected challenges and require an equally fleet-footed response.
Keep spinning ‘dits’:  The Royal Navy has a highly efficient informal internal network.  Leadership information and stories, known as dits are exchanged across it—between tiers of management, generations, practices and social groups.  Through dits, the Royal Navy’s collective consciousness assimilates new knowledge and insights, while reinforcing established ones.  These dits are one way the Royal Navy fosters what a business would call its culture, or philosophy. 
There’s a fine line, of course, between respecting timeless values that can sustain an organization when times get tough and becoming a prisoner of the past or desensitized to changes in the forces at work on that organization.  The power of the Royal Navy is to focus on what individuals actually did in situations big and small, thereby providing inspiration for new challenges.
According to the author, “navy life has created a style of leadership that fosters trust, respect, and collective effort.  Softer skills such as cheerfulness, storytelling and the creations of a collective memory—all of which make indispensable contributions to the effectiveness of ships and fleets—merit serious reflection by business leaders, too.”  For the full article, go to:

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