This is the transcript of a presentation given on 19 February by Sir Ian Andrews CBE TD.

Sir Ian is a member of Resilience First's Advisory Board. He was a former Second Permanent Secretary (2nd PUS) of the UK Ministry of Defence, and retired after 34 years in the civil service in 2009. Sir Ian continues to pursue a wide range of security interests. He is a senior adviser to the Transparency International Defence and Security Programme and recent years have seen him providing support to Defence Diplomacy, particularly in Latin America, and contributing to various public sector and academic leadership initiatives.


I have been struck by how often these weekly conversations have focused on the challenge of leadership in the uncertain times that we have all experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. The focus has often been on the difficulty of decision taking in the face of persistent ambiguity, wicked choices, non-linear responses, internal and external scrutiny and interest; and how to act when we don’t know what we don’t know, under time pressures, and with the inevitability of different human frailties and experiences.  In more “normal” times, leaders are accustomed to dealing with short sharp shocks, but the pervasive and persistent crisis that is Covid-19 is, we are told, generating what has been described as “leadership fatigue”.

In my experience, the challenge of leadership in any organisation - public, private, or third sector; local, national, or international; paid, or unpaid - is broadly the same. Because it is always about motivating people, individually and collectively, to deliver in situations in which there is often ambiguity and there are no easy answers.  I thought that it might be helpful to share some personal insights into how those whose profession it is to be prepared to lead in circumstances in which they are not only seeking to keep their show on the road but asking those they lead to do things which can put their lives on the line, approach the task.

I do so as someone whose privilege it was, over a lifetime in defence, to have worked alongside some inspirational leaders at all levels and, for more than six years, to have been a member of all three of the Army, Navy and Air Force executive management Boards.  

Essential ingredients

Some years ago, I recall sitting on a committee of Permanent Secretaries looking at civil service leadership, when I was asked to explain the military leadership model.  I did so at the next meeting and finished by saying that the three words which summed it up were: RESPECT, which flows from the integrity to tell it as it is; the ability to build and maintain TRUST; and the HUMILITY to appreciate the impact you have on those around you. The result was what I can only describe as a “Bateman-esque” gasp - to be told that what they wanted to hear about was the MILITARY leadership model.

That set me thinking about what they thought it might be? Was it a hierarchical command structure which delivered orders to those beneath them who unquestioningly did as they are commanded? But did they honestly believe that sentient beings will willingly embark on an enterprise which all their instincts tell them is inherently perilous and not a very good idea, unless they have confidence in their own preparedness, and they respect and trust those leading them?

It is no accident that the motto of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst is “Serve to Lead”. It is perhaps also no surprise that it was announced recently that the civil service - which closed its own leadership academy, the former Civil Service College at Sunningdale, more than a decade ago - was looking at sending its future leaders to be educated in leadership skills at Sandhurst and the other Officer Training colleges.

There are, of course, more definitions of effective leadership than you can shake a bookcase of management textbooks at. For me, it is the ability to inspire people to achieve collectively what they would never have thought possible individually. This was echoed in a recent Times interview with the global Chairwoman of Norton Rose Fulbright, Shauna Clark, who described leadership as the privilege to inspire, motivate, and help others in whatever capacity. Put another way by Joanne Ciulla, the US writer on ethical leadership, it is not a person, or even associated with a position, but a complex moral relationship between people based upon trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of what is the common good. 

The armed forces, and particularly the Army, are very familiar with confronting challenging situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, in which the opposition has a mind of their own and can act without warning, and in unpredictable ways. The ability to respond is a skill that all their doctrine and training is designed to hone - albeit in the sure and certain knowledge that no situation will ever precisely, or even remotely, match that for which they have prepared. They know that the real test will be how they and their teams perform when everything is going wrong, which separates the Good from the Great. Those on the ground need to be empowered and enabled to use their skills, and the resources available to them, in the most effective way, to achieve the collective goal - a concept which is known as “Commander’s Intent and Mission Command”.

That is why they invest so heavily in doctrine and battle procedure, which is their equivalent of business process - and for which they study, and train, and train again. In approaching any challenge, they start by focusing on what outcome they are seeking to deliver, and how they will recognise that they have succeeded. They then consider how to get from where they are now to where they need to be. And then they apply the constraints, whether in terms of policy or resources, within which they have to operate. In military parlance this is known as ENDS, WAYS, and MEANS.  They then consider the risks that can materialise along the way and plan what their responses will be if and when they encounter them, or anything else that they have not foreseen. That, in turn, requires them to focus on where additional resources might be available, whether kept in reserve, or switched at short notice from other, perhaps lower priority, task.

The leader's mark

An authentic leader inspires people to want to follow them by earning their respect and trust; they communicate their vision with passion; and they recognise that the effectiveness with which they will be judged is by the performance of their team; and that their job is to get the best from their teams by engaging, enabling, and empowering their people to deliver for them. It is not a matter of how many folk work for them, but rather of how many it is their role to enable to do their job, to the best of their ability. They recognise that effective leadership is delivered through relationships, which cannot just be switched on in a crisis. They need to be nurtured.

It is about creating teams which they trust to deliver; and which know that they are trusted to do so. It is about celebrating success while allowing their people, within reason, the space to make mistakes, and to learn from them; secure in the knowledge that they are not going to be hung out to dry, as long as they have done their best to do what they thought was right in the circumstances in which they found themselves. It is about giving them the confidence to innovate within the minimum prescribed boundaries. 

The role of the leader is to communicate their vision, to define those boundaries, to enable and empower their people to deliver, and to ensure that they have the skills, and the resources, that they need to do so - and then to stand back and look to the next challenge coming over the horizon - while always making clear that to ask for help or support is not a sign of weakness, but of the wisdom and courage to know when the wheels are about to come off, before they do!

A hierarchy is, of course, necessary; but it is not sufficient. Nor is the outcome sustainable in the absence of those other qualities. Nor is it just about pat vision, or values statements, which can be polished and admired. Unless they are translated into lived behaviours, those for whom they are intended will see them for what they are. How easy it can be to sign up to glib commitments to “integrity”, “teamwork”, “professionalism”, or “valuing people and their views”; without recognising what these statements actually mean for the behaviours that leaders themselves exhibit. Because people hear what they see - and the more senior the leader, the closer that behaviour will be scrutinised.

It is these qualities which the military bring to any situation which they are asked to support. They need to be given a purpose, parameters within which to operate, and the freedom to do what is needed with the resources available - and then allowed to get on with it. That is what they do best!

Agility is key

So what does this mean for other organisations facing the challenge of thriving in the time of Covid-19? Some of these messages may resonate with those of you who dialled into the webinar earlier this month at which the McKinsey report on Agility and Resilience, now on the Resilience First website, was launched.  Because it is the agility of an organisation, and its ability to absorb shocks, adjust, and respond, that distinguishes those who prosper in adversity from those who struggle. It is also what is at the heart of the military approach to leadership and successful delivery.