4 ways to build military precision into civilian leadership

Mozambican soldiers join exercises as part of the African Union's African Standby Force (ASF) at the South Africa National Defence Force's Lohatla training area October 27, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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I remember the words of the commanding officer of a French Foreign Legion regiment saying that leading human beings was a love story, a very tough one, since it was about sending the very same loved ones to war, and possibly to death.

This was a dilemma I was presented with in April 2007, at the end of my Afghanistan deployment, when a suicide bomber struck close by. Ten policemen lost their lives, and a further 25 were wounded. Our commanding officer ordered our military field hospital workers to help – many of whom were leaving the safety of the hospital for the first time.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that their fear of the unknown was a major concern. As part of a small unit very familiar with threats in the area, we were best placed to change that state of mind. We had to build their trust in our expertise, and we had to give them trust in their capabilities. Put simply, we had to take the lead - and do it fast.

We addressed the response element, explaining the situation, emphasizing our knowledge about the area. Speaking calmly and clearly, choosing simple words and concepts. We made sure everybody knew each other’s skills and training, so as to know who to go in case of need. We briefed everybody on how we should react in case of hostile contact and how to reduce the risk in case of another suicide attack.

Finally, we drove our vehicle ahead of the convoy, because leading by example is better than a thousand words. This simple approach completely transformed the response unit’s state of mind of the response unit into a “can do” attitude. The action ended well, and some lives were saved.

Military life is characterized by strong bonds built in adversity, in danger, in shared emotional stress, but also in common success and achievements often considered impossible at the outset. After spending over 25 years as a career officer and participating in operations in Georgia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I wondered how well leadership skills developed in such extreme circumstances also applied in civilian careers.

Research shows that there are indeed major similarities in the challenges facing leaders in civilian and military careers. This 2016 study showed that military and civil service leaders agreed the top three challenges they faced were organisational efficiency, motivating subordinates, and personal leadership.

After more than two years in the role of head of security affairs at the World Economic Forum, I find the two worlds have much more in common than people might imagine. It’s still about identifying common goals and developing individuals to their highest capacity. Optimally integrating all those personal strengths and weaknesses into the architecture of a team. Convincing, motivating and orchestrating an indomitable will to always go a little further, without going too fast … or too slow.

Here are the four methods I use to achieve that:

Establishing trust

Nature shows how leaders are chosen. There is a clear process in the animal world where the strongest and toughest of the group is accepted as leader after demonstrating the ability to outweigh the predecessor. The unique principle we can see at work in nature’s leadership process is trust. Any group of animals needs to trust the leader who must protect and lead them through the seasons and through adversity.

In our world, things happens differently, and leaders are rarely chosen by the team they are supposed to lead. But a good way to start in a new leadership position is to restore the natural process of things and focus at first on demonstrating the ability to assume the role. There are many ways of doing it, but the simplest, and eventually the most challenging, is leading by example and from the front. Assuming responsibility and being accountable for the teamwork, while taking time to help the team in succeeding.

Placed in charge, the first step as a leader should be to build trust in one’s own abilities, capacities and competencies, in human interaction as well as in operational content. By doing so, the natural-selection process will take hold, and the instinctive mistrust of an unknown leader will be contained.

Assessing individuals

To build a winning team, it is essential to really know and understand each team member. It can be done by observing the way they structure and organize their work; by the clarity in their way of explaining and convincing; by their readiness to stand up for their ideas; by the way they interact within the team; and by their ability to provide answers instead of asking questions.

Let the people work with only minimal guidance, so their potential will show. Simultaneously, as a leader, it is important to keep an eye on the big picture and recognize when more precise guidance is needed. Let the team make mistakes, as long as they are not repeated and do not affect operational expectations. In which case, a direct lead for the specific issue is needed.

Second, the team has to be put together according to each member’s expertise and potential. To have a successful team, every individual must first be put in a position in which they can succeed. This is about never giving up on your team members, which will develop a can-do attitude, improve self-confidence and, finally, increase trust in the leadership.

Finally, a team is led by common goals and motivated by common achievements; therefore, the leader’s core task is to steer, motivate, trust and let the team work. He or she must find the right questions to ask and give advice, guidance or correction. Every team member must feel supported by the others, so an effective leader will always enhance discussion, encourage constructive criticism, and let the team members help each other.

Building a team is about stimulating and helping the team to see, understand and be excited about pursuing the way ahead by themselves.

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Fostering interaction

Like in any sports team or military platoon, all team members have to know exactly how to interact to achieve common goals, but also to have each other’s back. This is essential and requires leadership in defining how this group interaction should happen and in helping the team to learn it. Some call it standard operating procedure (SOP), others call it processes or guidelines. In the end, it’s all the same thing: while every team member is responsible for his or her part of the task, the leader is responsible for making the collective play in harmony like a symphony orchestra.

The interaction processes need to be simple, standardized and clearly executed by the team. The role of a leader is to implement what in the military is called battle wheel and in civil life could be named a team-standard meeting rhythm. Having implemented such a rhythm, the leader’s role is now to lead through anticipation, enhance proactivity and encourage the team to bring their issues to meetings in a standardized way.

By doing so, every team member will be accountable to the rest of the team – probably the most effective motivation ever.

Coaching and training

There is no better way than coaching and training to build a team, demonstrate leadership and develop commitment to the team tasks.

As discussed before, being a leader means taking responsibility and being accountable; neither can be achieved without your direct commitment and involvement. Individual and team training by the leader are essential to group success; individual training to develop each team member according to his or her potential, and goals and team training to develop interaction and reciprocal readiness to support. Coaching and training by the team leader are the ultimate force multiplier, and should not be outsourced. If leadership really is a love story, then like all love stories the leader has to expose his heart in order to build the trust every subordinate deserves to have.

Finally, there is perhaps no better definition of leadership than the one offered by the French writer and combat pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

The author spent 27 years in the Swiss military and retired as colonel in 2015. He covered several leadership positions including being platoon leader, company commander and battalion commander. He served as UN military observer in Abkhazia (Georgia) as well as in Kosovo as company commander and Afghanistan as intelligence team leader. His last appointment was as commandant of the Swiss Peace Support Operations Training Centre, where he was responsible for training of all Swiss military personnel and units deployed abroad. Since 2016, he is worldwide head of security affairs of the World Economic Forum.

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