Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy focused on improving clients’ execution – their ability to close the gap between what gets talked about and planned, and what gets done. Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan.

There was a fighter pilot in the US Marine Corps in the 1950s and 60s called Colonel John Boyd. Boyd was a clear thinker of the first order, anti-dogmatic, empirical, logical, sceptical (I am meaning that as a positive trait) and a pursuer of truth

For a while, he had a disproportionate influence on US military procurement (of fighter jets), not to mention military strategy more generally, but was described by one senior general as a ’24 carat pain in the ass’ – partly a reflection of personality, but more accurately a reflection of his dogged pursuit of the best outcome no matter who or what was in the way, and the tendency for Boyd generally to be proved right.

Not being a seeker of recognition, and existing before the internet age, Boyd’s profile outside his own niche remains low, however one of his hypotheses seems very relevant to the UK Labour party at the moment.

Boyd had a theory about people in big organisations (he was talking about his own experience of a military hierarchy but I would suggest that the theory is relevant to many large organisations). Boyd thought that there were two broad types of people in the military: people who wanted ‘to be’ and those who wanted ‘to do’.

His description of the difference was that people who wanted ‘to be’, wanted to ‘be someone’. They wanted status, power, recognition etc. The other group wanted to do something which added real value to the organisation. Boyd’s theory was that eventually these two types become mutually exclusive. Almost by definition doing means challenging the status quo and ‘rocking the boat’.

This rarely makes you many friends amongst those who are responsible for the status quo. Those who want to be somebody might start off also wanting to do. However at more senior levels, compromise and negotiation is required, as well as building political relationships across barriers between individuals and groups. The laser-like focus and monomania required to deliver real change is sacrificed on the altar of compromise and the next promotion.

The laser-like focus and monomania required to deliver real change is sacrificed on the altar of compromise and the next promotion.

Now I’m not particularly political and this column is definitely apolitical. However I can’t help but see the relevance of Boyd’s theory to current events in the Labour party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader offers a fabulous live case study into team and organisational effectiveness. For anyone (from the UK at least) who has spent the last couple of months on Mars, Corbyn was elected leader by party members. However the group which he leads in practice day-to-day is a much smaller sub-set, the parliamentary Labour party (the Labour MPs), few of whom supported him in the leadership election. 

What interests me is Corbyn’s transition from someone who wanted to change the world (to do) to someone who is now in a ‘be’ role, whether he wanted it for that reason or not. Whatever other strengths and weaknesses Corbyn might have, he is definitely somebody who had held a passionate deeply-rooted anti-establishment position and appears to have ‘walked the talk’ on that position relatively consistently. Can he align his MPs as an effective group or team without ‘selling out’? 

At the moment the jury is out, but the signs are not good (for those who were looking forward to the impending collision of deeply held anti-establishment principles and the reality of an establishment position). There was a nice (high-profile) example with Corbyn’s recent decision not to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial event.

Predictably, he was subjected to some fairly aggressive negative coverage and comment. Now I’m not really interested in Corbyn’s position on the monarchy, however he has been a consistent anti-monarchist and despite coming from a military background, I actually respected the fact that at such a high profile event, he had the integrity to stand up for what he believed in; there is nothing fundamentally unethical or immoral about his position on this subject.

Sadly (in my opinion, in this context), in reaction to the negative coverage, he has now more or less apologised and committed to sing the national anthem in future.

You may be of the opinion that this is a function of the role.  What else can he do but moderate some of his views or drop certain positions in order to build a team?  That may or may not be true, however if it is true, it does beg an interesting question about delivering change.

Are the access to the levers of power and the ability to deploy that power to deliver transformational change often mutually exclusive?