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Andrew St George

Royal Navy Way of Leadership


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Do you need an HR department?


Andrew's insight in this article is based on three years spent with the Royal Navy, examining their attitudes and. From this experience he wrote a book, Royal Navy Way of Leadership.

I have spent the last three years writing the Royal Navy’s leadership manual, now issued to 15,000 naval staff. One of the things that struck me was the fact that the Royal Navy does not have what HR professionals might see as a traditional HR department.

Sure, the Royal Navy has functions that cover recruitment, retention, career planning, training, deployment, retirement (and retraining). In fact, a career in such a diverse organization can be extraordinarily rich, with numerous opportunities to learn new skills and perfect existing ones.

But what is most striking about the Royal Navy is the way that it actually handles its people. It does so by means of the Divisional System. It differs from traditional HR in its emphasis on professional, personal and moral welfare, and it sits in a place I believe that professional HR has only recently reached.

As HR functions evolve and change, it seems to me that what is emerging in contemporary organizations is in fact a version of what the Royal Navy started 250 years ago. As HR comes of age and is able to deal with people rather than processes (the latter having been automated) a new kind of HR skill is at a premium: the ability to foster soft skills.

  • First, the traditional view. You will be familiar with a view that HR professionals are there to develop and implement policies relating to personnel within an organization. They ensure that their organisation has the right blend of skills and experience in its staff; and they ensure that employees have training and development opportunities to enhance their own performance and to meet the organization’s aims.
  • Second, as HR moved away from payroll, pensions and keeping track of sick and personal days off, a more comprehensive approach to the management of people in the organization emerged.
  • Third, new programs that systematically hired, retained and developed employees (or talent management) evolved in the best organizations. HR stayed responsible for the administrative tasks and the programs and processes related to people, but a new strategic awareness emerged.
  • Fourth, a more enlightened view is that the HR professional is an administrative expert, business partner, change agent and (in certain organizations) employee advocate.

HR professionals might now have to be competent at managing performance, coaching and developing staff; leadership; managing resources; counselling; career planning; to have knowledge of administration, policies and procedures; and to maintain a keen political and organisation awareness.

Beyond this, the new HR professional helps address the strategic needs of the business. So, what was once the task of hiring employees is now a team-based hiring of talent who recruited and retained by many means. These employees are also, vitally, congruent with the organization’s culture and values.

And this brings us back to the Royal Navy.

At the heart of the Royal Navy are its people. They are managed by a system that is not management nor command nor leadership-based. It is called the Divisional System. It divides the people within a ship, submarine or Naval Air Squadron into small, manageable groups, each led by a junior officer and supported by a senior rating (non-commissioned officer). And it has been around for over 250 years.

The Divisional system is a highly resilient, agile and emotionally complex network of support for staff within any ship or submarine. Crucially, a Divisional Officer (or Divisional Senior Rate) is charged with both the professional and personal welfare of his or her division. 

This system gives personal responsibility to a young officer for perhaps 20 sailors, whose welfare, professional performance and capability are closely managed. Given that ships are often deployed for long periods, this responsibility requires a deeper, more holistic leadership than in other domains and it depends on all the Core Values (commitment, courage, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty) to make it work successfully, perhaps most particularly mutual respect.

The Divisional System provides the structure within which a ship or establishment supervises, develops and trains the members of its company. It is the keystone of effective personnel management in the Royal Navy.

The system is therefore all about effectiveness through efficiency, morale and welfare. It provides the structure to achieve that aim. At the same time, it also provides a framework that can address the general welfare of that group of individuals. And this is where it seems revolutionary. 

Informally, the divisional structure can be thought of as “family in the workplace.” A Divisional Officer’s primary task is to command, lead, manage and look after his or her people, but this cannot be achieved successfully unless they are known and feel known too. Knowledge of others (and of oneself) is essential in understanding the particular and various needs for professional and personal support and development.

The Divisional System is also the means by which work is evaluated and individuals are appraised, recommended for promotion, or selected for further training.  It is the means by which sports, adventurous training, and other forms of recreation are promoted for the wellbeing of servicemen and women. It is also where the Navy’s formal expertise on fairness, discipline, diversity, equality, conduct, complaints, allowances and other legal matters resides. 

This makes it very different from HR in other organizations. 

The divisional system works by passing information –  both formally and informally – up and down the chain of command. It is therefore a channel for both management and leadership. As such, the principles of good leadership apply within the many conversations and relationships of the divisional system.  

At the heart of divisional responsibilities for all leaders in the Navy are moral and pastoral care: the system exists for the good of the men and women within it. Leadership and the demonstration of leadership qualities are fundamental to that care, and divisional responsibilities are taken seriously.

The wider HR community can learn from the way the Royal Navy’s Divisional System has worked and evolved over many generations:

  • Set up a way of listening and talking that accounts for the way people are, not how they fit in to processes and procedures.
  • Put care for people at the heart of your values. The  British Army version of this is Serve to Lead.
  • Walk the patch. Make sure you hear what is being said.
  • Soft skills offer the best way to get things done. Make sure your team understands how to recognize, develop and use them.
  • Respect your people as individuals who are equally committed to your collective cause.

The primary role of all those in authority in the Royal Navy is to offer leadership. Senior Ratings are a vital link in the chain that connects the Commanding Officer with his or her most junior sailor. The Divisional System in this way is completely integrated into the departmental (i.e. command) structure on board a ship or submarine, or in a Royal Naval establishment. It is highly flexible, extremely robust and sensitive to changes in technology and culture.

The Royal Navy’s HR system has evolved and been tested in extreme, fast-moving, uncertain and – as leadership thinkers like to say – ambiguous conditions; not unlike a modern, fast-moving business. There is much to be learned from a system that we already know.

Further articles from Andrew St George:

If you'd like to email Andrew or Sharon, who works with Andrew and produced the mind map above, you can do so on [email protected] and [email protected] respectively 

3 Responses

  1. Sail away

    I would add, from my 18 years teaching MBA's, that, without exception, leaders on my programmes from the armed forces display exceptional leadership qualities.

    In discussion, it becomes obvious that the stakes for getting leadership right or wrong when comparing "Tescos" or its ilk with The Army, Navy, Airforce etc. are quite different although this does not offer the only explanation as to how the forces have mastered the art and discipline of distributed leadership.


  2. HR – Plain Sailing

    In fact, The Royal Navy IS DOING HR in the way that it was described by many HR academics.  In other words a true HR approach has no remote, central HR department.  HR is distributed to the line, who know most about what they need, relying on a few specialists from time to time.

    HR does need simplification and sharpness.  It's a theme I explored in my free book "Punk Rock People Management", available via

    Sail on


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Andrew St George


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