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Andrew St George

Royal Navy Way of Leadership


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Ethical leadership – do things right, do the right thing


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.

Work is all about execution. It’s about getting things done, meeting the deadline, collecting the money, changing the organization. The discipline is there every month in the cash flow: get any part of the execution wrong, and your organization will see it and feel it at the end of the month. But it is also there in the attitudes of colleagues that change over time.

Yet execution – the ability to make things happen and bring them to completion – is a skill that schools, business schools and short courses tend not to teach. The skill of getting things done is not an occult art: it can be learned, practiced and improved. The key is leadership and what are called “soft skills”. Here is how. 

I have just finished three years’ work with The Royal Navy, an organization that knows how to plan, how to apply its expertise, and how to deliver. The Navy does most of its work in small groups – just like you.  Half of the Navy works in an office, just like you. As an organization, of course, it has the capacity to run on command and control, but in practice there is no shouting of orders, no parade-ground bluster, but rather a calm sense of purpose and a strong organizational culture: how many organizations can say that?

The Navy focuses on those “soft skills” – the applied emotional intelligence that, day to day, explains how leaders can motivate, inspire, trust and be trusted by those who work for and live with them. On a ship or submarine the leaders live alongside those they lead: sometimes a similar closeness is there in office work. And so how you behave is crucial.  It can have a real impact on how effective you can be.

With the right behaviours you can bring about a revolution in execution and the way you get things done. How do you persuade your staff – or your colleagues – to follow you willingly? How do you motivate someone to make that extra effort? How do you ensure that time and money are not wasted? How do you retain staff? How do you survive a difficult or uncertain time?

The set of behaviours is simple. There are five:

  1. Know what you are in charge of – in other words, base your decisions on expert knowledge. Expertise in your own subject – training, employment law, strategy – is vital so that your people know that you appreciate what you are talking about.  If you are driving a car, know how to drive; if you are driving a team of people, know those people and know yourself.
  2. Know how to delegate – if someone else in your department can do it, let them; look at your diary for the last six months and see how many meetings, initiatives, pitches and so on could have been done by someone else (I guarantee it will be around 80%); then identify those times when you were doing what you alone could do (20%). Raise that 20% by delegating.
  3. Understand what you are asking someone to do – have a clear sense of the extent of the task you are setting out for them. This is an opportunity for you to show your empathy, appreciate the effort, and to be grateful; celebrate success, learn from failure (and develop a “no fault” policy to encourage people to improve without losing face).
  4. Understand the personal impact you have on your people – you need to develop high levels of emotional intelligence (some people call this EQ) so that you can control your own emotions, use them to best effect, understand the effect they have on others, and be clear about how you influence people. Nobody follows a pessimist: so be cheerful, even if you don’t feel that way.
  5. Grow an ethos – simply “the way we do things round here.” Those “soft skills” are absolutely vital: they produce behaviours that make the workplace better. Think of our own values. Does your organization have them? If so, does it get things done more quickly, and with less waste?

More broadly, HR has a role in promoting ethos or culture. All successful organizations have a strong ethos that helps them get things done: for example, Marks & Spencer (UK clothing and food retail) have “Quality, Value, Innovation, Service and Trust”; McKinsey & co (management consultants), have “Client first, firm second, individual third”; these are the standards your people appeal to when a decision needs to be made quickly.

These “soft skills” actually have little to do with management; they are all about leadership. As a matter of fact, management is becoming increasingly mechanized by email, shared data, better communications. Management is about doing things right.  But leadership is about doing the right thing – morally, emotionally, tactically – for the organization. Clearly, leaders must be able to manage, and managers lead; but get the balance right. Try keeping a diary to figure out when you are managing and when you are leading. Remember, others can manage, but only you can lead your people.

With the right blend of “soft skills” and hard knowledge (measurement, data, plans etc.) you will find yourself with more time, in a happier workplace, and able to work on important things rather than just urgent things.  Successful business training courses are now offering those “soft skills” as an essential competency; students are making themselves more employable by acquiring soft skills. So building confidence, learning and handling trust, understanding how to delegate are vital now because in fast-moving and uncertain times, it is qualities and behaviours that count.

Now, those skills are in demand across business, charities, and government. I know this because I talk to all of them. Why the demand? Because most successes and failures in business are to do with decisions made by leaders and the speed with which those decisions are executed. As I said, there is both a moral and a tactical component; and with luck and judgement, you’ll be able to say – along with the great Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia – “every time I do the right thing I make money.”

Further articles from Andrew St George:

If you'd like to email Andrew, you can do so on [email protected].

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Andrew St George


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