2005 – Rules of Engagement
Excellence in recruitment is
sometimes hard to define but if I had to single
out the selection programme that left the strongest
impression on me this year it would have been
the British Army’s Regular Commissions Board
that reviews candidates for officer training at
the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
In the same way it was equally
straightforward selecting what I consider was
far and away the year’s best book on management
and leadership. It is Rules of Engagement, A Life
in Conflict, the autobiographical account of former
Lt Col Tim Collins’ experience commanding
the Royal Irish Rangers in Northern Ireland and
The more I look at these choices,
the greater difficulty I have reconciling what
must be one of world’s most rigorous selection
and training regimes with the casual way that
the Army was prepared to part with one of its
It is impossible not to be moved
by Col Collins’ experience at the hands
of Army officialdom. Accused, then exonerated
of war crimes in Iraq, he has compared his experience
with the treatment of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish
French Army officer who was unjustly tried and
imprisoned in a famous cause celebre at the end
of the 19th century.
In spite of this ordeal his
book has more to say on leadership, decision making
and people management than anything I have read
in the past two or three years from specialist
Like most people outside the
military, my first encounter with Col Collins’
leadership style was when I read a verbatim account
of the eve of battle address he made to his troops
at the beginning of the war in Iraq. It was a
soldiers’ speech, measured, eloquent and
respectful, not only of the Iraqi people but of
the land through which his regiment would be passing.
In a conflict dominated by a
technology-led superpower not known for its historical
or geographical sensitivities, it was heartening
to hear a commander infusing his troops with a
sense of place and context. “Iraq is steeped
in history; it is the site of the Garden of Eden,
of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.
Tread lightly there,” he told them.
Prince Charles described the
speech as “stirring, civilised and humane”
and in “the highest traditions of military
leadership.” The regiment went on to distinguish
itself in the way that it handled its duties.
In fact it experienced very little direct conflict,
mostly because local Iraqis at various stages
were consulted and involved to such a degree that
the opposing Ba’athists were quickly isolated
before they were able to muster resistance.
Fine, you may be thinking, but
what has any of this to do with running Tesco’s
or Barclay’s Bank? Where are the lessons
for business? I share any scepticism about the
tendency of leadership writers to pepper their
texts with historical, military and political
references. Alexander the Great on management
does little for me.
I was beginning to think the
same of people such as Niccolo Machiavelli, until
I heard Col Collins on a platform at the Royal
Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures
and Commerce in May 2004. What he managed to do,
in a way that has defeated some business writers,
was to make history accessible and relevant to
a modern business audience.
His description, for example,
of successful empire building – that of
an understanding partnership, devolving and changing,
rather than promoting some homogeneous whole –
was the sort of indictment of international brand
ubiquity that we might have read in Naomi Klein’s
Here was a commander who not
only carried Machiavelli’s The Prince in
his map pocket throughout the Iraq campaign, but
who read it and applied it. “It helped me
to bring what I regard as my best attempt at freedom
and justice to the people of Iraq. It pointed
out the shortfalls of trying to be nice to people,”
he said at the RSA meeting.
In the same way when advancing
through Iraq, he recalled the thinking of Sun
Tzu, when leading Chinese armies 500 years before
the birth of Christ. “Generally in war the
best policy is to take a state intact….
for to win one hundred victories in one hundred
battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the
enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
In the event Col Collins and
the whole of his battalion returned safely without
suffering any losses, having restored services
and some stability to the towns they had secured.
His reward, however, was to face allegations of
war crimes including complaints assembled by an
aggrieved American officer. A subsequent inquiry
exonerated Col Collins but not before he and his
family had suffered many months of uncertainty
and, to his mind, unsympathetic treatment within
the Army hierarchy.
The upshot is that he is now
enjoying a successful career as a freelance commentator
and writer but at what cost to the Army? His story
is illustrative of so many where large organisations
make substantial investments in selection and
career development, only to fritter much of it
away when some of their most talented people find
their ambitions stifled by the “dead hand”
management of over-promoted nonentities.
In the Army Col Collins calls
these people the “Neithers”. These
are the self-publicists, he writes, who are neither
soldiers nor businessmen. “These staff pigeons
have even developed their own language, an argot
that charts the Byzantine budgetary structure
and cripples innovative thinking.” While
Col Collins was referring to certain senior Army
officers, the same could be said of others who
through tactful positioning have levered themselves
in to senior business positions.
Many organisations have an administrative
requirement that is stifling of good leadership.
Too often, however, the same people who are willing
to tackle the charts and the budgets are the very
same people who will dive for cover at the first
hint of organisational criticism. The worst manifestation
of this behaviour is a willingness to sacrifice
braver and often more independently-minded colleagues
if someone has to carry the can for an ill-conceived
The most able young recruits
embarking on new careers whether in business or
in the armed forces deserve better than the prospect
of career derailment down the line, simply because
they failed to cultivate the right people, toe
the line politically or agree with their superiors
at every opportunity.
The irony of Col Collins’
career is that one of the Army’s most outstanding
leaders has left the forces at the very time that
its senior ranks are crying out for people of
his calibre. That is a scandal of military proportions.
Rules of Engagement, A Life in Conflict, by Tim Collins,
is published by Headline, price £20.