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Donkin on Work - Leadership

December 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 Iraq.

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 finest commanders.

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 business writers.

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 No Logo.

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 venture.

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.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved