Do you serve to lead?

| October 10, 2018

The biggest difference I’ve observed consistently between the corporate world and the military is how we view leadership.

From the moment an Officer Cadet arrives at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), an institution that has, in one form or another, trained the British Army’s Officers for over 200 years, it’s drummed into them that their role is simple – it’s to serve those they lead.

They’re reminded, time and time again, that when they graduate they will be given the privilege of directing, coordinating and inspiring some of the best trained and most professional troops the world has ever seen to achieve something that individually they could never hope to achieve working in isolation.

They’re left in no doubt as to what their soldiers will expect from them every single day – selfless sacrifice.

This concept of putting the needs of those we lead before our own is such a central concept to military leadership that it’s enshrined in a number of traditions and rituals.  An old Cavalry officer’s maxim is to feed the horses first, then the soldiers and then the officers and this holds true even today.  When a group of soldiers lines up to get fed the officers will always go to the back of the line with the last position reserved, like a reverse honour, for the senior officer present.  The message is also hammered home every Christmas when the officers serve the soldiers lunch.

Small wonder, then, that the motto of RMAS is Serve to Lead.

It’s a paradox that holds the key to unlocking incredible feats of loyalty, devotion and effort in the face of overwhelming odds and applies just as readily to the corporate world as it does to the military.

The concept of Serve to Lead is disarmingly simple, but it’s not easy.  Maybe that’s why it’s so rare and maybe that’s why leadership in the corporate world is often seen as a reward for turning up more often than not and for giving the boss what they want at the expense of their people.

Just a little public sacrifice, please

Show us that we can trust you, don’t tell us.

When your grand plan calls for your people to use their initiative and think for themselves, they’re not listening. They’re watching for what you do when one of them makes an innocent but well-intentioned mistake trying to carry out your directions.  They’re watching to see if you’ll fight their corner or if you’ll throw them to the wolves.

When you’ve got a poor performer in the team or someone whose behaviours are causing friction, they’re not hoping he’ll pick his standards up or mend his ways. They’re watching to see if you’ll take the easy road and let it slide or whether you’ll have the tough conversation without fear or favour.

When you’re given an unrealistic deadline, drastically insufficient resources or yet another pointless or contradictory task to complete by a boss that’s hopelessly out of touch with reality they’re watching to see if you’ll smile weakly and let the smelly stuff flow downhill to them or if you’ll push back firmly and respectfully.

They’re watching to see if they can trust you because deep down they want to achieve something other than just turning up and staying awake.  They want to strive for a goal worth achieving that comes complete with a challenge that calls for their best efforts to overcome.  They want a leader with a plan for that challenge and who gives them each a clear role that they’re able to fulfil.  They want a leader that if they try their best and still fail, will have their back and if they didn’t give it their best, will give them the feedback they need to bring their A-game next time.

They want a leader with the courage to lead them by serving them.

This article was published by the Corporate Commando.

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Adam O’Donnell

Adam O’Donnell employs insights from his military service to help Australian firms build elite teams to navigate volatile business environments. Apply lessons learned on the battlefield to your boardroom at Corporate Commando.