Saturday, December 09, 2006

Leadership styles

When we run skippering courses one of the skills we need to develop in yacht skippers is the ability to lead a crew.

I always find the difference in ability and styles of leadership amazing; there are so many different ways of achieving the same result. My normal approach as an instructor is to try to build on the abilities and personality of the trainee skipper rather than to impose my own style of leadership on someone for whom it may not be appropriate. Sometimes it is just a question of removing some of the rough edges from a natural leader and occasionally it may be necessary to build confidence and command presence in someone who has never told anyone what to do in their life.

When thinking about leadership models, examples from military experience are of obvious interest, the high stakes involved tend to produce exaggerated examples of the different styles that are employed.

One of my earliest leadership experiences was during the final stages of basic training for the Royal Marines. Our training troop has started with 36 men and by the time we were taking the final tests this number had been reduced to 19 by injuries (the weather had been appalling) and attrition (withdrawn from training), although nothing was said, I got the impression that our NCOs were under pressure to make sure there were no more drop outs.

The biggest challenge they had left was one guy (John) who was claustrophobic. As one of the physical tests consisted of a timed cross country run, that incorporated several obsticles made up of tunnels and pipes that John had never been able to complete, there was no way he was going to pass and earn his green beret despite being very fit and capable in all other areas.

The two parts of the course that had caused John problems were a water filled tunnel that you had to go through and a 100ft long 30inch concrete pipe. He had always frozen when traversing both these obstacles and had taken about 20 minutes to complete the passage through the pipe.

When the day of the final run through the Endurance Course came up we were split in to teams of three and the time was taken for the last of the three to arrive at the end of the course, this meant that the run had to be a team effort and it would be up to the two people teamed up with John to get him through somehow. I realised in later years that the NCOs knew we could get away with motivation methods that they could not!

I and a friend (Steve) had done fairly well in all the previous challenges and were both in contention for special recognition for leadership, so not surprisingly I suppose, we were teamed up with John. The odd thing that I remember was that we never even discussed what we were going to do; we just assumed that John would do what he needed when the time came.

The first of the obstacles we came to was the underwater tunnel, when we arrived; Steve and I just grabbed John, jumped in the water and held him down so the only way out was through the tunnel, not surprisingly, he went through in record time!

At the 30in pipe, every time John stopped, he was pricked in the ankle with a bayonet by the person following him, again a record result for the passage of the pipe!

Once these challenges were over it should have been and easy run back the few miles to the firing range where we needed to shoot accurately to finish the course, but I saw an interesting thing happen which I have remembered all my life. John had decided before he did the course that he was going to fail, and even though he had completed the two aspects that had caused him problems he was still convinced he would fail so he found he could not do the run home despite being a good runner.

He slowed down and would even collapse on the floor, saying he could not go on, despite the fact that he had previously run much further with no problems. Steve and I ended up carrying John's weapons and equipment whilst dragging him, and eventually when he collapsed on the floor, we would kick him until he got up and ran again. Finally, when the end was in sight, he got so mad with us he ended up chasing up back to the end of the course.

John passed the course and on the day he was awarded his green beret, he thanked me for helping him to get through.

I learnt then that it is possible to drive someone to be successful by force of character and that sometimes driving people hard towards a goal can work, especially when it is something that they really want.

Some time later I read of a different style of military leadership. I do not know how true it is but the story is that in the lead up to D Day, General Eisenhower met the men who would lead the first assault on the Normandy beaches. Each officer was given a piece of string and asked to hold the end, then to pull it round a model of the area they were to attack. They had to pull it up the beach and through the streets and roads of their area.

When they had all done this several times and beginning to wonder what was happening, General Eisenhower asked if everyone understood where the units needed to go, when they officers agreed, he then said "now try pushing your piece of string round the same route".

Obviously he was emphasising that they needed to lead from the front and by example, not by pushing from the back.

These are two very different approaches to leadership, and they both work. However, as part of being a leader is knowing when to accept the leadership of someone else, I know that I would definitely prefer General Eisenhower's example!

No comments: