Sandhurst: lessons in leadership
In 2012 the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst celebrated 200 years of preparing officers for the British Army. A national institution, it attracts attention from foreign military forces, the public services and from the private sector. All ask the same question: what can the Academy teach us about leadership development?
Sandhurst aims to induce high levels of self-discipline, self-regulation and personal resilience and to engender a sense of unity and purpose, creating a culture in which students monitor and police each other's behaviour. The year-long course is designed to develop the professional knowledge and skills of soldiery. Leadership is the key to applying these skills wisely in the best interests of the organisation.
For the Army, leadership is a well-articulated set of priorities and values. At Sandhurst, great emphasis is placed on a shared understanding of its culture, identity and organisational objectives. Leaders in the Army must be in tune with its values, practices and codes of conduct and subscribe to its worldview and outlook. Alumni with this common understanding can be relied on to reference the same set of core values and priorities to support or change the Army's culture and practices. Put simply, leadership development provides the capability to manage the organisation's culture.
To provide a business with the capability to drive, refresh or radically change its organisational culture, leadership development needs both to establish greater social capital and be more directly linked to the strategic needs of the business.
In a commercial environment in times of stretched training budgets, development programmes must not only be aligned to the business's strategic goals, they should drive the culture towards those goals.
Leadership is fundamentally about priorities. Not only does a leader have an obligation to help make sense of a situation, he or she also has an obligation to give it meaning - to communicate what is most important and why. Sandhurst's motto, Serve to Lead, sums up its message that the men and women you are responsible for are your first priority. Their interests come before yours. It is a lesson that is easily crowded out in large, high-tech enterprises where leaders are invariably results-driven.
Sandhurst is training leaders, but it also teaches its students when and how to follow. While some of the failures of large financial institutions can be rightly described as failures of leadership, they were also often failures of "followership".
The academy places integrity at the centre of its daily practice. A cadet is unlikely to lose his place on the course because he has not yet learnt to read a map, but a lack of integrity can get him dismissed instantly. It is rare for a lesson - whatever the subject - not to involve a consideration of values. This creates a culture where those values are actively accessed and referenced. The peer policing that is integral to Sandhurst is often prompted by a value being ignored or not acted on to the observer's satisfaction.
Viscount Slim, who served with great distinction in both World Wars, was once asked to define leadership. He replied that it was "just plain you". Sandhurst graduates, for whom personal values and those of the service have become so deeply enmeshed as to become indistinguishable, may well agree.