The British Army’s successes and failures in the wake of 9/11 hold lessons in leadership, says Simon Akam
The British Army selects its future officers in the grounds of a Regency house at Westbury in Wiltshire. The methods of the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB), formerly the Regular Commissions Board, include fitness assessments, planning exercises and ‘command tasks’: a group, dressed in boiler suits and numbered bibs, has to complete a problem such as manoeuvring a heavy object over an obstacle. The methods of the AOSB were originally borrowed from the Germans in the Second World War. The system is rigorous, relatively fair, and might be considered the grandfather of every corporate assessment centre you have attended.
However, the traverse of fictional minefields at Westbury is only half the picture. AOSB grants entry to the army’s officer training academy at Sandhurst, but once there cadets must gain acceptance by an individual regiment. That process is much less transparent, and allows the army’s constituent units to choose their own leadership in a way that the more centralised navy and air force find baffling. Many regiments seek to be meritocratic, but inevitably familial connections, the army’s original sin of social class, and the level of the candidate’s existing military knowledge all play a role.
Regimental selection also provides opportunity for homophily, the tendency to bond and recruit people with similar backgrounds and experience. This is understandable, but also potentially dangerous. As Matthew Syed, the author who studies high performance writes, ‘when it comes to problem-solving or enhancing innovation, groups or teams of people who think or act in exactly the same way can be detrimental to intelligent decision-making and even to society.’ The potential unfairness of the regimental selection system was also notably underlined by an instalment of the BBC’s Sandhurst documentary in 2011, at the height of the Afghan war. A cadet bound for the Household Cavalry, traditionally the socially ‘smartest’ section of the British Army, was accepted by the regiment despite his miserable performance at the academy. He was a ‘confirmed cadet’ and had family connections.
As with many British institutions, there is an elaborate internal prestige hierarchy between units of the army. Where you go impacts not only the immediate role you will perform but also your longer-term career prospects. Eight of the last 10 chiefs of the general staff – the professional head of the army – came from the infantry. (One of those, Mike Jackson, had initially commissioned into the Intelligence Corps before transferring to the Parachute Regiment.) It also means that the crucial but less ‘sexy’ bits of the army, such as logistics, do not, in general, attract the highest quality or most ambitious officers.
Once they have arrived at their unit, the new officer’s experience of leadership is informed by the military world’s continued separation into two dispensations: the commissioned and the non-commissioned. Theoretically a new second lieutenant, in their first job as a platoon or troop commander, is in charge of their sergeant, a so-called ‘non-commissioned officer’ with around a dozen years’ experience. In practice they would do well to listen to them. The army eschews the term but, in many ways, junior officers are trainees and the sergeants the trainers.
‘Although he called me “Sir”,’ one former officer recalls of his staff sergeant, ‘I was to learn from him.’ He added that his ‘personal view is that the army is much more of a meritocracy within the ranks than the officer corps.’
Military leadership can be authoritarian, reflected in shouting and marching, but there are reasons for that to be the case. Authoritarianism exists to produce social structures that can function – and function rapidly – within situations of terror, confusion or exhaustion, as occur in war. The essential paradox of military leadership, though, is that the same structures also make armies extremely resistant to change. The problem is doubly confounded by the fact that their core business, war, does not go on all the time and they never laterally hire. The top people are all lifers, and you can train for a working lifetime as a soldier without ever doing the job for real. That means when armies go to war – in particular after long periods of peace – they have to learn on the run.
When military leadership is applied in a non-combat situation and with teams involving civilian expertise, it can be clumsy. Oliver Johnson, a British doctor who worked in Sierra Leone during the 2014-15 Ebola crisis, describes the British Army’s activities there as a ‘heavily-qualified success at best.’ Some things were done very well, such as logistics and scale-up of burials, but Johnson also encountered ‘an excessively militaristic style of decision-making (which made critical feedback and nuanced discussion more challenging)’. It is notable that elite special forces units tend towards a ‘fast and flat’ organisational model where deference is less pronounced than in the regular army.
‘The formal decision-making processes […] are incredibly useful during the chaos of war,’ says a former AOSB assessor, ‘but there is a tendency to follow them regardless of the situation, which produces identical and unimaginative problem-solving, and discourages innovation and invention.’
The military can also set great store on its leaders’ external appearance and mannerisms – from neatly ironed uniforms to polished boots. Again, this is not without value. It is a terrible truth that people are more likely to listen to you if you stand up straight and have neat creases in your trousers. However, it only really works if such neatness is indicative of more profound internal qualities, rather than a disguise for a lack of them.
The former officer remembers one Sandhurst cadet who was highly intelligent, very fit and fluent in Arabic to boot. ‘He also couldn’t march very well and was rubbish at ironing: Bottom third.’ (He was classified in the bottom third of his cohort, a position no army officer wants.)
The other tension that arises in this way of running things is the question of where the buck stops. Theoretically the British Army operates on an ideology called ‘mission command’. Again, as with the Westbury selection tools, this is German by origin. Originally, it was Auftragstaktik, a system of speeding up command decisions that originated with the Prussian army around 1806, after defeat by the French.
Under mission command a senior commander defines what end state he wants achieved but not the steps required to get there, delegating execution to the potentially better-informed junior at the scene. That is the theory, and it is a sensible one, but the mantra ‘delegate until you feel uncomfortable and then delegate some more’ can sit askance with the deference that is also bred into the system. More significantly, mission command can also make it profoundly unclear where the buck actually stops. ‘People have assumed that if you delegate execution you also delegate responsibility,’ one general involved in the humiliating endgame of British operations in Iraq in 2007 told me. ‘I think that’s a huge mistake.’
In the post-9/11 wars, junior British servicemen and women faced a whole raft of novel accountability probes, from lawsuits to public inquiries. Some – but contrary to the public narrative in some quarters, certainly not all – of these were vexatious. However, British senior commanders were almost invariably promoted, even if things went badly wrong. The most obvious example of this was the Taliban attack on the huge Anglo-American Camp Bastion base in Afghanistan 2012. Afterwards the US investigated and forced two marine corps generals to resign for a lapse in base security. Their British senior counterparts were promoted. Meanwhile, the RAF Regiment personnel involved in the action received medals. The objective, in the words of the former AOSB assessor, was ‘to turn a massive failure into a public success.’
That kind of thing damages the credibility of the system as well as the institution.
Simon Akam (@simonakam) is the author of The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, Scribe, £25