Andrew Griffiths, who served 22 years as a Royal Navy Officer working in strategic, operational and tactical roles afloat and ashore, reflects on what business leaders can learn from the military’s approach to fast-changing environments.
We live in the age of the ‘Great Acceleration’ and fourth Industrial Revolution where CEOs are expected to make bolder, faster decisions and speed up the execution of strategy. Even before Covid, organisations faced a potentially paralysing number of ‘big bet’ decisions.
"The ability to make effective decisions in spite of short timelines and pressure has recently emerged as a key competency from research by Zenger Folkman into what drives business performance for the first time in 20+ years.”
Pressure can do strange things to people. Everyone can relate to the brain fog caused by cortisol being released into the bloodstream when you are in a hurry. Try looking for your keys when you are about to leave the house and they are not immediately to be found where you expected them to be. So how do you lead teams at a faster tempo and cadence in a pressured environment when they are already suffering from the effects of our ‘always on’ culture?
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast
One clue might be found in the “Dress me slowly, I am in a hurry” quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The military have an approach based on the US Special Operations mantra of ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast’. When I explained this to a group of senior leaders in a fast moving consumer goods organisation, the response was: “Maybe we should rebrand as a ‘Smooth Moving Consumer Goods’ company?”
The point clearly landed with one leader, who reflected: “We are always in the performance zone, and no one is taking time to stand back and think.” We feel under constant pressure to act and respond to every change in circumstance. But this pressure is nearly always an illusion! The business world moves fast, but who says leaders have to move quite as fast?
Leading in a minefield
My military experience has taught me that leaders make their best decisions when their situational awareness is high – when they can scan, monitor, recognise the patterns and connect the dots. Research confirms that we optimise performance when body and mind understand what is happening, and this helps us build energy and momentum.
I recall a Royal Marines officer giving a visceral talk on leading his troops into an uncharted minefield during the Falklands conflict. He had to make a critical decision under pressure on whether to break radio silence and inform his superior – which may have compromised his location to the enemy – or make the risky decision to press on.
Choosing the former option, he nervously waited for the response, which came quickly in a calm and assured tone: “Take your time, sort yourself out, tell me which way you want to lead your team out of the situation and let me know when you are back on track”. He later described that short but intensely-focused advice from his superior as the best example of leadership he had experienced in his 32 year career.
Slow down to go fast
Speed of action should not be confused with speed of thought. When we slow down, communicate clearly, listen more and engage in dialogue, our chances of success increase. This is true whether you are leading troops across a Falklands minefield or leading your business in a post-Covid world.