Derek Bishop


Leading from the front

Date added: 28th Feb 2013
Category: Leadership

When asked how the careers evening went at his local school, a young friend of ours simply replied “did you know that soon McDonalds will employ more people than the armed forces?” We probably wouldn’t have taken any notice of his remark were it not for the fact that we had recently become aware of the fact that McDonalds actively looks for ex-forces recruits to fill management roles. And they are not alone. Businesses are increasingly coming to respect the skills and qualities which ex-forces personnel can bring to an organisation.

For the doubters amongst you who see the armed forces as simply having a hierarchical “obey orders or else” structure, perhaps it is time to think again. If you were offered a team member who was used to getting on with everyone; who was trained to get the job done no matter what the distractions; who was innovative, used to making decisions under pressure and had great planning and organisational skills you’d jump at the chance wouldn’t you. Ex-service personnel offer all these traits and more.

Learning from forces culture

The wonder is that it has taken business as long as it has to appreciate the values inculcated into forces personnel. Yes, there have been a few roles which have traditionally been seen as ideal for ex-forces officers but in general the perception has been far short of the mark. One reason postulated for this change of viewpoint is the increasing visibility of the forces in the media. But perhaps as well it is the way in which the forces have adapted to the modern era whilst firmly keeping their roots in the culture and traditions of the past.

Whenever there is talk of traditions it is tempting to think of those more unusual quirks which can creep in such as the Royal Navy tradition of toasting The Queen whilst sitting down. Although this tradition dates back to the time of William IV many would say that it has no bearing on the fighting efficiency of the Navy. But in the same way in which today’s innovation businesses pride themselves on their quirky décor and relaxing spaces, the tradition of staying seated helps to create a sense of oneness and bind personnel together in a single unit.

However, it is the other values which are buried deep within forces culture which can teach us the most. The history of warfare has been one of constant technological evolution. Forces have had to adapt their processes along with the technology and yet there are some core values which have never changed. Values such as teamwork, sharing one vision, loyalty and being solely focused on the successful completion of the task have remained unchanged. Had these core strengths given way the result could easily have been anarchy.

Culture and custom in the DNA

This is a lesson which all business leaders embarking on a time of change would do well to remember. Successful leadership, moving the organisation forward, works best when building on the strengths of the past. There may be times when a toxic culture or practice needs to be eliminated but there are also times when recognising the part which culture and custom play in the overall DNA of the organisation can open up a world of possibilities.

Taking time to understand the culture, sharing the vision and engaging the loyalty of the team may not always bring an instant solution but it will help to strengthen the organisation in the long term. You don’t need to employ an ex-military person to benefit from the skills which the armed forces possess but by understanding the lessons of the past you can transform your vision into the business of tomorrow.

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