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10 Leadership Lessons from the Combat Zone

Alan Cutler speaks to Captain Simon Cupples on what leaders can learn from the battlefield.

While researching his book Leadership Psychology, Alan Cutler spoke to Captain Simon Cupples CGC about leading in Afghanistan at only twenty-five years old, including a five-hour fire-fight that tested to the limit the physical and moral courage of all involved. During these extreme experiences, Captain Cupples found that new lessons can be learnt, and existing knowledge reinforced. During a presentation he gave at the British Army’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Captain Cupples encouraged the officer cadets to consider and embrace the following leadership lessons:

1. Communications are critical. Effective communications are one of the most critical aspects of operating in extreme conditions. You may be the best commander, but if you cannot communicate your plans to your subordinates, or your reports to your superiors, you cannot lead anyone. Moreover, whenever possible, apply that communication face-to-face.

2. Shared understanding. This involves the officers appreciating the implications of what they are asking their soldiers to do; and the soldiers understanding why they are being asked to do it- hence a glimpse of the bigger picture.

3. Manage risk. In order to gain the upper hand in conflict situations, it is sometimes necessary to take calculated risks. Look at risk as an opportunity; mitigate the potential dangers as much as possible, then seize the opportunity. Effective commanders cannot be risk-averse.

4. Lead by example. Take every opportunity to demonstrate by your own actions that you are prepared to do what you are asking your people to do. This is why they will follow you.

5. Learn to adapt to changing situations. In battle, the picture is continually changing. Events unfold at a frightening pace, hence the effective leader must be prepared to change with it. Flexibility and adaptability are key leadership qualities.

6. Maintain some distance. Whilst you will share hardships with your soldiers, hence live more closely with them, you are their commander- not their friend. You will maintain respect by keeping the command structure in place.

7. Recognize that everyone is different. Therefore, they will react to stress and trauma differently. Know your subordinates and support them as individuals.

8. Know your responsibilities. During periods of conflict, these are: to plan for and achieve your given mission, and a very close second is the welfare of your soldiers, with your own well-being some way behind that.

9. Discipline and work ethic are crucial. Both self-discipline and the appropriate use of rewards and punishment (in other words transactional leadership) are necessary. Servicemen and women are willingly prepared to work long hours if the task requires it, as well as being adept at finding innovative solutions when resources are scarce- a ‘can-do’ attitude.

10. Leadership development. The army places great store in selecting and developing leaders throughout the rank structure.

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