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Lessons on Leadership from Britain’s Royal Navy

We have been writing over the last two weeks about the top leadership skill articles released by the management consultancy McKinsey in their quarterly online newsletter. In this post, we explore the ninth most popular article from the first quarter of 2013: Leadership Lessons from the Royal Navy. (Free registration may be required to read the full article.)

Leaders in the Royal Navy

England expects that every man (and woman) will have a good story to tell!

Britain’s Royal Navy has been an effective fighting force for well over 200 years, and still “punches above its weight” in international engagements, the most recent example of which has been the multinational effort to eradicate the activities of Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

The author of this article, Andrew St. George of  Aberystwyth University’s School of Management and Business, in the United Kingdom, has studied the Royal Navy extensively for over a decade, and draws what he sees as useful lessons from the leadership culture of the Royal Navy that any organization could emulate. Here is a brief summary of the leadership attributes to which he most attributes their success:

Relentless cheerfulness, which we might translate as optimism. He notes that the optimism starts with the captain and flows downward through the ranks. The evidence is not hard to spot: Happy ships fulfill their roles more effectively than gloomy ships.

A respect for open communication: Sailors are more comfortable “bantering” with admirals than junior executives are conversing with their CEOs. The navy fosters a community atmosphere that allows “the truth” to flow upwards as well as downwards. British navy captains probably get more reliable input from their subordinates than most senior executives do in business. As many of you know , this combines our own philosophies of “Pursuit of Truth” and “Communication that Counts.”

An emphasis on “story telling”: Sailors and officers at all levels are trained to exchange information during every encounter, and make it more engaging by encasing it in a tradition of story-telling. This has multiple benefits:

  • Institutional memory is better preserved.
  • Each team member can stand up at a moment’s notice and describe his or her role in fulfilling the mission. Can each member of your team do that clearly and concisely?

Professor St. George summed up his theme this way:

“Although few environments are tougher than a ship or submarine, I’ve been struck… by the extent to which these engines of war run on “soft” leadership skills. For officers leading small teams in constrained quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness and effective storytelling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that naval training is predicated on the notion that when two groups with equal resources attempt the same thing, the successful group will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate.”

The last point is important: Given two equally talented groups of people competing for the same pool of customers, the more engaged and motivated group will win 90% of the time.

This was a fun article that taught us a lot about the British Navy (told a great story, in other words) and as a result more memorably communicated it primary thesis about the high value of the personal connections that drive transformational leadership.

What do you think? Is the example of the Royal Navy a useful one to apply to non-military environments? Let us know your perspective in the comments section.


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