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5 Top Tips On Team Dynamics From The Military

I remember the scene very vividly. The sand was blowing from the down thrust of the helicopter and as the tail door opened it was like a scene from a movie – the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) was carrying the boss (Commanding Officer) over his shoulder and running to the waiting medics. What happened next? The RSM got back on the Chinook and went back out to the team to take overall command.

Why do I regale you with this story from my past? It all started when I was chatting to a friend of mine about work not long ago and he was saying how bad the few days prior to our conversation had been in his office.

Basically, the entire leadership team had jetted off somewhere to do mystical leadership team stuff, leaving the office with no visible leadership and how things had degenerated into a bit of chaos.

We were discussing why the lack of a figure head (heads in this case) was such an issue in that particular office and it boiled down to a few factors.

Firstly, the majority people who work in his office are deferential to (perceived) power due to the culture of fear that has been created. This took me back to my school days where there was always only one person in the room who had all the answers (and the power to tell you off) and that was the teacher. Now of course, I realise that one person cannot have all of the answers but at the time (it was unfortunately a long time ago) because of my cultural norms I was deferential to the power of the teacher. Leadership in the 21st Century cannot be like this – it simply doesn’t work and it creates a culture of mistrust and frustration (not to mention it stifles innovation and creativity). Unfortunately the myth that the leader has all the answers is still perpetuated in many organisations. Why? Sometimes, maybe it is just easier that way – the classic ‘it’s always been done this way’.

Secondly, the structure in my friend’s team has been built on an old fashioned hierarchy model and just like all roads leading to Rome; all channels led to the one place – the figure head, the boss, the big cheese, he/she who must be obeyed. Why doesn’t this work? Well quite simply, what happens when that person is not there or able to make decisions – what actually gets done? Think back to the RSM and the helicopter – he simply stepped up, brushed off and took over. The team carried on with the task in hand (Successfully I might add).


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The model above shows the difference between old world and new world leadership/team structure. Where it says ‘self-managed team’ it doesn’t mean a free for all – there need to be some parameters in place but how many really? When you think about it, only the safety critical and legal parameters and the odd policy and procedure are a given but what about all the other things that are in place? The bureaucracy, the business speak, the ego, the over-complicated business cases, meetings and process charts. Oh, and the unwillingness to let go and give autonomy to the team that was recruited to do the job (if they are not doing it then that is a performance management issue). Ask yourself the question though – are they not doing the job or is your leadership not up to scratch (and you just don’t want to admit it)?

This leads onto the third challenge and that is one of ego. There is no place in leadership for over-inflated egos. The leader’s job is (partly) to inspire action in others, motivate, coach, mentor and ‘show’ where appropriate but not to be all dominating, all knowledgeable and a power/control freak! This simply creates fear (see the first point).

I was once working in a team that had a very forceful commander (it was the military again). He led by strict command and control, which is great if you are sitting around a nice table drinking coffee at Sandhurst (UK Officers Military Training Academy) but not quite so good in a real-life, on the ground situation. What he realised very quickly in a combat situation was that things change very quickly, you can’t be everywhere and you can’t control everything and everyone and you certainly don’t know everything. There is a famous military saying, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’ and once it dawned on him that what he had been taught doesn’t always work his leadership changed enormously. The team became inclusive and he actively asked for advice/answers/guidance and HELP. He would say things like, “I’m struggling here fellas – what would you do?” Over a period of time the trust and respect for him grew with every member of the team and he became (in my view) a great leader.

5 Top Tips on Team Dynamics that I learnt from the military

1. Make the team structure and hierarchy as flat as possible – not only are things more transparent but it’s quicker to communicate.

2. Where possible cross train everyone to be capable of doing each job within the team. If this isn’t possible then at least make sure that everyone has an idea of what each other/other departments do. What is vital is that you decentralise decision-making to the lowest capable level.

3. Know every member of the team on a human level. Remember that teams are about people and not just processes. It is also worth remembering that if you mix good people with bad processes, the processes will usually win.

4. Recruit intelligently and then trust your people to do the job (without you there). If you cannot build trust, your leadership is obsolete, and you need to have the courage to realise this and move out of the way.

5. Finally – and most importantly. Leave your ego at the door. Leadership is not power.

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About the author

Dave Dayman

Dave Dayman

I'm passionate about leadership. I believe that thinking is not only the most powerful tool that we own but is also the one thing we have total control over. Sometimes we just need a little help to change the way we in which we choose to think!