Lessons in leadership: Former head of the British Army reveals his secrets of being an effective leader

Lord Dannatt speaks at the service for D-Day at Arromanches. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Lord Dannatt speaks at the service for D-Day at Arromanches. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

General the Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army, reveals his secrets for effective management, why we need bad role models, and the two enemies of a successful leader.

Lady Dannatt speaks before the opening of the new nursing suite at Cavell Court Nursing Home at Crin

Lady Dannatt speaks before the opening of the new nursing suite at Cavell Court Nursing Home at Cringleford. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

What has inspired you personally as a leader?

I would point to two things – events and people. To deal with events first, I find the element of challenge very important.

Take, for example, when I was commanding the British forces in Bosnia. The Dayton Peace Agreement had ended the war in 1995. We had to separate the Serb, Croat and Bosnian forces, remove their heavy weapons, get them away from the frontline and back into barracks.

But we also had to oversee the handover of bits of territory that the agreement had ceded to the other side. Orchestrating this whole activity was certainly a huge challenge, but at another level it was all in a day's work really. It's that kind of challenge that keeps you excited.

Andy Bird, author of The Inspired Leader. Picture: Bloomsbury Business.

Andy Bird, author of The Inspired Leader. Picture: Bloomsbury Business. - Credit: Archant

What about the role of people as triggers for your inspiration?

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I know it may sound corny to say so, but Winston Churchill was a great hero of mine. As a schoolboy, as a young man, I thought he was tremendous. In fact I still do, but for slightly different reasons. By the time he became prime minister, later in his career, he had made virtually every mistake in the book – and learned from them by and large.

I think one of the things we've suffered from recently is that some of our political leaders have been young and haven't had that breadth of experience to draw on.

Why do you think role models are such a powerful source of leadership inspiration?

I have always taken the view that only a very small number of people are born naturally gifted as leaders, with shedloads of talent. Most of us have some ability, but we need to work at it and study if we are going to become really good leaders. There's no laziness allowed in trying to become a good leader. You have to read, you have to think about it, and you have to look for people to learn from.

One goes through life meeting people and you think: 'I mustn't be like that, but I must be like that'. We can learn just as much from bad role models as good ones. But the key point is that you've got to be looking to learn from people.

Did your perspective on leadership change in any way as you progressed through the military ranks?

Your first leadership challenges tend to be very practical in nature – achieving tasks, growing a team around you, getting things done in the way that you want them done and to achieve the objectives that you've been set. It's a sort of practical, physical leadership, a 'follow me, chaps' - type leadership. My first posting after commissioning from Sandhurst back in the early 1970s was commanding 27 soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland. It was that kind of role.

This continues and develops as you get more senior, but only up to a point. The importance of your actual personal presence as a leader gradually reduces the more senior you get, as you have less direct contact with people.

Another kind of leadership becomes more important later in your career. When you're leading a large organization, you need to change your structure, plan big projects, handle military campaigns, major pieces of procurement and things like that. These happen in slower time and they require you to think through the issues and strain your brain a bit to decide what to do and how to do it. There is a significant intellectual dimension to this side of leadership.

There is a lot of talk these days about the importance of purpose in the study of leadership. What can we learn from the way the military thinks about this topic?

We go through a process called mission command and there are three key elements. Firstly, the boss thinks through the problem and states how he wants to solve it. He must then state his intent very clearly – orally and written. The second stage is to delegate the tasks so that everyone knows what they need to do. And then, finally, the boss must supervise the delivery of those tasks.

One of the tricks of leadership is to work out the level of supervision you need to give to people.

There may be some people who are promising that you want to bring on, so you don't supervise them as much.

But if you get it right, people always know the boss is supporting them. People work much better if they know the boss understands what they're doing and they have the confidence that he will give them all they need to do the job.

Lord Dannatt on... handling leadership's stresses and strains

A demanding leadership position is, by definition, pretty lonely.

It's not a very British characteristic to unload to other people, but I think there's a lot to be said for having objective and trusted friends or mentors you can talk to.

My wife, Pippa, was always good enough to listen and jokes that she's had to save me from myself on occasion.

I would probably have handled some of the more controversial things I said and did differently if I'd had a habit of ringing someone up or going for a coffee and saying, 'I'm thinking of doing this…what do you think?'

It's also important that you don't let the job you're doing become absolutely everything. You need to maintain some other interests and activities that you can absorb yourself in.

I've always said the biggest enemies of an otherwise successful leader are an over-full diary and a hyperactive PA, who fills a gap in the diary anytime one appears!

Lord Dannatt on... the frustrations of leadership

I think it was when I could see the issues, I could see what needed to be done, but actually making it happen was difficult.

You try to bring change, slim down, bring smarter procedures and all the rest of it. But it's a bit like taking a bucket of water from a pond. You think you're making progress, but when you turn around everything has gone back to normal.

This kind of problem is caused partly by meeting what I call the 'permafrost' of the establishment within which you're working.

Very often the experienced people at the top get what needs to be done, and the enthusiastic people at the bottom are with you.

It's the level between, the people who are pleased to have got to the middle and are unlikely ever to get to the top.

These people enjoy their jobs and just want to keep on doing the things they know today. They can make an art form out of the process, but they are not as fussed about the end product as you are.

The Inspired Leader by Andy Bird

This interview appears in The Inspired Leader by Andy Bird, published by Bloomsbury Business.

Through discussions with leaders from many walks of life, including Sir Richard Branson and British and Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell, the book examines how they found their inspiration.

Drawing on the latest behavioural science, the book also looks at how they maintained that inspiration in the face of obstacles and challenges they faced.

The final book includes a thought-provoking set of personal development tools and reflective exercises for those seeking to improve their own leadership skills.

Andy Bird is a leadership consultant, coach and author who began his career over 30 years ago working for Unilever in the UK, South East Asia and India. He led the company's marketing academy before moving on to become a co-founder of Brand Learning, a global capability consultancy and which recently became part

of Accentur.