Command, Control.. and Care

caring soldier

The opening words of the homepage on this site are:

Who are you without your title?

Command-and-control leadership is losing its grip. A new way of thinking is emerging: leadership that embraces change as constant, encourages individual thought, relies on intuition more than data, fluidity more than hierarchy, trust more than fear, and the common good more than profit.

Today I’ll talk about one element that made “command and control” an effective strategy in the modern military, yet seems to have been largely lost from the philosophy of leadership in many large corporations, leading to many societal issues and therefore lack of trust in the corporation as we see it.

That missing element? Care for those under your “command and control”.

Care in the Military

So, let’s talk first about care in the military and under command and control.

I am fascinated by military leadership, and specifically, on the brave and radical changes that have taken place in the last decade or so in the British Army to a culture of empowerment, a doctrine called “Mission Command”. For more on this, read this introduction to the Army Leadership Code.

My own story around the British Army goes back to being a cadet in the CCF at my school aged 14. I was immediately drawn to a number of things, not least the camaraderie and teamwork. For a teenager struggling to find his way in the world, I loved this and was whole-hearted in my commitment. By 18 I was an officer cadet at university, by which time I’d learned I had a natural talent with shooting weapons. All of this meant there was only one choice for me, to be an infantry officer. Until the age of 20 I was certain my future would be as an infantry officer. At that point I realised my path lay elsewhere, but that is a story for another day.

So, way back then, over thirty years ago, British Army doctrine was very much “command and control”, yet was world-renowned for effectiveness, professionalism and esprit de corps, the spirit and morale of the troops.

From my own experience and from talking to military officers in depth over many years, it may be a little unconscious, but the hidden ingredient has always been to care.

Yes, command and control is hierarchical, so let’s look at it that way. The Army cares for their soldiers. Senior officers strategically make sure those under their command have what they need. Middle-ranking officers blend the strategic and the operational, being more hands-on with their command. Junior officers are directly focussed on teamwork with their NCOs (non-commissioned officers) on the welfare and wellbeing of their soldiers and so on.

Napoleon famously said “an army marches on its stomach”, which is indicative of that duty of care so embedded in the DNA of military leaders.

Care in business

For me, my army experience rushed back to me in September 2004 after Hurricane Ivan devastated Cayman. Our business had many hundreds of employees, most had either barely habitable or destroyed homes. After assessing the situation, my training kicked in. I immediately focussed on ensuring appropriate task assignments before doing any repair work. Cooks were to cook, laundry staff to wash clothes, those with the right skills to put mosquito screens on bedrooms, electricians to wire up fans etc.

With staff having basic needs provided and feeling cared for, only then did we focus on the cleanup and rebuilding effort.

If I stay with the Hurricane Ivan example, though, one of the prominent law firms in Cayman (where offshore law firms are large and major employers) showed very little understanding of their people. When their staff immediately needed basic human needs such as a roof over their heads, nappies/diapers for their babies, food and water, those humans were not interested in coming to work right away until those needs were met. Unfortunately, that employer didn’t understand this, so, needing work to be done for clamouring overseas clients, they simply tried to bribe them by offering more money. The leaders of that firm simply weren’t equipped to understand what mattered, all they could do was offer people more money, at a time when money couldn’t buy you basic needs as commerce was shut down.

So yes, you can command and control people if they have signed up as employees (or soldiers, in the case of the army) and as long as you pay them and otherwise adhere to their terms of employment or service, they are bound to follow your instructions and orders.

However, a leader and an organisation that show through their actions that they truly care for the welfare and wellbeing of their people, then that creates an entirely different dynamic.

It is simple. Care first.

Care comes from understanding, and understanding goes in all directions. If you want your soldiers to understand the people they are there to care for (as is increasingly the way of modern deployments), care for them first as their leaders.

To close, then, as I searched for references to care in the British Army, I found a wonderful article called Caring, thoughtful and selflesswritten by Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman from Task Force Helmand in Afghanisation in 2011, where he observes the care of his soldiers. I imagine he himself cares for and ensures they are cared for by his officers and the British Army.

Caring thoughtful and selfless

History is replete with stories of soldier poets and artists using their work to try to portray the extreme and unusual circumstances that ordinary people face daily during conflict situations, and the ability of human nature to accept and function under these conditions. Afghanistan is no different, and during this deployment we have been fortunate to have a number of artists with us aiming to capture the essence of our work here.

One of the more unusual is a former paratrooper, Derek Eland, who has a novel concept for capturing the thoughts of the soldiers within Task Force Helmand. Derek has set up boards in a number of patrol bases across our area of operations with the idea that soldiers would be able to write their thoughts, feelings and emotions on cards resembling post-it notes and place them on the boards. In this way, he hopes to capture the reality of life for a soldier in Afghanistan.

This is an unusual concept, and one that you would think hardened infantryman would be exceedingly sceptical about, if not downright hostile. I must admit to being amongst those that were concerned about the type of comments that might emerge. I will be clearing these notes from an operational security perspective, and if I am honest, I was half expecting to have to remove graffiti-style comments, and the usual “close to the bone” squaddie humour from the boards.

However, my faith in the average soldier has been restored and it would appear that our soldiers are more cultured than I anticipated, and have taken very well to the concept. So much so, in fact, that many of them have written much longer anecdotes rather than just short, pithy notes on their feelings and emotions, and what it is like to live, work and fight in Helmand.

Once the stories have been collected, Derek will recreate the set-up that he had in each of the bases within the Imperial War Museum as part of the on-going “War Story” project which aims to capture the reality of life for the average soldier. I am very much looking forward to the results.

Interestingly, I have also received a number of poems from soldiers deployed in the patrol bases, most notably from the Royal Irish Regiment. The perception of 16 Air Assault Brigade as a purely war-fighting machine seeking a fight could not be further from the truth. I am constantly amazed at the compassion shown by our soldiers when dealing with some horrendous situations, and the lengths that they will go to, to prevent civilian casualties or save lives, especially amongst the children, even if it puts their own lives at risk. Whilst most of our soldiers necessarily exhibit a hard exterior, it is clear to me that underneath they are also caring, thoughtful and selfless.

The humanity shown by our forefathers during both the first and second World Wars is well documented, and I have to say that, in my humble view, their legacy lives on in the young soldiers fighting for a better life for the people of Helmand and seeking to prevent Afghanistan becoming a base for those who wish to undermine and terrorise our way of life.


Also published on Medium.

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