How business can learn from Royal Naval leadership

HAPPY at work? Happy that your commitment, courage and integrity are recognised and nourished? If not, learn from how the Navy runs and how its leaders get things done.

All firms contain managers, whose job it is to do things right, and leaders, whose job it is to do the right thing. Improve leadership at work, and you improve lives.

Doing the right thing means three things: looking after your shareholders, your customers, and your people. It’s in the latter where leaders fail. They tend to lack soft skills, the emotional intelligence and the subtlety of character to elicit the best from their people when times get tough.

The Royal Navy runs on soft skills (and never on shouted orders) – these are the qualities of character and culture that are remarkably resilient and, most importantly, instilled in all Royal Navy personnel. They understand the uses of commitment, loyalty, integrity, respect, cheerfulness in ways that the commercial sector can only dream of. And the Navy doesn’t lack the ability to plan, manage and execute; it does these things highly professionally.

This is military philosophy applied to everyday working life.

Develop soft skills and see how employees who are trusted, valued, respected and treated cheerfully flourish and prosper. In a recession, if money is not the first reward, improving an employee’s relationship with work should be. Your people will achieve more with fewer resources.

Figure out what your ethos is. Achieve this and customer service becomes a reality, not just a hopeful promise; innovation is inculcated into the way everyone thinks all the time; honesty isn’t a matter of compliance but a matter of fact.

Be clear in your thinking and you will be more efficient. The Navy works with Mission Command, which sets out the intent, strategy, resources and inspiration for large-scale activity. Its simplicity is compelling. It has been tested in all manner of fast and dangerous conditions. I have worked extensively in the commercial sector, and spent three years with the Royal Navy. Never have I found a more upbeat, consistent, yet flexible and innovative working environment. I learned that when people gather together to achieve an end, soft skills get things done. When two groups attempt the same thing, the successful group will be the one whose leaders understand how to use soft skills to motivate and maintain effort.

What about when things go wrong? Edmund Hillary, first up Everest, said that if you were in trouble in a difficult place you needed Ernest Shackleton, the heroic polar explorer, because he understood his people, and was prepared to do the right thing. Shackleton never lost a man in the Antarctic. He understood his people, got them to make sacrifices for the common good, and earned their respect.

And employees: imagine how much better your day might be if your leaders put some of those soft skills to use and were prepared to foster them throughout the organisation.

Andrew St George is author of Royal Navy Way of Leadership (Preface, £14.99).