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In volatile times, leadership is needed to lift the veil of uncertainty, reduce anxiety, create a shared sense of purpose and ensure your people are with you through change.

On a cold evening in March 2003, the 1st Battalion of Royal Irish Regiment was assembled in the sandy desert terrain just south of the Iraq-Kuwait border. Almost 1,000 members of the battalion were readying themselves, their armoured vehicles and weapons as a part of the vanguard of one of the largest military offensives ever mounted – the Coalition invasion of Iraq. They had been planning for months, were technically prepared and well-rehearsed. Impressively managed, their ‘advance to contact’ would launch in hours. But as all soldiers know, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and at the individual level, no soldier had a complete understanding of the situation they would face, how the enemy would respond to their advance and what threats they would face. For many, this would be their first exposure to combat. Privately, unnerving questions would have nagged many. Would they stand the test? Would they meet the expectations of others? Would they survive? There were risk and uncertainty, and with uncertainty came fear.

That evening Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, the battalion’s Commanding Officer addressed his soldiers and in doing so demonstrated the importance of leadership in volatile times and the value of clear communication¹.

Lieutenant Colonel Collins reminded his men of the challenges ahead and why they were about to lead an invasion of Iraq, confirming to each soldier that their role had meaning and giving all a shared sense of purpose.

“We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer….We are entering Iraq to free a people, and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own”. He didn’t sugar-coat the dangers they would face, preparing his soldiers for the brutal reality of what they were going to inflict on their enemy and what they, in turn, might face with the enemy’s lethal response.

“There are some of them alive at this moment, who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out! …It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive, but there are some of us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will place them in their sleeping bag and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow”.

Recognising that on contact with the enemy the ‘fog of war’ would descend like a veil upon his advancing troops, and with the ensuing chaos would come confusion and potential for people to depart from the ‘plan’, he communicated his expectations in clear, direct language.

“…to take another life is not to be done lightly….If someone surrenders, remember their rights…ensure that one day they go home to their family….Your conduct must be of the highest order…bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation”.

I first read the speech several years later as an Army officer preparing for my own regimental command. The speech has many compelling aspects for an Army commander but some lessons are germane to leadership in business and government, regardless of sector. The importance of clear open communication with your team is a case in point. Honesty about the challenges ahead, creating a clear mission and directing behaviours where otherwise people might flounder for lack of purpose. We are about to enter battle, it’s going to be tough. We are in it together, and here is what we are going to do. Collins provided clarity to his battalion at an acutely unpredictable moment. He lifted the veil of uncertainty, made clear what they were doing and why. Directing them how to act, he reduced anxiety. He lifted confidence with optimism, reassuring them of their abilities and reminding them why they would win.

In 2020, we are in our own unpredictable moment. We face considerable uncertainty amidst a global pandemic impacting our future health, social and economic wellbeing. Business is facing a once in a lifetime suite of challenges. Rarely has management in business intelligence, detailed planning, measured risk-taking and decisive action been more critical to success. More important still is leadership. Detailed planning, market analysis, measured risk-taking are all essential, but alone they are insufficient.

Leadership is needed to navigate people, your most important asset, through these unchartered waters.

Leadership is about people. Going beyond management thinking and focusing on your people, is beneficial twofold.

  1. Firstly, it is more likely to ensure your team’s personal needs are met, their anxieties are acknowledged, if not assuaged, and their sense of control and certainty in the future is restored. In short, their wellbeing is preserved.
  2. The second benefit derives from the first. With wellbeing comes the opportunity for people to contribute and perform unburdened by personal anxiety. A shared sense of purpose can be established and willingness to follow with confidence emerges. Business success is more likely if we can leverage the energy, intellect and commitment of the whole team.

Leadership, therefore, sets the conditions for continued high performance in people-centric organisations.

Easy to say. Not so easy to execute. Rather than sweeping through the pantheon of leadership theories available in texts, I offer an achievable, enduring attribute of good leadership and why it counts. Honest, clear communication.

Leadership is largely exercised through positive relationships, devoid of self-interest, anchored in trust and built on empathy and open clear communication.

In challenging times such as those faced under COVID-19, communication with people is more difficult than might otherwise be the case, but it remains key if trust is to be retained and empathy expressed. Communication provides the opportunity to deliver people clarity where confusion and uncertainty might otherwise prevail. It improves confidence, provides a sense of control, inculcates loyalty, creates a shared sense of purpose and brings out the best in people.

We don’t all have the ability, as Lieutenant Colonel Collins might have had, to gather hundreds of people in a small place to allow him to communicate directly, with emotion and integrity. And in 2020, working remotely and away from colleagues, many of us also lack the benefits of communicating through serendipity – relationship building through that unexpected hallway conversation, the shared moment at the coffee machine and the unplanned collaboration organic to co-located teams.

But depending on our industry, we have other means available to get our message across, share information and establish and maintain relationships:

  1. Small group and ‘all hands’ video conferencing, the written word, webinars, podcast recordings, chat platforms and social media. If these technologies are unfamiliar, embrace them!
  2. Indirect channels: identify influencers in your organisation and deliver messages through them, peer to peer. Create small groups, independent of reporting chains, to air issues, provide facts, and harness the ideas present through the depth of the hierarchy.

In volatile times where the external environment changes rapidly, be prepared to engage with your teams frequently, addressing acute issues front on, getting facts on the table quickly, and listening for workforce needs and ideas. The channels you choose will be situationally dependant, but we have never been more spoilt for choice.

The key is one’s focus – deliberately enhancing your communications to establish rapport and empathy, provide clarity on situations and mission. To lead rather than manage your business.

Of course, be alert to cynicism or the perception thereof. Meetings for meeting’s sake can be destructive. At all times, be genuine. We are all in this together, and the team needs to understand the boss believes this too.

How is your business going in 2020? How are you facing the uncertainty, market downturns, balance sheet pressures, investment decisions and the need to change? There will be many technical challenges to which you will need to respond. But where change is afoot people issues have the potential to dominate. You will face unexpected decision points and your people will need support. Be prepared to adjust course. Remember, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Prepare your people for change with clear, open and persistent communication. Minimise surprise.

By end of April 2003, the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, had faced battle, survived and succeeded, playing their part in a 200,000 strong coalition advance on Baghdad. Many factors underpinned their success, but I remain certain leadership, on the part of Collins, was significant. With honesty and empathy, he communicated a clear-eyed view of their situation and mission, helping the soldiers of his battalion face uncertainty and confusion with confidence and a shared sense of purpose. Not to communicate as he did court disaster.

¹ Collins, T., Rules of Engagement – A Life in Conflict, Headline book Publishing, 2005. 10 Days to War, Episode 8, ‘Our Business is North’, features a version of the speech with Tim Collins portrayed by Kenneth Branagh.


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