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Becky Norman


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What can we learn from military leadership about motivating people?


Nicky Moffat CBE, former Director of Personnel & Brigadier at the British Army, offered a fascinating insight into military leadership at the CIPD Learning and Development Show on Wednesday 25 April in London.

We civilians certainly have a lesson or two to learn from the military’s approach to leadership - that much was certainly made clear by Moffat, who spent 27 years in the British Army and at the time was the most senior woman there.

While you might at first think there are few similarities between the army and your run-of-the-mill organisation, Moffat highlighted that there are indeed many parallels to be drawn. In both there is a clear purpose, a drive for successful operations, people and teams, competitors, a reliance on technology, and an ever-changing landscape - to name a few.

To motivate, you must set the right conditions

To create the space where soldiers in the army can feel empowered and motivated to succeed, Moffat explained that certain conditions need to be met. There were two points in this section that particularly stood out for me:

First, one of the reasons why the army lives so strongly by its values is to motivate and inspire individuals in an environment of constant change: “These are meaningful, lived experiences, not just words on a page, and something that people feel part of and proud of,” highlighted Moffat.

Back in the civilian world, many companies' values are likely outdated, irrelevant and not known by their employees. With the business disruption we face today, we need to breathe new life into our values as a strategy for supporting employees as they deal with change.

Second, Moffat stressed that she made the effort to know her people personally and professionally. Because what motivates one person doesn’t necessarily motivate another: “As a leader you need to make an effort to understand what drives other people unlike you,” she said. “With this knowledge you are able to help unlock potential in terms of development.”

The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership is now well recognised, but I doubt that many business leaders are taking the time and making the effort to uncover what makes their people tick and utilising this to help them progress. Time may be an issue here, but Moffat saw this as a priority for managing her team, and it’s definitely worth considering whether you do enough of this.

How does the military develop inspiring leaders?

For the remainder of the talk Moffat outlined some of the key actions she took as a leader in the British Army and how this can be applied within any leadership role.

One point that Moffat couldn’t stress enough is that when she talks of leaders this isn’t just addressed to the people at the top. Everyone is a leader, whether you’re a team leader, a line manager, a project manager, a mentor or a role model - in some way, you are acting as a leader. And it is your job, as a consequence, to be inspirational and empowering.

Here are a selection of some of the insights Moffat shared on military leadership.

1. Make leadership everyone’s business

In the military, soldiers are given leadership responsibilities almost from the get go. And this is a trick that is being missed in the business space. “In many organisations, there is insufficient investment in leadership development early on in people. But the earlier people have an understanding of leadership the better,” argues Moffat.

2. Be a leader, not a manager

Moffat highlighted many differences between leadership and management. But she stated that the key difference is being comfortable with change and uncertainty.

“Leaders need to be at the leading edge of change: they need to find out what the change potentially is and how to shape it and motivate their team to overcome it,” says Moffat.

3. Build trust

In military life, soldiers have to trust that their team mate will cover their backs, quite literally. And leaders need to enable individuals and teams to operate independently: “the boss works out the ‘what’ and the teams work out the ‘how’”, says Moffat.

4. Reward your people

We all know that recognising the work of your people is a big motivator, but Moffat stressed the importance of valuing all roles and differences - and how easily certain teams or people can be forgotten about. “Look around your organisation more and make sure everyone gets recognition.”

5. Cut the crap

Moffat argued that leaders should do a regular ‘cutting the crap’ audit. We shouldn’t be wasting our people’s time asking them to do unimportant, irrelevant tasks. Always question why a certain task is being done - is it actually useful to anyone?

6. Give feedback

The traditional yearly performance reviews are antiquated and do not help people develop at a quick enough pace. Moffat argues that feedback needs to be “candid, constructive, timely, regular and in the moment.” And that giving this kind of feedback will build up respect between the leader and individual.

Overall, the message that emerged from this talk is that no matter what you're a leader of - a business, an army squad, a team, a project - you are responsible for motivating the people who work for you so that they can their best to the task at hand. And by empowering them in this way, through the strategies outlined above, you will likely achieve success.


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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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