Lessons in Leadership from General Sir Mike Jackson

April 12, 2017

The presentation by General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British Army, was, for many, the highlight of our first Elite meeting, and I thought I’d try to distil some of his pearls of wisdom for those of you who weren’t there.

General Mike pointed out that any group with a common purpose is a team, and all teams need leadership. He defined leadership as the capacity and the will to motivate people to work for a common purpose, and pointed out that a leader has failed if they rely on everyone just obeying the rules because they’re there.

He broke the leadership process down into:

  • Ends – where do you want to be? What’s the objective?
  • Means – what resources do you have, in terms of people, time, money etc ?
  • Ways – how to apply the means to achieve the objective – this is key!

There are likely to be multiple options, and doing nothing may be the best one, as long as it is a conscious choice. Whatever you choose, have a contingency plan.

When it comes to delegating, General Mike advocates laying down the required end and the

available means, and letting them find their own way (within reason!) to maximize their autonomy. He spoke about the balance between not being too distant, but not wanting to know every detail – the people at the top need ‘filters’ to help get this right.

He emphasized the importance of communication – both in terms of clarity and avoiding jargon, and in taking the time to communicate face to face where possible – spending ‘time on the road’ to ask, listen, praise and thank. When this isn’t feasible, try to make recipients feel like they have a stake in what’s happening, and to make the message as personal as possible.

So, how do you develop great leadership skills? In the British Army General Sir Mike explained how this was much less about formal leadership development programs than we had expected. Instead, he said there was a constant focus on leadership, and a lot of analysis of and reflection upon decisions and outcomes. Learning to be a leader was seen as a continuous process of gaining experience, sharing experience, reflecting on what went well, what less so, and considering how to do better next time. The Army ties this in with a very formal performance review process, using specific performance indicators to assess progress.

James was very pleased that General Sir Mike took the view that if you have someone who is causing trouble, or just doesn’t fit, then you have to choose either to muddle along and accept that you’re not going to make progress, or the individual has to be moved on. He sees change as something that may be challenging, but is essential.

One final word of caution – beware embellished progress reports from those keen to please – you need to be kept informed of what’s really happening. The flipside to this is ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ – you need to be prepared to hear bad news and criticism, as well as the positive stuff.

Although it was somewhat overshadowed by the terrible events very nearby in Westminster that afternoon, it was a really enjoyable and informative day.