3 essential leadership tools for getting the best out of your teams, especially in challenging times
Chris Paton is by no stretch your typical leader. Now MD of Quirk Solutions, he is the former Head of Operational Planning for the UK’s civil and military presence in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and a Director of Afghan Strategy at the Ministry of Defence. He now advises public and private organisations on strategic planning and risk-assessing, and how they can become more agile and adaptable in the face of change, foreseen or otherwise.
Chris recently joined our ILM Level 7 Certificate cohort as a guest speaker after the small matter of a 20-hour commute, involving three flights back to the UK from Kazakhstan. He captivated our delegates with his personal leadership stories: from being thrust, as a twenty-something, in charge of 28 soldiers in ‘bandit country’ in South Armagh, to leading a four-man team in the Balkans during the Kosovo conflict. Chris also described how one of his roles in Kosovo was ‘How to Talk a Jet onto a Target’ which he used, on a flip-chart, to explain how the same headings and procedures could be applied to any organisation in achieving its objectives.
Chris was especially keen to emphasise the practical, concrete tools that our ILM Level 7 delegates could take away and apply to their own leadership roles. Here are three of them.
Leadership Tool 1 – Collaboration
Perhaps most striking of all in Chris’s leadership stories was the focus on leading inclusively. Even in the military, collegiate and distributive leadership would play an integral role in the planning and decision-making process. Mutual trust is essential to high performance, especially in volatile situations.
Show an intent to understand and empathise with your people. By communicating precisely, positively and inclusively as a leader, you’ll encourage strong bonds to form between you and your teams. They’ll also feel confident to express ideas, and safe to challenge your ideas constructively and purposefully.
Leadership Tool 2 – Empowerment
Chris uses the term ‘mission command’ in his approach to strategic planning. This is not, however, about telling your people what to do in the classic sense of ‘command-and-control’. It’s about telling them what you as a collective want to achieve, and the style you want to do it in. As a leader, you can set the parameters within which the team can operate, making the box as small or large as required.
Once the box is set, you can give your team the freedom to deliver using their own ideas and expertise. This creates a personal mandate and desire for success in each of your team members, and saves you as a leader from having to keep up that unhelpful pretence that you know everything already.
Chris is a fan of the ‘one-third/two-thirds’ rule. Given a deadline of three months, for example, use the first of these to action-plan as a leader. This leaves the following two months for your team to execute the strategy, giving them enough time to take everything on board, and to properly understand – and therefore buy into – the plans you’ve laid out for them.
Leadership Tool 3 – Stress-testing
A large part of Chris’s own work lies in business ‘war-gaming’. This process involves splitting a project team into groups who then assess, respond and react to each other’s plans. As a result, all stakeholders work in parallel, breaking down traditional hierarchies and models of deference. This provides a space for full and frank sense-checking, and builds a depth of understanding for all involved.
Inclusive leadership, then, drives a very real sense of purpose and strategic vigilance. It also embraces the fact that plans do go wrong; 70% of all strategic initiatives fail, after all. By drawing in experts and building in contingency plans, you’ll be prepared as a leader for those red flags that signal a crisis on the horizon. Ultimately, this will leave you and your organisation better placed to handle, and affect, what happens next.
Follow Chris Paton’s own business blog on Strategy, Planning and Wargaming.