We’re not military strategists, but news coverage in the last couple of days in the UK – here are examples from The Daily Telegraph as well as Defence Management Journal – has highlighted an important issue of leadership and culture that applies as much to commercial life as to its immediate focus: the British Army. Whatever else may or may not be concealed in foreign sand, the concern is that one buried object is the British Army’s collective head.

Armies are, of course, intended for both attack and defence. The issue here is largely about one of the things they are being seen to defend: themselves. To choose just one extract from the man whose words have put the Army temporarily in the media spotlight, he contends that the service has:

a command climate in which bad news is routinely camouflaged and where the ability of junior officers to influence a future which they will be inheriting is distinctly limited. It is one described by Tim Collins as one in which ‘obsequious behaviour by career-conscious senior officers on the ground’ contributes to a sadly muddled picture in Whitehall. Being unable to accept being submerged, their views diluted or just unheard, many of the more talented officers will probably have been long lost to the armed forces altogether through departure to less stratified civilian employment. It is certainly not unusual to hear UK contemporaries express the view that there are no heretics left, few non-conformists and not enough original thinkers. And since the British Army monitors only its quantitative losses in manpower, it simply has no feel for how much of its quality has left prematurely.”

Wars (or whichever alternative term you prefer) in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq have been flashpoints of debate as well as of conflict for a variety of reasons, some political or moral. But at a strategic level, the Army is increasingly coming under ‘friendly fire’ from its own: General Sir David Richards, who takes command of the Army in August 2009, has recently told the Royal United Service Institute Land Warfare Conference that a major re-think is needed.

Whether a conflict is right or wrong, how an Army conducts itself once engaged is critical to the outcome. That armed services come with a baggage of tradition should come as no surprise: the Army is an organisation that is proud of its history. But tradition can recoil as powerfully as any weapon. While Churchill argued that “A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril”, the Army might also ponder the words of GK Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

The specific contexts of both Iraq and Afghanistan add extra weight to Chesterton’s words: definitions of democracy are contentious, tradition (informed by religious belief) is a key strand of local culture – and there have been a truly tragic number of dead. (For a gruesome example of the level of (in)humanity in action, those with a strong stomach can discover what Iraqi human rights activists are currently unearthing.)

But one crucial issue of tradition for the British Army was outlined by John Nagl in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme:

The British Army which has such a proud history in counter-insurgency campaigns has not done everything right in Helmand Province, did not do everything right in Basra. It needs to think hard about these lessons. I believe it needs to think publicly.”

One person who is thinking publically is retired Major Patrick Little, whose article Lessons Unlearned (published in the RUSI Journal) has triggered the recent news coverage. Comparing the conduct and leadership of the British and US armies, Little’s view is that his former colleagues have urgent lessons to learn. The failings he finds are deeply embedded cultural failings, where toxic leadership – a concept where evidence can be seen far beyond the military – is becoming entrenched as lower ranks follow the (poor) examples of those above them while emerging ‘rising stars’ whose mindsets might (in Little’s terminology) be described as “constructive dissent” are opting to leave the force rather than attempt to change it from within.

Ironically for conflicts where “hearts and minds” were frequently discussed in early media reporting as US and British forces came to terms with their roles in policing local communities, these organs are – it seems – in need of internal review. As Little puts it himself:

Toxicity in command structures, brought about by commanders ill-suited for their roles, is something the army can no longer afford – particularly in a world where the softer skills of being able to operate successfully in such complex human terrain (reconcilables and irreconcilables, accidental guerrillas, sceptical military partners, suspicious civilian development organizations – and so on) is so paramount.

 […]

In short, a creative tension should exist at the heart of the British Army, in which orthodoxies survive only under great and continuous pressure. ‘Constructive dissent’ would be allowed to play a fuller part whilst ‘destructive consent’ would be bred out. And in this regard, the conformism of much military writing would be erased. Continuous re-invention is a difficult solution for any regular military to accept, even if it works for some commercial brands. The sustained dynamism required to survive and succeed in tomorrow’s environment is the single greatest challenge that faces the British military, and it demands an intellectual integrity that currently evades it. Hiding behind tradition is no answer.”

In terms of a lesson to be drawn for all of us, that final sentence is as close as any futile attempt to summarise Little’s entire document in a brief nutshell can probably come. To continue, those who follow us need to inherit a legacy of adaptability, not a heirloom of rigidity. Even museums – while they preserve the treasures they house – must adapt to changing times, but one key lesson from our past is that we cannot continue in it.

Too much blood is spilt in any conflict zone: that’s an inescapable part of the tragedy of war. But valuable metaphorical blood is being lost too – the new blood of some of the best of the coming generation, lost to an organisation that is blocking its flow to its own detriment. The developing key talent of any organisation are also those operating closest to “ground level”: a senior management that closes its ears to the observations of its subordinates threatens not just its long-term survival – it threatens the present.

No matter how proud the history or any organisation – military, commercial, public or private – the world in which it lives will not and cannot stand still: the only viable tradition that any organisation can maintain if its proud history is to continue to evolve is a tradition of change.

But that change must begin with willingness, and with awareness of its desirability. As Little says, the best option is to “turn the critical mirror on itself. […] It will demonstrate unequivocally a willingness to learn, pay the price of failings, and a determination to adapt”. Our own organisations may not carry the responsibilities of a national armed service, may not operate in such life-threatening circumstances or involve intense emotions or political debate, but they do have one element of common ground: to endure, they need to find ways of surviving and adapting.

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