Leadership lessons from a caddish relic

I have learned many a good lesson from people I don’t like very much, and I have come to rather cherish this as a thing. So when I realised I was learning some really great leadership lessons from someone difficult to like, I was inspired to summarise them in this blog. I hope it i of interest to people wanting to improve their leadership qualities.

The person in mind is Lord Mountbatten. Massive figure in the second world war, influential royal, inspirational leader. I will ignore his self-aggrandisement, naked personal ambition, selfishness, relentless self-publicity, disfunctional private life, controversial role in the partitioning of India/Pakistan and rumours of … well anyone interested is encouraged to read “The Mountbattens by Andrew Lownie. But amongst all this, he was without doubt an extraordinarily gifted leader. He inspired lasting affection in those he led and pulled off some remarkable feats. I want to summarise where I believe he got it exactly right and how todays leaders can learn from his example

Personal attention

Early in his career, Mountbatten was made Divisional Officer which is where the ship’s company (ie crew) are allocated an officer probably outside of their chain of command. In some ways it’s a bit like a Personal Tutor at university. Being a DO is something that early career naval officers gain an taste of leading a large group of sailors and can be a challenging post for a young officer. When Mountbatten was given this post, he managed to get hold of the the list of all the 120 sailors in his division and learned all their names before he even joined the ship. He even managed to get hold of information about their backgrounds so when he met them for the first time he was able to make it seem as if he knew them already. So he could, for example ask after a sick mother, a new born baby or whether an injury was healing. Given that many officers in those days were quite remote figures, this was a revelation and immediately won the loyalty of the division and started a pattern of personal attention that he was to follow for his entire career.

Paying attention to the needs of the people he led

This is probably rule one in the Horatio Nelson leadership book – you need to look after your people. It’s something that has been passed down in military lore to this day. I remember when I was a private soldier in the army a rather touching ritual every evening. We squaddies would line up at the cookhouse for our evening meal and when we had all been served and sat down to eat, the duty officer would arrive and walk around asking if the food was OK. And only once they had done that, they would get their food and sit down and eat. OK they ate at a separate table and OK we sometimes took advantage of the situation to say “the only problem is some idiot keeps on asking us if the food is all right”. But the point was made every single day: officers eat last. Nowadays the speaker and author Simon Sinek has made most of his career on this point (see a good Ted Talk he did on the subject) . It is a great thing. But to return to Mountbatten, he always went way beyond that minimum. He would use the knowledge he had about his people to make sure he could do what he can to help them. Perhaps it was easier for him as he had married into vast wealth so there was always a rail ticket he could pay for or a favour a connection could pull. But he did what he could. And that made him stand out amongst his peers – and amongst many who came after. So, it’s great to know your people. But even better to use that knowledge to go above and beyond what you are obliged to do.

Knowing how to leverage his network.

Networking has become known as a skill in its own right. Consultants specialise in training people to do it and good MBAs will include a hefty amount of it. Way before the term even existed, Mountbatten knew how important it was. He was gifted a massive advantage in being born into royalty and then marrying into enormous wealth. But he leveraged these gifts with great skill. He was also completely shameless in asking for what he wanted and given the connections and power he accumulated, he usually got what he asked for. It’s hard to draw direct parallels though because having the sort of connections he had is extremely unusual. But we can learn to use what we have. On a daily basis leaders need to influence rather than instruct and so much of our abilities to achieve results come down to the esteem that others hold us in. So if you are asked to do a piece of work that is slightly outside the norm, the extent to which we are going to deliver the work is whether we are being asked by someone we (a) know and (b) trust. Networking is the way of making sure we have a wide circle of people who know us. The issue of whether we are trusted is vital but the subject of a different blog!

Being technically excellent in everything.

Despite a deserved reputation for partying and taking lavish holidays, Mountbatten was also an extremely hard worker. He had a flair for technology and an obsession for detail. This meant he spent hours working outside normal hours honing his knowledge and even brought in several inventions to do with signals that became adopted as standards across the Royal Navy. Any course he attended he would strive to be top and he frequently was. And he was always on the look out for a new skill to learn. He always stayed at the forefront of technology and became expert in all new systems. He avoided the danger of being known as the boffin though by sticking to the executive branch rather than being known only as a technician. Then as now, the technical expert was often not the one who was promoted or became the leader. I often discuss this with leaders today who have become successful in their specialisms. If you rely only on being known for being a technical expert, you can find your career can plateau. If this is what you want to do, then of course it’s great. But if you have ambitions to move into strategic management, you will need to develop a reputation of expertise beyond your immediate technical specialism. In order to be a strategic leader you will need to master the technology AND know the art of leadership.

And finally…

So these are some lessons I picked up from a leader of the past. He was of his time and controversies followed him as such a huge character would. He tended to bring out extreme responses – love and loathing. But regardless of which camp you are in, I would hold these as being pretty useful ideas for the leader of today.