Leadership Lessons

Britain’s Royal Navy is a disciplined command-and-control organization that moves across 140 million square miles of the world’s oceans. Although few environments are tougher than a ship or submarine, I’ve been struck, while conducting research on the Royal Navy, by the extent to which these engines of war run on “soft” leadership skills. For officers leading small teams in constrained quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness and effective storytelling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that naval training is predicated on the notion that when two groups with equal resources attempt the same thing, the successful group will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate.

I believe that the same principle holds true for business. In this article, I hope to translate for business leaders—like the ones I’ve gotten to know throughout my career as a business-school professor and communications adviser—some of what I learned while writing the Royal Navy’s first new leadership handbook since 1963. That handbook,1published last year, is based on research of unprecedented length and breadth, as well as my own direct observation of officer training and life at sea.

Among the many softer leadership skills important to the Royal Navy, I highlight here the aforementioned cheerfulness and storytelling, which to me were both unexpected and broadly applicable. While the means of applying these lessons will, of course, differ by organization and individual, reflecting on them should stimulate fresh thinking by senior executives about the relationship between management skills and superior performance.

Cheerfulness Counts

No one follows a pessimist, and cheerfulness is a choice. It has long been understood to influence happiness at work and therefore productivity. The cheerful leader in any environment broadcasts confidence and capability, and the Royal Navy instinctively understands this. It is the captain, invariably, who sets the mood of a vessel; a gloomy captain means a gloomy ship. And mood travels fast. Most ships’ crews are either smaller than, or divided into, units of fewer than 150 members—near the upper end of Dunbar’s Number, suggested by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar as the extent of a fully functioning social group.

The Royal Navy assiduously records how cheerfulness counts in operations. For example, in 2002 one of its ships ran aground, triggering the largest and most dangerous flooding incident in recent years. The Royal Navy’s investigating board of inquiry found that “morale remained high” throughout demanding hours of damage control and that “teams were cheerful and enthusiastic,” focusing on their tasks; “sailors commented that the presence, leadership, and good humor of senior officers gave reassurance and confidence that the ship would survive. “Turning up and being cheerful, in other words, had a practical benefit.

How do you teach cheerfulness? The Royal Navy takes every informal opportunity to demonstrate its usefulness. To fill the dead time that invariably occurs during training exercises and other routine activities, for example, navy personnel routinely hold informal games or contests. These games, known as Dogwatch Sports (after the dogwatch periods of duty in the evening, when the entire ship’s company is typically awake), are often trivial and nonsensical—passing a stick, for example, across an ever-widening divide. But besides cheerfulness, they encourage speed of thought, an outward-looking mind-set, and a willingness to talk. Cheerfulness in turn affects how people sit, stand, and gesticulate: you can see its absence when heads are buried in hands and eye contact is missing.

Royal Marine commanders understand particularly well that cheerfulness is fueled by humor: one I met required his whole company to “sing for their supper” by telling a joke—any joke—in front of their fellow marines prior to eating. That’s part of a wider navy culture that expects everyone, from the top down to the newest and rawest sailor, to be able and willing to stand up and talk, in an impromptu fashion, about what they’re doing. Such a skill is especially prized in an organization that moves people quickly and often (typically, every two years) and requires them, perhaps as a matter of life and death, to hit the ground running in their new posts.

The practice of “banter”—a peculiarly British form of playful, if gently mocking, communication—is also openly encouraged as an upbeat and informal way to regulate relationships and break down hierarchy. Banter occurs at all ranks and quite often between them. A Royal Navy driver will talk more readily to a second sea lord than the average corporate employee will engage his or her CEO in an elevator. Indeed, one CEO I know described the social awkwardness of riding one with his (clearly discomfited) colleagues by confiding: “Everyone acts as if they’re dating my eldest daughter!”

Several times, I personally experienced the social cohesion that banter helps promote, most memorably on mountaintop exercises with the Royal Marines. News of my snoring had preceded me at nightfall, but embarrassment quickly gave way to a feeling of social inclusion in a group of people I had never previously met. Banter is always tempered by respect for others. Conversely, empty optimism or false cheer can hurt morale. As one naval captain puts it, “Being able to make the uncertain certain is the secret to leadership. You have to understand, though, that if you are always über-optimistic, then the effect of your optimism, over time, is reduced.” The relevance of many of these techniques to the corporate workplace is obvious, not least in a world of rapid job rotation, team-based work, and short-term projects that are typically set up in response to sudden competitive challenges and require an equally fleet-footed response.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan