Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Culture & Leadership Conference: Building on Sand?

A Polemic

My interest was piqued recently an open invitation to the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference titled ‘Culture and Leadership’. The premise of the conference is:

The success of any organisation depends upon its culture – the values, beliefs, attitudes and ethos that shapes it’s collective identity. Culture, in turn, informs our behaviours and directly influences the ‘lived experience’ of our people.

The Centre for Army Leadership (CAL) Winter Conference seeks to better understand the symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership. It also seeks to ask the difficult questions. What is culture? Why is it important? Is our culture fit for purpose? What are our strengths? Where are our shortfalls, gaps and failures and what is being done to address these? Most importantly, what role do we as leaders played in shaping a better culture?

These are all laudable aims, and I looked with interest at both the speakers and the topics. If you are not planning on going, in person or via Zoom, then I would recommend that you give it serious consideration; the programme is excellent.

And yet.

Despite explicit acknowledgement of an “ever evolving social, political and economic landscape” and the “symbiotic relationship between culture and leadership” the conference fails to address the evolving culture of the society from which we draw. The topics are clearly focused internally, and yet our Army culture cannot be divorced from the culture of the society we inhabit; there is a symbiotic relationship between the army and society.

There are three aspects in particular that I would have considered worthy for consideration. Two are foundational to the type of society that we are and aspire to be, the third, a Pandora’s Box, is not yet foundational but is ubiquitous.

1. We live in a post-modern society.

2. An evolving moral framework. This post-modern society is post-Christian, yet our moral fabric, exemplified in our legal framework and in large elements of our moral outlook, is based on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

3. The Information Ecosystem. We inhabit a society with a failing information eco-system characterised by information disorder.

Looking at each in turn.

1. The implications of of post-modern society. ‘Post-modern ‘ is a used here in its philosophical sense. Post-modernism is a critical movement, largely sceptical of the idea of constant progress by society. It is acutely sensitive to the idea and danger of universal truths, for if universal truths are claimed, then inevitably there follows the the universal police to ensure compliance. There are four pillars to post-modernism (according to Walter Truett Anderson, a US political scientist)

  • Pillar 1. The social construction of the concept of self. There is no such thing as a real or substantive human nature. A good example of this in modern societal discourse is seen in the concept of transgenderism.
  • Pillar 2. The relativism of moral and political discourse. The primacy of the individual expressing her or his will to power. Good examples of this is the current focus on the rights and feelings of the individual as opposed to the responsibilities to and sensibilities of the many, and the increasing tendency to create our own moralities.
  • Pillar 3. Deconstruction in art and culture. Things are not as they seem, truth is constructed not created, and so a dialect of deconstruction leads to truth. This can be seen in the critical approach taken to historical narratives and art, and in part, in the so called ‘cancel culture’.
  • Pillar 4. Globalisation. Borders are seen as a purely social construct; relegated in use and importance.

So what are the implications for the Army and our leadership? How do we lead an organisation where corporate values and standards are seen as at best anachronistic? How do we lead individuals where realities are self-defined social constructs, moral codes ambiguous and cohering narratives belong not to the institution or the nation state but to other entities or ideas? One only has to look at how the Covid19 vaccine mandate is playing out in the US armed forces to see this being manifest in the here and now.

2. An evolving moral framework. The increasingly relativist  framework of modern morality has been touched on already. One senior officer has already pointed out the need for PME to focus more on how to think and not what to think, including on ethics. We are a society in flux. Our personal moral frameworks are evolving quickly, yet our institutions of state and society are still founded on Judeo-Christian morality. Most do not give much consideration to ethics, and it is not taught at schools. But how can we lead by example in a complex fast paced and increasingly morally ambiguous world if we do not know what is right or wrong and why? We want critical thinkers, but are we prepared for when they challenge us on ethical grounds? In our modern diverse army the fact that Generation X has a fundamentally different moral framework to Generation Z appears to have passed most people by.  We ask our people to act with integrity and do the right thing – what happens when individual moral integrity runs foul of lawful orders? What does it mean to have personal integrity mean when everyone’s is different yet valid? How can our leaders extol us to ‘do the right thing’ when that ‘right thing’ is different for different people? Does the Army need to develop an ethical framework to buttress Values and Standards? 

3. The Information Ecosystem. In a world of ideas where the individual and not the state is supreme, where reality, truth and morality are relative, cohesion is challenged. We are in a crisis of trust and truth. This crisis is brought about in part by the ideas we build on, but also by the information ecosystem that sustains us. An ecosystem that is decaying. We are living in a time, a crisis of information disorder. Information disorder, denotes the broad societal challenges associated with misinfor- mation, disinformation, and malinformation (“The Commission on Information Disorder, Final Report.” page 9, The Aspen Institute, Nov. 2021. CC BY-NC. by-nc/4.0/ )

As the Aspen Institute’s  excellent report makes clear, there are no quick fixes or easy answers to address information disorder, or repair the crisis of trust that strains our civil fabric. The core problems and challenges of this era are deeply rooted and indicative of larger issues our society is struggling with across modern life (page 14), and misinformation and disinformation expose society’s failures to overcome systemic problems, such as income inequality, racism, and corruption, which can be exploited to promote false information online (page 15). Information disorder exposes systemic issues within society, yet in a manner that exploits systemic weaknesses in our information ecosystem to deliver corrosive effect. A systemic problem requires a systemic solution, more than the military could or should deliver. However our leadership and culture must acknowledge the environment within which it operates, the symbiotic relationship between information, culture and leadership. I wonder if we understand this fully, let alone comprehend the implications for 21st century organisational leadership culture and praxis.

The CAL leadership conference looks excellent, but we need to cover the societal fundamentals first. This polemic is aimed at starting the conversation.



When the Ordinary Seems Extraordinary

This week is mental health awareness week, and I am struggling.

I say this with both feeling and knowledge. Feeling because quite frankly I am emotional, knowledge because I have been here before, twice.  I know that having had two episodes my risks of more are significantly higher than if I had only suffered one. 

With the benefit of experience I can see too, that I am the steady, almost imperceptible, downward spiral to a further relapse.

But I am not there yet. And I want to write about my experiences to inform and encourage others, because I view this as a positive story.

To be clear from the outset, I don’t suffer from PTSD.  I have experienced stress and depression. To my somewhat frustration PTSD is seen as the SAS of the mental health landscape.  It is glossy, seemingly everyone wants to write about and yet the vast majority of us will, if we suffer from anything, will suffer from stress and depression. PTSD is seen as acceptable, the curse of the brave. Stress and depression, the unsung stalwarts who are the backbone of mental health statistics are not quite so empathetic. I am one of those.

I had my first episode in the mid ‘noughties’ after an intensive period of operations and far too little leave. I broke, suffering a catastrophic breakdown just before Christmas. The doc gave me some pills, the boss, sympathetic though he was, told me not to talk about it (“it will impact your career you know”) and after two weeks Christmas leave and three appointments with the shrink I carried on as normal.  To be honest I wanted to carry on as normal and career wise I was in a good place and enjoying my job.

But I was not better, and I wasn’t actually in a good place.  Over the next four years I inexorably drifted back to the same hole, only bigger and deeper this time.  This time the system was better. I had three months sick leave and then a graduated return to work over a period of nine months.  More importantly I had access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and could start to undo some of the very bad habits I had picked up over the previous 10 years.

I had to relearn how to enjoy life, how to relax.  I had to diversify my interests and rediscover my hobbies. I learnt how to walk away from the desk.  I learnt that the ringing of the telephone was not a harbinger if doom, and I learnt to calibrate my responses by looking at those around me.

I promoted too, and deployed again, several times. Life does not finish when your mental health fails, you just learn to walk at a different pace.

So what have I learnt?

Firstly, that prevention is better than cure.  I am struggling once more, but I am not broken.  I have the tools to manage my mental resilience much better now.  I recognise the warning signs earlier and pace myself better.  The military’s mental health awareness campaign is excellent, but mental health issues are insidious, manifesting gradually over months and years. I need to look back to 12 months ago and compare then and now. I ask myself when was the last good day that I had, for not every day should be a grey day. I ask myself why does the ordinary every day, seem to take the most extraordinary effort today? And so I check; am I connected? Am I active? How is my prayer life? Am I still volunteering and am I still learning? We all need to be doing these things. The balance for each of us will be different, but the ingredients are the same. I can manage myself better now than in the noughties.

Now, compared to 6 months ago  I am less active, less communicative and my prayer life is superficial; but two weeks ago I was painting the walls in a women’s refuge and that gave me such a boost! So I am recalibrating and consciously changing my behaviour. That is hard, it takes effort and it is immensely draining; but it is possible. Changing patterns is possible, but like the incremental spiral down, so too is it an incremental spiral up.

I will talk to people too.  My padre knows, family and friends too. I have never been shy on my experiences, it is part of my initial patter when I report for duty. There remains a stigma over mental health issues, but there needn’t be.

So what can people do? 

Be supportive.  It sounds trite, but actually in my experience and struggles, having shoulders to lean on has been the best support.  Depression is often called ‘the curse of the strong’, and none of us want to be a burden, but we are not all strong all the time and sometimes we need support.

Be aware.  These changes manifest over time, think back, not now.  Worry about the person who is working harder to stand still, for these are the people for whom the ordinary is becoming extraordinary, and when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and life becomes grey – then you are at the tipping point.

Lastly for those who see a glimpse of themselves in where I am, take a knee, take that condor moment, and reach out.

Remember that stress and depression is what can happen to you, but it does not define who you are. We are all better than that.

For help try:

Big White Wall

I Enjoy A Good Bollocking, But Let’s Think Broader

         CGS Fires Both Barrels

 CGS bollocked us last week. As bollockings went it wasn’t too bad; I have had better –  (Graeme Lamb was a master at communicating rage through the medium of paper, albeit the paper often had puncture wounds), and I have had worse. I agreed entirely with the sentiments, but do wonder about the things unsaid.

On Twitter some have commented as to whether the it was addressed fairly or unfairly, while across at The Wavell Room, David Calder (@drjcalder81) in my opinion came closest to hitting the mark. But hitting the mark on what?

CGS’s 3.5 minutes of steely eyed ire was based on allegations of sexual assault carried out by soldiers on a soldier.  Clearly if proven this would be a significant breach of the Army’s Values and Standards, and in particular ‘Respect for Others’. 

CGS mentioned “Values and Standards”, an “honest sense of decency” and that a “higher level of behaviour” is expected of us.  But in considering the allegations I am struck by the fact that from the society we are drawn, and to society  we will return.

One of the contributing  factors in the background of many sexual assaults is exposure to pornography. Pornography with its objectification of people as a means (vehicle) to an end (sexual satisfaction) and not as an end in themselves, would seem to be the antithesis of the Army’s Values and standards. I have written before about pornography, and that a society that accepts pornography such as ours does, should not be surprised when members of society increasingly behave in a manner that has been socialised as acceptable through pornography. The fact that pornography is acceptable and that the yet the behaviour is unacceptable, is one of the many contradictions in our society. This contradiction of society is mirrored within the British Army, we preach respect for others and yet fail to condemn pornography.

Social cohesion and individual liberty, like religion and science, are in a state of conflict or uneasy compromise throughout the whole period.

I want to encourage us, the military, to think both broader and deeper. We spend much time and effort thinking about Hybrid Warfare and Information Confrontation;  we recognise too that the character of war is changing in composition and balance from the kinetic to the cognitive. We spill ink more freely than blood on the Somme, in talking about AI, PME and Mission Command. We discuss all these and recognise intuitively that the character of war reflects the character of the societies waging war, indeed war is a social mechanism.  Information confrontation too, seeks to exploit the fissures in our societies and we are faced with the strategic implications of this daily, and yet how much time and effort do we spend looking at ourselves? How much time do we spend considering the strategic implications of our evolving sociology? 

To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers.  There is here a reciprocal causation:  the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances.

The quotes in bold were all taken from the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s seminal work ‘The History of Western Philosophy”.  Many may discount the relevance of philosophy to the profession of arms, but as we consider CGS’s exhortation to do better by ourselves, we should take a moment to consider what tools we have to see ourselves for what we are. Philosophy gives us many of these tools. Lastly, and with a nod at PME and Mission Command, consider this: 

To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

Securing Reform in Baghdad

The aftermath of the Karrada bombing in Baghdad
The aftermath of the Karrada bombing in Baghdad

he is dead, whoever it is you are looking for is dead, if he hasn’t showed up this morning then just accept it

Every once in a while a post really hits home.

This post by Sajad Jiyad on the situation in Baghdad is just such one.

The Flames That Consumed Hope

It should be read in conjunction with this one:

Iraq at the Crossroads

I have spent years in Iraq working alongside the Iraqi Army or trying to reform the Iraqi Security Forces. Despite the popular perception we (the West) has not a bad track record in improving the combat effectiveness of our partnered militaries. Unfortunately our track record of reforming the systems within which they operate is appalling at best. If you cannot reform the system then any improvements to the institution are likely to be both unsupported and unsustainable. Turning out the best junior officers may give you a tactical edge in the short term, but unless you reform the middle and upper management they will still have to conform eventually to the very system that lead to failure in the first place.

The Karrada Bombing in Baghdad (pictured above) was a terrible tragedy that may well turn out to have had a strategic impact on the course of politics and the war in Iraq. It was enabled in part by a system that has corruption at its core and still retains use of the so called “magic wands” that were sold as bomb detectors, revealed as worthless and still remain in use. When a system is as corrupt and as ineffective as this, winning the fight is one thing, winning the war another entirely.

Baghdad 'magic wand' in use
Baghdad ‘magic wand’ in use