By Sam, UK Military
Empowering your subordinates is at the heart of the military’s Mission Command ethos of leadership. Recently having been appointed to a coalition staff, my experience working alongside different specialities, services, civilians, and other nations has exposed me to some of the best practices across a wide cohort. Even when the language, terminology, culture, and ethos differ, empowerment has been the greatest tool to devolving decision-making and multiplying efficiency within the staff environment, but these can easily apply in tactical-level units like regimental duty command appointments, and even to many non-military industries. I have framed these as the 4 Cs of Empowerment:
Curiosity, far from killing the cat, is a survival characteristic that humankind has used to progress some of the most important breakthroughs in the world. Curiosity in a leader should be expected; a thirst for knowledge and for learning new things is a strength for leaders that may not be in the specialist field which they are expecting to command. Some of the clearest ways we identify our subordinates’ potential and enthusiasm for their profession is by their passion for developing themselves and their subordinates. By creating a culture of and providing support to curiosity, we allow our staff to learn and develop, which strengthens their own understanding of their environments and mission. This understanding empowers them to act based on knowledge they have learned through a focussed curiosity of their role and that of others. Leaders need to focus their own and their peoples’ curiosity to ensure that it is productive to the mission and task set. Ensuring curiosity is focused and not a broad and wandering characteristic is perhaps more challenging for leaders but with careful development and management it is a key element of empowerment.
Open and honest dialogue is one of the key communication tools leaders and military personnel have at their command. Networking across units whether these be subordinate, higher command HQs, joint, or coalition organisations allows staff to gain insight across the battle picture. Collaborating breaks down silos, allows the free flow of information and ideas, and increases creativity. It also allows personnel to work in a team-centric rather than top down environment and is broadly considered a good tool for increasing staff engagement in tasks. By allowing people to collaborate you provide them freedom to solve problems at the lowest common denominator bringing you solutions rather than problems.
Accepting opposite views or even minor discourse is something that may be alien to an organisation like the military that is so focussed on a command and top-down approach to decision-making. However, to empower others, an openness to challenging arguments is essential. The key approach to this in the military is to foster an environment where challenging an opinion is not tantamount to challenging the person thereby allowing subordinates to challenge without accusations of insubordination. The manner of the challenge is important too; doing so with dignity and respect at the right time and constructively allows staff to challenge ideas without diminishing command authority or credibility.
Leaders who empower their people must commit to the idea and see it through to its conclusion whether it results in success or failure. Learning from failure through empowerment can be valuable for a leader but also a great opportunity for developing staff and subordinates. Empowerment is a journey, unique for each person and situation. Leaders must support those on the journey and be mindful of exercising their influence and trust in their people.
Sam is a Captain in the UK military with 12 years’ experience in personnel, staff, recruitment, ops planning and defence engagement. She has served 4 operational tours in Afghanistan and the broader Middle East including in NATO and Coalition HQs.
If you find this post helpful, subscribe to receive weekly email notifications of new content!