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What the Marines taught me about leadership and power

17 years as an officer in the Royal Marines means Thom knows a bit about leadership, so we asked him what the Marines taught him.

An interview with Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership
17 years as an officer in the Royal Marines saw Thom Dennis in the UK’s elite Commando Force, achieve the coveted Green Beret, and also his parachute wings. He devised the plan for the withdrawal of the Corps from Malta in 1977, and later worked in the Ministry of Defence as personnel manager of 7,000, advising on policy and action, including being a member of the Post-Falklands War South Atlantic Fund Committee. Having served on several operational tours, and trained Royal Navy officers at both Dartmouth and Greenwich, it is safe to say Thom knows a bit about leadership, so we asked him what the Marines taught him that he brings to work on a daily basis as an authority in leadership.

Let’s cut to the chase, what do you think is the difference between leadership and power?
“The difference between leadership and power is fear and control. Leadership is a kind of giving. The exercise of power without the positive attributes of leadership is more about ego, and so naturally fear, authority and control play assorted parts in the equation.  Leadership is about being a role model, guiding individuals and helping to enable their personal achievements, as well as success for a greater common interest using positive influence. The exercise of power without conscious accountability can leave others worse off or damaged – something we witness today in the police to the political environment, from the NHS to the entertainment industry. Power demands respect whilst good leadership means earning it.

It’s important also to differentiate the noun ‘power’ with the adjective ‘powerful’ a leader can be very powerful but exercise their power with respect, humility and equanimity.

So what did the Marines teach you about leadership and power?
In the Marines I don’t think we really dealt with power at all.  Being in the Corps taught me about camaraderie and being part of a team, how it’s the team that produces the result, not so much an individual. Leadership was vital in order to achieve the mission – the mission was paramount, so if someone was falling behind, then something was done to bring that person along wherever possible. We were also trained to question convention, think on our feet and for ourselves, and to expect the unexpected. In many businesses, the objective is more important than the people and that objective is usually ultimately about profit, if necessary at the cost of the people. In the Corps, we learnt that nothing can be achieved without the people.  

But things are changing, and purpose, inspiration and values are becoming more important in the corporate world, just as they have been in the armed forces for many years. I would have followed the very best leaders in the Marines anywhere, and in a couple of instances, I did.  

It was of course tough in the Marines. We had to be solutions-based and we had to be brave. I recall being in a total white-out in Norway and the feeling of being completely alone was overwhelming, so I started singing as loud as I could to stay calm and not feel so isolated. During training, we used to say “its only pain” but now emotional intelligence is part of the leadership training in the Marines. It’s more subtle, more nuanced. War traumatises everyone involved,and the suppression of feelings is an old formula that has been proven not to work; many managers in business would do well to hear this message.  

How do leadership and power play out?
The exercise of power is a game, and you have to know how to play it in organisations it calls for a certain level of wiliness and your ego takes centre stage. Knowing how to navigate the political environment in an organisation is a key skill, but the most effective leaders aim to get the best out of their people without manipulating or pressuring them. Leadership is not about relinquishing authority or being indecisive; sometimes good leaders need to make quick, sharp decisions that not everyone will be happy with, but trust and respect are at the heart of it.

You have talked about how joining the Marines was a vital part of your recovery from bullying?
“After years of trauma and being bullied at school, the Marines gave me a better sense of myself, confidence and an affirmation of me as a person and my character. Bullying traumatises so deeply it can take a lifetime to get over it, but the Marines proved to me that I could do things that most people can’t and that I could be part of a team and have a mission and achieve it.  I deliberately chose the Royal Marines because it offered the most challenging and wide-ranging training, including of course the commando course. As an executive coach and leadership trainer, I help leaderswork out a strategy that best serves the team and their clients, the culture and the bottom-line, not just the leader. Inclusivity, authenticity and encouraging original thought are key. If the team is behind the plan and believes in it and feels safe enough to fully express themselves, they will work to help you fulfil it.  

How can we master responsible power? Work out what sort of leader and person you want to be.
When we are put into a position of leadership and given power and responsibility, it is worth taking the time to work out what sort of leader you want to be and to take a long hard look at what your work relationships are like and what you need to work on yourself. A leader should want their employees to be inspired and share their vision, rather than be autocratic.

Understand your impact and responsibility.
Be aware of your impact and whether the systems and culture support the people and the objectives and ecology of the business. Are we taking advantage of the people who are buying from us or working in our business, or are we actually serving our employees and clients well? Do your decisions make sense in the bigger scheme of things such as wellbeing, safety, the environment, the community and world changes?  

Share information where possible.
Egotists hoard information (as a kind of power) and enjoy surprising people and making them appear out of the loop and excluded. Transparency can feel risky but actually it enables more input,and leads to good and balanced decisions.

Communicating with employees is of utmost importance when leading a team, and taking time to show that you listen to what they say and respect their feedback is important to build trust between you.

Avoid using titles. Have humility.
Constantly referring to your job title or authority can undermine others. People will know your position and therefore won’t need you to remind them. Be aware you are not the centre of the business; your people are the core assets. Be open to feedback even if what you hear doesn’t make you feel very comfortable.

Establish respect for all.
By having clear outcomes for poor behaviour at work and ensuring action and consequences for those who cross over the line will clarify for all what is unacceptable and takes the air out of power-thirsty individuals.

Create a safe environment.
To be an inspirational and successful leader, you need to create a safe environment for employees. Don’t be a leader that enables a toxic culture where people don’t speak up if they are concerned.

Stay calm and professional in situations.
Keeping a cool head in problematic times and being professional shows business leadership and gains respect. Care and inspire.

Know that inclusion and teamwork are the opposite of power and control.
Good leaders care about their people and their successes and inspire others to do well.

Stick to your promises whenever possible.
Letting people down and offering more than you can give will create cracks causing resentment, conflict and loss of trust. Honesty is the best policy.

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