Evolution of Royal Marines Commando leadership trainingBy Command Wing | Commando Training Centre Royal Marines July 22, 2020
Command Wing’s approach to developing leadership is to enable students to reach the highest levels of learning; where they can analyse, synthesise and evaluate knowledge. The outcome is to create agile decision makers who make good decisions when they are leading Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Civilians in barracks and on Commando operations. These leaders are expected to act according to the Commando mindset – to be the first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome. Not to stifle tempo and initiative by relying only on orders to act.
This article is the first in a series which will describe how Command Wing is achieving this aim. It will focus on some of the thinking behind how agile decision makers can be developed by considering what role thoughts and intentions play in decision making; how values-based system of decision making can be developed and why we need to acknowledge probabilistic outcomes to differentiate between good and bad decisions.
If you have attended a coaching course or arduous course in the last couple of years, it is likely you will have noticed the introduction of mental resilience awareness to military training. The British Army’s psychological skills handbook is an accessible resource which describes techniques to build mental resilience founded in the practise of mindfulness – a powerful tool to build self-awareness and self-regulation, both of which are pillars of emotional intelligence. One of the first things you become aware of with any mindfulness or meditation practise is that you have no control of how and when thoughts appear in your mind. If you close your eyes and concentrate on nothing but your breathing, you cannot control what thoughts arise, you merely acknowledge them and wait for the next one. You can’t control your thoughts by selecting which ones you think, because to do so would require you to think your thoughts before you think them.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris states that:
“thoughts, intents, desires and the actions and choices born of them arise because of the neurophysiological events of which we are not conscious and did not bring into being.”
This is to propose that we don’t have complete free will to choose how we act. Rather, our actions are an expression of our life experience which has shaped us into the person we are today. We are defined by our thoughts and actions, and our actions and thoughts define us. If we accept this argument as true, then how does it relate to training decision making for the Commando Force?
The deterministic argument for decision making proposes that if you were to re-live decisions you have made in the past you would not have the free will to behave differently because your intentions and experiences leading to that point would not have changed. This is to say that all decisions we have made and will make are pre-determined. The simplistic interpretation of this argument would be to say that we have no control or responsibility for our actions, so there’s no point in training or developing our decision making. But to return to Harris, the neurophysiological events in our lives inform our decisions. The ambition of leadership training is to create these events in order to inform students’ decision making when they return to work.
In Legacy, James Kerr describes how “inspiring leaders establish rituals to connect their team to its core narrative” and that “rituals make beliefs real and tangible – they make them a thing”. The Commando Force’s core narrative is established by the Commando Values and Spirit. This gives us a competitive advantage over other organisations – we have a strong sense of what behaviours we expect of each other. By ritualising these values and spirit in our daily lives, we make them a “thing” or neurophysiological events and our decision-making experience becomes informed by them.
Ritualising the Commando values and standards allows us to actualise them. This builds heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, to encode the values and standards in our future decision making, which we do not have free will to choose. We shape our conscious mind in preparation for decision making, the same consciousness that puts unfiltered thoughts in our minds when we meditate.
Once we have established a values-based decision-making process, it is important to be able to differentiate between bad decisions and bad outcomes. Jim Collins observes that failing to notice bad processes with good outcomes will reinforce bad processes, resulting in a compounding of errors which we must strive to avoid in military training.
Figure 1 (Above) shows a decision pathway for a section attack to assault left or right flanking. Based on information available at the point of decision, the right choice is to go left flanking because the ground provides covered approaches, and the right has poor going and the terrain risks becoming disorientated and losing the enemy position. The outcomes of the decision, both left and right flanking have different probabilities of a successful attack assigned at the outcome node. Left flanking, which looked like the right decision, only has a 30% probability of success, which seems low. This might reflect there is a hidden minefield on the assault axis. The right flank has a 40% probability of a successful outcome. This might reflect the enemy position orientated their defences against likely approach routes and left the poor ground unprotected.
After the section attack, it will be easy to draw lessons from a successful left flanking attack. But it may not be obvious that there was only a 30% probability of success. Similarly, after an unsuccessful right flanking attack it will be easy to draw lessons why it failed, but it may not be acknowledged that there were factors that gave the decision a 40% probability of success. In these cases, there is a temptation to not fully analyse and evaluate the action.
If the section attack outcome lies in the ambiguous learning zone shown in figure 1, then there is a risk that false lessons may be learnt and the wrong heuristics developed for future decision-making. Coaches can lead students to understand the causative factors of the section attack’s outcome by asking open questions, providing different perspectives and wargaming alternative decision points. Without the experience or perspective of coaches, students are at risk of learning the wrong lessons.
The purpose of the example above is not to say there is a “DS answer” for tactical problems, but to acknowledge that however good a decision, or series of decisions, the nature of our business is that outcomes will always be affected by chance to some level, outcomes must be considered probabilistic. Command training will create complex problems with multiple decision points where the ambiguous learning zone grows to create agile decision makers. Coaches must have the skill and experience to be able to differentiate between bad outcomes resulting from good decisions and good outcomes despite bad decisions to avoid what Collins describes as reinforcing bad processes.
Understanding the mental models used to improve understanding the probability of outcomes at decision points can be made by looking to other sectors. Business and investment decisions are made in this context every day. Studying these can increase diversity of thought and develop alternative perspectives.
Command Wing is undergoing constant review to modernise and professionalise the training it delivers. The next article in this series will focus on how these ideas will be applied. By way of a final thought from marketing executive and author Seth Godin, “we need to teach two things; one, how to lead, and two, how to solve interesting problems… The way you teach to solve interesting problems is to give interesting problems to solve.”
 Bloom, B.S. (Ed.), Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive domain.New York: David McKay.
 Great Britain. Royal Army Medical Corps (2019). Mental Resilience Training: psychological skills handbook. Search “Mental Resilience Training” on AKX (AC64653).
 Goleman, D. (2011). ‘What makes a leader’, in On Leadership, Harvard Business Review, p. 1 – 21.
 Harris, S. (2019). Free Will 1 lesson. Waking Up app. Accessed 3 Mar 2020.
 Kerr. J. (2013). Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. London: Constable.
 The Commando Values: excellence, integrity, self-discipline, humility. The Commando Spirit: courage, determination, unselfishness, cheerfulness.
 Parrish, S. (2019). #67 Jim Collins: Keeping the flywheel in motion. The Knowledge Project podcast. Accessed 3 Mar 2020.
 Ferris, T. (2019). #376. How Seth Godin manages his life – rules, principles, obsessions (repost). The Time Ferris Show podcast. Accessed 3 Mar 2020.