Learning and Leading through CollaborationBy Chris Thorburn February 8, 2021
In the beginning I was a poor leader. Aloof and distant, I mistook stoicism, desire, and unwavering self-belief for leadership. Unfortunately for those under my command, I learned to lead through trial and error and more than a little help from some very patient and forgiving soldiers. Without them I never would have learned to lead.
Whilst I will be forever thankful that the soldiers under my command stuck with me, I would have much preferred to be a good boss right off the bat. Not only can that, but the lessons I learned can readily be experienced within our training system. If we want our Army to be a truly agile and collaborative force, then the culture in our schools and units can better reflect that ambition.
If we can teach our people from the beginning to learn and lead in a collaborative manner, then we are preparing them to think, fight, and win in a decisive action environment.
One of the reasons I love my job is because it’s so stimulating; a commander is expected to solve problems and improve performance. But the main reason I love my job is because of the people I get to work with. Only through teamwork can problems be solved and performance improved.
Unfortunately, for a long time I struggled to join the dots between these two distinct but interrelated concepts: teamwork and problem solving. I didn’t understand how teamwork could be leveraged to help the problem solving process. This is because I viewed problem solving as an individual rather than a collective effort.
On one level, my lack of understanding was on me: cadets at the Royal Military College-Duntroon (‘the College’) are taught the theory of leading teams. I knew, at least in theory, that the mission could only be achieved through the team.
But on the other hand, in many ways the College’s culture was defined by competition and individualism. The College compelled me to plan in isolation and to compete with my peers for the corps of my choice; it also built barriers between peers through the awarding of rank. We learned collaboration in theory, but in practice we were conditioned by our environment to compete.
Is it really surprising then some junior officers believe if they devote enough time and effort to thinking about their platoons they will be able to come up with all the answers, all by themselves?
I don’t think leadership works like that. Leaders who plan in isolation end up leading in isolation. Good leaders plan, teach, coach, mentor, and lead through collaboration. Good leaders achieve buy-in through mutual understanding and collective ownership of the team’s mission. Good teams care about the mission just as much as their leader, understand their collective purpose, and know what each member brings to the fight. Good teams want to work together to get the job done.
In the beginning I didn’t treat my soldiers like this. Not because I didn’t like them, but because that’s what I thought the Army’s culture was and that’s what I thought Army expected me to do. Why? Because my only exposure to Army’s culture had been through the College. I thought leadership was about resilience and personal example, stoicism and emotional detachment. I knew that as an aspiring leader I had to subordinate myself to the team—Serve to Lead—but most of the training I had completed felt like it was focused on me as an individual, not the team as a whole.
Whilst a leader needs to understand themselves, my focus had become so inward-looking that I forgot what leadership was all about: the team. Leadership is about human connection, collaboration, and sometimes even vulnerability—it's certainly not about being aloof, distant and emotionally detached. This was the first lesson I learned during my time in command.
The second lesson was about ownership: the more the team owned the problem, the better the outcome would be. Yes, the commander is responsible for the success or failure of the mission, but that doesn’t mean that the commander alone ‘owns’ the problem: the team does. All soldiers are self-motivated individuals who want to be part of the solution and own the problem. They cared about the result as much as I did, because ultimately it would be them who would be seeking out, closing with, and killing the enemy.
Unfortunately, in my experience Army rarely treats enlisted soldiers like invested participants. Soldiers are often seen as recipients of a superior’s will, feedback, and counsel, rather than active participants who care about their own, and the team’s, development, survival, and success.
So one piece of advice for newly commissioned officers is this: achieve buy-in through shared ownership of the problem. Resist the temptation to decide yourself what the problem is and what needs to be done. Good leaders facilitate this diagnostic process, lesser leaders do it for themselves. After all, whilst you may be responsible for the outcome, it’s the team who will be responsible for its execution.
An 80% solution that’s owned 100% by your subordinates is better than a 100% solution that they no longer own because of your intervention.
Once the team has agreed on what the problem is, they will care much more about the solution and its execution. This means planning will be easier, more enjoyable, and probably more dynamic too, because your team has already started to buy into the plan.
Again, whilst you are ultimately responsible for the outcome, resist as much as you can the temptation to impose your will on the team. If the team does stray from your higher commander’s intent, reign them in not through your authority or rank, but by giving them more or better context.
Once the team agrees on a plan, agree on who is responsible for what, and then hold the team to account. Inspect, reassess, learn, iterate, and improve.
The team will also feel prouder when they succeed, because you don’t own the success anymore: they do. It’s always the team’s success, because they’re the ones who got it done. You played a part, but so did everyone else.
Most importantly, because you have demonstrated that you trust them, the team will be more likely to trust you. There are few better feelings in life than to be trusted and valued by your team, especially as one of its leaders.
The more times you go through the process of problem solving as a team, the better you will get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the group comes together to get the job done.
You will have achieved buy-in, trust, mutual understanding, common purpose, and shared ownership. Your team will, most of the time, be able to work through and solve problems for itself. They will know one another so well, and have worked through so many problems together, that they will intuitively understand what is occurring and what needs to be done.
A great instructor once told me that control, properly understood, is the right person, in the right place, at the right time, having the right information to make the right decision. For me, the essence of good leadership is about collaboration and facilitation; the team having enough context to diagnose the problem, and enough freedom to own the solution.