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In Conversation With Mike

Air Marshal M Wigston CBE

I recognise this conversation is about leadership but I would be the first to admit I joined the Royal Air Force to fly aeroplanes not specifically to lead. It was about getting into a fast jet cockpit. I was fixated on that from a very young age and I was fortunate I had the eyesight, the physiology and the ability to get there - I became a Tornado pilot. Whilst the Royal Air Force was training me to be a pilot, from the outset of my career it was also about leadership. In fact the leadership training came before the flying. You become an officer first and then you go into pilot training, so from the very start of my professional career the command and leadership was ingrained into me. Flying on a frontline squadron, whilst it’s about operating a machine as a combat aircraft, you are in fact leading small formations of aircraft. As experience grows those formations get bigger and more complex and in my final years of flying I was leading formations of 50 to 100 aeroplanes on operations or exercises.

That was leadership in a very tactical sense however some of the skills used in that context translate across different organisations or sectors because ultimately you are standing in front of a group of people and communicating your intent: getting across what the aim of a particular mission is and articulating the vision of a successful outcome. And outcome number one for me was everyone coming home alive whether it was live operations or an exercise.

The part of my career I spent flying required leadership focused in a very tactical way however my frontline squadron tours were interspersed with command and staff training, something the Armed Forces are very good at providing for their people. One course is a year of Masters-level command and staff training. An element of the training is the academic study of leadership, so while my early years were influenced by the business of operational flying, at the same time the Royal Air Force was opening my eyes to other aspects of leadership. It was focused on military leadership but it was the academics of leadership nonetheless - I was trained to be a leader and the organisation invested in me in that way.

As I’ve become a senior leader in the Royal Air Force there is an increasing need for a more generic leadership style and skill distinct from the focus of tactical frontline operations. I’ve had to prove my worth and competence as a leader increasingly in ways people would recognise as corporate leadership, probably translatable to any walk of life or environment. I see much more commonality in terms of what works and what doesn’t work, the good and the toxic, and what is an effective leader in every sense of the word.

Perhaps in the past the military has stood apart, and perhaps we’ve been a little bit unilateral about our command and leadership training. Perhaps we didn’t recognise that we had quite a lot to learn from corporate leadership. You probably weren’t getting the great corporate leaders being taught in Staff College 20 years ago. Whereas now I would say that, while military leadership is absolutely the essence of what our training focuses on, there is a more enlightened approach to what can be learnt from leaders outside the military. There is also a shared understanding in that corporate leaders see there are things the military does that might be of value to them - it goes both ways.

There is one factor that is different in most instances. In our case it might be a life or death situation we are facing. In my situation, as a senior officer, the decisions I make might be about life and death for someone else. There may be situations where people have to put their lives in danger to protect the United Kingdom. That very human essence of getting someone to do something that he or she doesn’t want to do is the difference in its most elemental form.

If I was asked what I thought were five key characteristics of leadership, I would start with developing drive and energy within the organisation around a shared vision. I flew for the first 15 years of my time in the Royal Air Force but subsequently I’ve had a variety of appointments, all of which have been extraordinarily diverse. Each time I’ve taken a different role I’ve thought ‘what is this organisation about? what are people going to get out of bed in the morning to do?’ Driving and energising a sense of pace and impatience channelled positively is really important to me - a vision of what the next step in technology means to us; innovating within the organisation to change our business processes as well as our operational processes; to take advantage of the consumer digital revolution - these are all things where injecting and driving energy is a key role of leaders. This is a particular challenge in an organisation which isn’t driven by the bottom line. If you have a value bottom line drawn against you as an employee of a company then that is a motivation in itself. In the public sector it is much harder. We are trusted to be careful custodians of taxpayers money so clearly we have to have an eye on the bottom line but it’s not the profit and loss which motivates the organisation. It’s the outputs; which in my case is air and space power and defending the Nation.

The second characteristic I value is around people. In our case we expect people to go on operations and put their lives at risk. It is very easy to say that people are our most important asset. A lot of people will do that, write about it in their strategies and talk about it. However, people will very quickly spot if you are not credible. So focussing on people, taking an interest in people and being curious about people, in every sense of the word, is a key characteristic of a good leader. And where organisations get this right is when it comes from the very top, that genuine interest in people, their wellbeing and their development. It’s that eye into two or three or more tiers down in the organisation, taking an active interest in people’s development. It’s about spotting talent and identifying where and how to nurture that talent. Where are the opportunities for development and how can the organisation help? We celebrated the Royal Air Force’s 100 years’ anniversary last year - we want to last another 100 years and more and that requires us to continue to bring on our talent.

For me the focus on people is also about human relationships. To my mind that is as true in a traditional around-the-table sense as it is in an internet sense - email or messaging. It’s about that network of humans that you rely on to get things done because at this level nothing is easily achievable on your own. In my current role, I interface with the other Services, with the MOD and other parts of Government as well as international allies. It’s that network of people where there is an interdependence, a requirement for trust. Knowing my way around the network and who are the people with whom I need to build relationships is an imperative.

The third characteristic for me is understanding communication. That doesn’t mean to say you have to be the best orator in the organisation but you have to understand communication and understand how people within your organisation, your external stakeholders, and even your potential adversaries, understand you and your narrative. So that means having a clear narrative and having the channels to communicate it, recognising particularly that internal communication is about having a dialogue with your people. Just pushing out messages on the internet and tweets doesn’t cut it.

It goes back to my earlier point about thinking through that vision - translating that into a narrative that actually means something to the organisation - and then being able to communicate it. There is a leadership role at the very top here but down at the tactical level, it is the line management there that is important too.

The fourth characteristic of leadership I would highlight may be seen by some as a contentious one but it is one that I stand by: it’s the judgement of knowing when detail matters. For me there are times when detail absolutely does matter and that is when you have to put the work in to understand the significance of the moment and the detail of what’s important.

The final characteristic is about culture - setting the culture and tone of the organisation. As a senior leader, the way you conduct yourself, the way you engage and communicate with people, the way you challenge people in meetings, the way they challenge you, the way you stand in front of them; all of that really matters.

I’ve described five leadership characteristics that matter most to me but I could add another five or more quite easily. One that springs to mind immediately is the ability to handle complexity. When I talked about developing drive and energy around a shared vision, as the leader you have to decide what that vision should be, and that means cutting out the irrelevance and recognising what’s important - recognising a simple path - a single thread to get through the complexity.

Dealing with uncertainty is part of this. We invest in Defence think tanks and look at things like future warfare and scenario planning. They give some insight into ‘what if……’. We do table top exercises as a matter of course; they help bring a little light to the uncertainty. We work internationally, with allies to get different perspectives and this also helps shed a bit of light. Engaging with academia gives yet more light. By bringing together future concepts, doctrine, future joint warfare, allies, academia and our own Intelligence apparatus we can come up with a number of probable outcomes and options.

Coming to the decision of what path are we going to take - which is particularly difficult in an international security context - boils down to taking information from those different sources, and bringing it all together. Ultimately you are left with a balance of probabilities. So understanding the risks you are exposed to, understanding where an adversary might be most likely to act, what would be most dangerous, and how you could respond, brings you to a plan of action.

For us the current strategic context is hugely challenging. While the focus for senior military leaders is security and defence in the international and national arena - with all of that complexity - I would say the underlying leadership principles probably wouldn’t differ hugely from those of a CEO of a global corporate. There are equally challenging and complex issues and big decisions required about how to protect the institution and progress with its strategic aims. In my case, that’s delivering air and space power to protect the Nation.

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