Standing in Another Person’s Light
If you have ever aspired to lead people, joining the Armed Forces is a fantastic career choice. For me the RAF provided some of the best environments to train, practice, and execute my leadership skills. Their ‘characteristics of leadership’ mantra is clear; assured, unflappable, steadfast, and perhaps most of all, visible. Your leader is the worst of all people to be absent, or lost in battle. They are indispensable.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that my most influential leadership quote comes from a female leader at the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Dame Ursula Brennan, was the Deputy Permanent Secretary for Defence, when I first worked in the MOD Main Building. She said that, “if you are a leader, you are standing in someone else’s light...”. I didn’t know at the time what she meant, but it struck a chord.
A few years later, the RAF sponsored my attendance on Windsor Leadership’s Emerging Leaders Programme, and the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, those in other sectors was truly eye-opening. For the first time I began to draw not only clear parallels between the leadership challenges in a uniform, and the outside world, but also the key differences. Most interesting to me, was the succession planning, mentoring, and nurturing that my syndicate peers spoke of. It made sense that if you couldn’t rely on a system to educate, exercise, and nurture your future leadership talent, you had to take some responsibility yourself. But still, what did it mean to be ‘standing in someone else’s light’?
It was August 2014. I had spent nearly 20 months as Squadron Commander of one of the C130 units at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. We had seen a lot of change and transition over that time: the Squadron had retired the last of the old aircraft variant to focus solely on the newer one, we were heavily committed on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we had been involved in a number of ‘..on the bus, off the bus..’ call-outs which had severely impacted our ability to train. However, after some early friction within the team, I thought we were in a good place. We had managed the aircraft transition smoothly, we had a selection of outstanding people in leadership roles (both formal, and informal), and we had finally managed to establish an appropriate training programme.
In fact, it seemed like the ideal time to take a holiday.
So I did.
It was incredibly relaxing for about a week, until I logged onto the BBC App one morning to see pictures of C130s planes taking off from RAF Brize Norton and dropping packages of humanitarian relief in Northern Iraq, following the uprising by Islamic State. What’s more, apparently this had been going on for nearly two days and the aircraft were now forward-based in Cyprus. To my surprise, none of my team had been in touch with me, so I reached for my phone and called in.
“Is there anything you want to tell me?”
“Hi Boss. Guess you’ve seen the news. Everyone is doing great. You’re back on Friday, I’ve given you the weekend to unpack, Monday to clear some emails, and you’re booked out to visit the Detachment for a couple of days, flying out on Tuesday. Enjoy your holiday.”
I hung up, devastated. The most exciting period of my dream job, and I was lying beside a pool.
But quite quickly, the disappointment turned into something different. In reality, the phone call lasted a little longer than my brief summary suggests, although I still didn’t say very much. I was given a thorough run-through of every action, every procedure, every decision that the team had made to launch an aircraft from first warning to dropping life-saving aid within 36hrs. This was an insane timeline that no-one had any right to expect. However, by keeping the crews trained and ready, by understanding every pinch-point and dependency in our planning, and by implementing the procedures we had fine-tuned and exercised, the whole operation worked like clockwork. I hadn’t written the plans, I hadn’t trained the crews, I didn’t even know where some of the pinch-points were. People more talented than I had done all of these things. They had developed the ideas and processes, patiently explained why they were needed, and asked me to approve them. Then they executed their task flawlessly when I wasn’t even there.
So that’s what it meant. Standing in someone else’s light was something that as a leader I needed to do as briefly as possible. The true measure of success was not being indispensable; on the contrary, it WAS being dispensable. As a leader, my job was not to be better than everyone else – it was to make them better than me. Of course we won’t always succeed, but we owe it to every single person who we have the privilege of leading, to try. I used to describe leading the Squadron to people as a game of Jenga. Your job is to build the tower just a tiny bit higher during your tenure - and make sure that it doesn’t come crashing down as you go. Letting people grow is the same. Outlining the goal, offering support, encouraging them to aim high. And then get out of their way.