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E174 | The Habit of Excellence with Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE

The British Army is renowned for its outstanding leadership, and command and control. But what do they know about psychological safety? 

These are just a few of the many topics that come up in the conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE, who heads up the Centre for Army Leadership. This is a unit that has, over the last five years, codified what leadership means in the British Army, and how to develop leaders within the Army. 

What are some of the principles of leadership in the Army? What is the difference between being a peacetime leader and a wartime leader? And what does training for adversity look like? 

From how you train people to make the right decisions to how the army has codified its leadership, this is a fantastic conversation with a first class leader. And if you think it’s not relevant to the world of business, you couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Langley has also written a fantastic book called The Habit Of Excellence, where he says: 

“Leadership, good leadership, effective leadership, that social relationship, that interpersonal relationship has to be nurtured every single day 24/7/365 to enable you to deliver effectively under pressure.”

This is a really insightful conversation with Langley, we really enjoyed it. We’re sure you will too.

On today’s podcast:

  • The Habit of Excellence
  • The importance of leadership for military campaigns
  • Leadership is contextual
  • How to make quick decisions
  • Mission command and psychological safety


Why leadership is a fundamental human endeavour with Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE

Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE is a member of the Parachute Regiment, and has been an officer with the regiment for almost 22 years. He commanded his way up to battalion level and is now heading up the Centre for Army Leadership based out of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. 

The Centre for Army Leadership was set up five years ago to be the conscience of leadership for the Army – to be a small team that does the thinking and calibrates the Army’s thinking on leadership

“We wrote and own the doctrine, which is the code of validation, our philosophy of leadership. And we do a lot of work, both internally and with external stakeholders across multiple other sectors, to understand how people do leadership and where it’s applicable for us as an organisation.”

The importance of leadership for military campaigns

“I think the word critical is exactly what it is. I’d say that leadership underpins everything we do. It defines our success and our failures, good and bad.”

When you think about the core purpose of the Army, it’s about fighting wars and delivering on operations in the most extreme environments when individuals are pushed to their limits, both mentally and physically. 

“We often describe our operational effectiveness through the concept of fighting power. And that’s made up of the physical, the conceptual and the moral. The physical is the means to fight. It’s our people, our equipment. Conceptual is our knowledge and our understanding, our doctrine and how we learn. And the moral is maintaining the will to fight both ethically and morally.”

And leadership underpins all of that. Leadership is how you motivate your people to go forward in pursuit of the mission, when every ounce of your own being is screaming to move in the opposite direction. 

Leadership is contextual

“The fundamentals of how we lead or indeed how you lead in thought, in business, in academia or elsewhere, the fundamentals are all the same, but it’s the context that changes.”

What is required of you will dictate what type of leadership is needed. The same is true of combat as it is in business. And what is required during peacetime leadership isn’t the same as what is required from a wartime leader. 

“Because of the nature of when you’re in a wartime zone, the context is quite different. And actually, in terms of leadership, what I found and many others say is that when you’re on operations, leadership is a lot easier.”

You get up in the morning, you have one job to do, you don’t have to worry about getting your car fixed, or your kids keeping you awake at night. You have one single core purpose – and it’s the job you all join to do. 

“Whereas in peacetime, and I think you’ll see this in any organisation when things slow down, that’s when it’s actually quite a little bit more difficult. And certainly some of the challenges that the Army face today are often manifested in peacetime.”

The Habit of Excellence

To ensure you lead effectively, whether that’s in peacetime or war time, whatever your arena, whether you’re in business or elite sport, or on the battlefield, you need to practice leadership. 

You can’t just turn on leadership. What enables successful leadership in these sorts of environments, says Langley, is nurtured in the days, the weeks, the months, the years, even the decades prior to the event. 

“Leadership, good leadership, effective leadership, that social relationship, that interpersonal relationship has to be nurtured every single day 24/7/365 to enable you to deliver effectively under pressure.”

How to make quick decisions

If you’re in conflict, you don’t survive long if you haven’t worked on how you make quick decisions. How do we gather intelligence? How do we make a decision? How do we move forward? If you can’t make quick decisions you either get killed or be paralysed by indecision.

“Decision making and managing risk sits at the heart of whatever a leader is really there to do at whatever level. We’re very fortunate in the military, we don’t spend a lot of time on operations. And actually we spend more time training and preparing.”

Mission command

One of the things the Army excels at is mission command, this idea that leadership isn’t about telling people what to do and why and how, it’s about empowering your people, setting parameters and supporting them to do the job themselves. It’s allowing them the freedom to act upon your intent. 

It’s similar to Amy Edmondson’s idea of psychological safety, and while the Army is definitely in the lead when it comes to trust and having a psychologically safe working environment, they’re not quite fully there yet. 

“One of the things we’re proposing is, how do you get feedback from, in our case, your subordinates, those who you are leading, who are the recipients of your leadership behaviours every single day. And you get that upward feedback, and that’s really powerful. And that adds to the evidence of how effective you are the leader, but it also gets to the heart of self awareness.”

If you’re going to be an effective leader, you need to know what effect your behaviour has on others around you. 

“So I think this is a classic example of the difference between command and leadership and the best leaders will create the conditions for psychological safety.”

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