It is easier to announce the adoption of eye-catching topical trends than to tackle the awkward systemic cultural change required
There is a certain irony that it is only a month since the British Army published, with great fanfare, its official book on what makes its leadership so successful. The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership works cites glowing reviews from notable figures such as General David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA and Eddie Jones, the England Rugby Union coach, all of whom declare Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp’s book as essential reading. In light of recent events perhaps some of those higher up the Army’s chain-of-command should find time to read it.
The intervention this week of the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, summoning the Army Board for an unprecedented admonishment amid a slew of revelations, sackings and scandals has been as necessary as it is extraordinary.
The past few months have seen a torrid period for the British Army at home, distinct from its success during the evacuation from Afghanistan: The court-martial of Major-General Nick Welch for fraud, quickly followed by the removal from post of three Brigade Commanders in as many months after separate incidents of bullying and fraud; The suicide of a female Officer Cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst following what may be numerous safeguarding failings by Officers and Senior NCOs on the directing staff; The Army’s Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Defence Chiefs, WO1 Glenn Haughton, leaving his post under investigation for breaching the Army’s Values and Standards following allegations of conducting an improper relationship; Furthermore, the shocking allegations that have resurfaced regarding a potential “cover-up” of the murder of Agnes Wanjiru, a 21-year-old Kenyan woman, during a post-training exercise night out in Nanyuki in 2012 is a disturbing reminder that these problems reach further than a lack of grip by the current hierarchy.
The Army finds itself in a constant cycle of reinvention, as it adapts not only to the ever-evolving nature of the threat it exists to combat but also the endless challenge of recruitment and retention. The need to appeal to a new generation of potential recruits sees it struggle to maintain the delicate balance between the need to be progressive and its instinct to remain mired in the outdated. The adoption of woke policies sits in uneasy juxtaposition with a mindset that is, at its heart, anything but.
The invitation this week, now hastily withdrawn, to Extinction Rebellion’s Chris Taylor to speak at a forthcoming conference hosted by The Centre for Army Leadership is a prime example of how it is easier to announce the adoption of eye-catching topical trends than to tackle the awkward systemic cultural change required.
The investigation this summer by the Defence Sub-Committee led by Sarah Atherton MP into the experiences of female soldiers uncovered a litany of abuse from bullying to sexual harassment, underpinned by a grossly inadequate complaints procedure. Meanwhile, the MOD issued a new inclusive language guide telling staff to be careful using the word female less it “erases gender non-conforming people and members of the trans community”.
On Monday evening The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, announced that the Army would introduce a series of actions to accelerate said required cultural changes, including an independent audit of Army Culture itself. This is in jarring contrast to General Sir Nick Carter, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, recently explaining to the Defence Select Committee that the Army fosters a “laddish culture” because soldiers need to be prepared to fight the enemy. Such a swift volte-face does not augur well for the Army’s impending Damascene conversion; those who have fostered such a culture in the first place, may not be the best-equipped people to resolve the issue. Less an example of poacher-turned-gamekeeper than poacher-cum-gamekeeper.
The Army makes much of its Leadership Code, the values and standards that serve as its moral lodestar and govern the behaviour of its officers and soldiers. It is evident that it needs to focus on the deep-rooted cultural issues and the messy business of holding senior officers to account, rather than the favourable optics of skirmishing in culture wars. The onus should be upon the core value of moral courage, doing the right thing under difficult circumstances. Quietly ushering out those who fail the service test is the easy thing, rather than the right thing. The Chief of the General Staff shouldn’t need to be hand-held by the Secretary of State for Defence in order to confront awkward issues or be corralled into the release of a carefully choreographed joint statement.
The Habit of Excellence outlines that leadership is about the habitual practice of doing what is right, difficult and necessary every single day. In reforming service culture, the Army’s Senior Leadership would do well to heed their own advice.