Many may have noticed a change in the types of tweets, blog posts and activities I have been writing and sharing over the last year moving away from a learning and development focus to an organisational focus. There’s no need to fear. It simply means that I have been trying to understand how what I do at a micro level, fits in with a changing organisation and even wider, how it’s impacting society.
Basically, I’m negotiating how to navigate through the next phase of my working life.
I have been doing a lot of reading and reflection trying to grapple with how I got to where I am today. What choices I made; what risks I took and what journeys brought me to this point.
One of the curious but also humblest experiences was my time in the military. And it’s a paradox. After all, I read a lot about the changing nature of organisations from traditional hierarchies to networks but it was the military, one of the most traditional, rigid and bureaucratic organisations that gave me the grounding of where I am today.
Many years ago, while in my first weeks of basic officer training, I recall one Divisional Officer address us while we were standing to attention on the parade ground one day. He yelled out that he was aghast at the lack of teamwork we displayed as a division and that we were to go back to our cabins (we used ‘ship’ vernacular. They weren’t rooms, they were cabins. Not toilets, heads. You get the drift….), pack a few things, including our hiking boots. We had exactly 10 minutes before we were to form up in a squad outside our accommodation blocks where a bus was waiting for us. We were going for a short hike.
“SQUAD, DISMISSED!” he yelled.
We turned smartly to the right and dispersed. We ran back to our cabins. It was a mad scramble. I threw open my cupboard, ripped off my uniform, quickly dressed into my working uniform, while ramming my feet into the boots at the same time. No time for lacing, I threw, socks, undies, my sailor’s rigging knife that they issued to us into the back pack.
Outside in the corridor, I heard my division yelling out to everyone counting down the time.
‘THREE MINUTES TO GO!”
“COME ON PEOPLE, HURRY UP. WE MUST WORK AS A TEAM!”
“TWO MINUTES TO GO. AT ONE MINUTE, WE ARE MOVING OUT AS A TEAM. BE READY!”
“ONE MINUTE. RIGHT WE’RE OFF NOW. EVERYONE OUT OF YOUR CABINS, OUT NOW. COME OUT NOW!”
We would run past the cabins, glancing inside. If there was anyone there, we would quickly help them, picking up their items and taking them with us. We had to go down to the bus together – as a team. No one had to be left behind.
I can’t recall my emotional reactions at the time. During training I was exhausted mentally and physically but my survival was dependent on the team – not as an individual.
This was one of the best life lessons the military had given me – and one of the hardest to learn. To give up control and to trust the team. To believe in the collective knowledge and experience of the a group of strangers from all walks of life whom I would never have otherwise met.
The “short” hike turned out to be four days in a national park trudging through native forest. I don’t remember much of our bus trip over there. Who knows, I may have fallen asleep. I don’t even remember being dropped off at the start of the hike – or even the hike itself. I simply just did what they told us. No questions.
What I do remember was at one point my annoyance had kicked in. Interspersed through the hike, the instructors would stop the group and bark out instructions for activities to test our leadership skills.
I had no idea how long we were going to go on this hike. One day? Three days? One week?
I remember thinking that I had packed inadequately. Blisters were starting to form on my feet. I was out of my comfort zone. I was scared.
The leader held up his arm. The group stopped abruptly and I walked directly into the back of the person I was following and lost my balance. All this time, I had my eyes down to the ground and had zoned out of my surroundings. Just putting one foot in front of the other had put me into a trance.
“RIGHT, WE STOP HERE!” he yelled.
“AHEAD OF US IS A LAKE. WE WILL NEED TO CROSS IT!”
Crap. Water. Not only am I hungry and thirsty, I’ll be wet too.
Someone behind me mumbled some swear words. I was too tired to react.
The instructor yelled out my surname and ordered me to come out to the front.
They move aside so I could make my way to the front and I saw ahead of me a small lake, planks of wood, rope, plastic tubs.
I maintained composure as he couldn’t see me roll my eyes or make an audible groan. The last thing I needed is some additional inconvenience to the rest of the team.
“THIS IS AN EXERCISE! he yelled out to the group. He then turned to me and said, “It’s your responsibility as a leader to take your team across the lake. Of course, we’re not crossing the lake today, but your brief is to lead your team to build a raft that can handle the weight of your team and their packs to cross the lake. GO!”
I had to take a few moments to regain composure and get out of my trance. I kicked into action.
I called out to everyone to drop their packs, gather around the equipment by the lake. That gave me a few moments to consider my approach.
“Who has done an activity like this before?” I asked.
A couple of people put up their hands. Others jumped in with ideas of what they could do. Glancing at the instructor, I saw that he was observing me, watching everything I did and said. I had to take control. I had to take the lead but I was exhausted and really, in all honesty, I didn’t want to be there but there was no way out.
I recall saying that I knew how exhausted we all were but that if we worked together as a team, we all shared ideas and decided on a course of action to take and divide our roles and responsibilities – the job would be made easier. To think about our short term aim of getting our packs across the water but the reward would be getting out of here sooner, back to base and hopefully, some rest, a drink and a feed.
So we pitched in and people offered their ideas. I encouraged those who had done this activity to explain what they did and how they did it. The group then decided what was the best way, we all agreed on our roles and responsibilities and went to work. I did the same. I pitched in and helped out but at times I would stop, observe the progress and assess whether we were on the right track asking people for feedback.
In the end, we built a water tight raft, put our packs on it and pulled it along the water. We were ecstatic and congratulated ourselves for achieving the goal. For a few moments, this activity lifted our spirits.
Then it was time for the debrief.
The instructor gathered us around a circle. He asked the group questions about their roles and responsibilities in the activity and then drilled down with specific questions focussed on my leadership style. I can’t recall much about what the others said about my leadership style but I do recall what the instructor said about it.
He turned to me and he said, “as a leader, you must never roll up your sleeves and get in to work with your team. For the majority of the exercise you were helping out in the activity, only stopping at various points, making the assessment of the progress and asking people questions about improvements and feedback. You don’t ask opinions. You don’t ask for feedback. You don’t have time for this. You are an officer. You lead. Your team will be looking to you to make the decisions.”
I took his point and wondered whether I had made a bad career move in joining the military.
He then quickly added as an after thought, “what if you had an accident or were killed, what would your team do then, they’d be lost without a leader.”
I dismissed this last statement as nonsense but solemnly nodded pretending to agree. This was not the time to argue.
After all, this instructor only two days earlier had spotted dust in the corner of my window sill during rounds (inspections) and he warned me, “Remember Sub-Lieutenant. For every vertical there is a horizontal”. What??
But regardless of this officer’s annoying traits (after all, he too was playing the game), it was activities like this that made me sit up and reflect my style and actions under trying conditions and environments. It tested my leadership and resilience, my organisation and planning. It also made me question why I had stayed with a traditional hierarchial organisation serving 10 years in the permanent force and a further 11 years in the Reserves.
There was obviously something there that connected with me in some way.
And it all comes back to the teamwork.
A family of people around you whom you could trust, you learn from and share regardless of their background, their social status or their ranks.
I’m reading a book recommended and reviewed by Harold Jarche. You can read his review here. The book is called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. It outlines case studies of companies who have transitioned from traditional hierarchical organisational structures to self managed teams. It is a fascinating read because he talks about evolution, wholeness, compassion and trust.
You don’t see those words in management texts – let alone live it in your workplace.
For some reason, the book is making me reflect more about my time in the military but also my current organisation. Two opposite organisations but similar in some ways.
One highly structured, disciplined and traditional but it’s core principles at the heart is teamwork and its people many of whom work in difficult, dangerous and stressful environments.
The other, with a hierarchial organisation chart with flexible work arrangements and great office spaces but a competitive, individual nature with a focus on the shareholders.
I recalled that inane comment from that officer many years ago scratching at my window sill with his white gloved hand, ” Remember Blunden, for every vertical there is a horizontal”.
While reading the book, I think back to the organisations that I have worked with and consider what I enjoyed about them – and it was never about the “vertical”. It was not about the rank, my leaders, my promotion or getting up that career ladder. It was about the “horizontal”. The teams, the people we trusted, the stories, how engaged we were with our work and the level of autonomy and trust we were given to carry out that work. This is what we remember.
Also, it wasn’t about the physical environment either.
I’ve worked in nice clean air conditioned offices, cold derelict buildings, tents, flight hangars, cabins and tight spaces. Organisations that create fabulous open plan work spaces that allow for flexible work arrangements without focussing on the practices that engender trust and compassion and an inclusive culture are missing out on a critical element to getting back to what’s important in making their organisation great – it’s their people and putting the trust back in their people.
So what does all this mean in the grand scheme of things?
I’m not too sure but I’m beginning to think that the reason I’m drawn to the social learning, the story telling, the collaborative workspace and the why I created Third Place stems from a need to recreate that space of equality where everyone is respected for what they know and what they do regardless of their background nor their status in the management structure. An opportunity to make, do, create something that inspires them and reignites their passion for their own work and in doing so, making their organisation a great place to work.
So I’m changing the statement made by this red bearded officer now, 23 years later…
“For every vertical, replace it with a horizontal and watch your organisation evolve”.