Honchos must keep cool under the cosh

18th May 2007 at 01:00
One thing leaders at every level quickly learn and frequently forget is that when there's pressure on and everyone's worried, the boss's every word, action, gesture, facial expression are scrutinised for mood and meaning.

The commander of a helicopter squadron on one of the carriers en route to liberate the Falklands in 1982 describes how, 12 hours after he'd read a personal letter containing bad news, he realised that the whole mood of his squadron had changed. Immediately, he started walking around with a smile on his face. Sure enough, everyone cheered up again: "I thought, 'Good Lord, is this the level of responsibility I have for these guys?'"

The most obvious parallel for us is how the leadership bears up during the brief run-up to an inspection. Too many heads have committed the almost unforgiveable sin of transmitting their own panic to the staff - nervily asking for documents, parading round looking at wall displays, holding unscheduled meetings, rushing past people without speaking.

Some time ago, I interviewed a number of heads about their approach to an impending Ofsted inspection. Emotionally, one told me how badly he felt about having allowed his own worries to leak out to staff. "I'll regret that for the rest of my career," he said.

Others spoke of their almost physically painful effort to stay calm, cheerful and encouraging. "I'd come out of my room and before going any further I'd quite deliberately stand still for a moment to relax and get the worry out of my face," said one.

But perhaps the best example of how to transmit optimism comes from that Falklands operation. One evening, JJ Black, captain of HMS Invincible, having been told that some of his people were understandably worried and despondent, spoke to the ship's company over the internal TV system. After the usual encouraging words, he finished, quite spontaneously, with: "Quite frankly, I think we'll piss it. Good night."

As soon as he emerged from giving his broadcast, sailors were stopping him to echo his words. Soon, there were home-made posters around the ship, and T-shirts bearing the words: "We'll piss it with JJ."

What would any leader give for that level of trust and loyalty?

Forgotten Voices of the Falklands by Hugh McManners (Ebury)

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