Victim, villain or hero: where do you stand as a leader?

Mission: Leadership. Gulf war veteran and business leader, Ben Morton, outlines what it takes to be a leader and what he has learned along the way.

After surviving the ever-present threat to life and limb during the Iraq War and the intense pressures of corporate life, I thought that writing a book on leadership would be relatively straightforward…

Leadership is a very serious matter. It is the most critical issue facing business in a complex, volatile and ever-changing world.

I have experienced the leadership of others (at its very best and very worst) in the military and corporate world. I have experienced my own leadership successes as well as moments of disappointment and failure. Over the last 20 years, these have experiences have helped me to form a strong, powerful understanding of what it really means to be a leader.

Many leadership books and development programmes present a series of simple models to follow, a six-steps-to-success formula. There are some benefits to this approach; however, it does not do leadership justice. Leadership is not a set of behaviours to be imitated or a process to be followed. It is a way of being that empowers, inspires and transforms those around you.

As I set out to write Mission: Leadership I was clear I wanted to create a book that focused on the fundamental principles of leadership. It is a book that helps us all to be better leaders as opposed to just “doing leadership”. In doing so, I hope that you can achieve greater results, inspire your team and enjoy the privilege and responsibility of being a great leader.

Serve to lead

I thought back to the ways in which I gradually learned, developed and applied the principles of leadership. Whilst leadership is seen most obviously in dramatic situations the foundations are laid in the ordinary, everyday interactions and moments of reflection. It is not what we say or do in the heat of the battle that inspires others to do as we ask. People follow us because of how we connect with them on a day-to-day basis at a truly human level.

I have been a student of leadership from my earliest days, from my parents, my hours immersed in the Commando comics and the adventures of my teenage years. The inspiring individuals I’ve met throughout my own leadership journey and the military ethos of Serve to Lead have also played their part.

I chose not to present another dry, serious book on leadership that delivers lots of information but very little transformation. The need for powerful, enlightened leaders is far too urgent for this somewhat familiar approach.

In Mission: Leadership you are invited to put yourself at the centre of the book—to explore your own experiences, challenges, hopes, fears, strengths, strategies and values. Then you will move ahead with confidence as you develop your own leadership philosophy, based on a set of fundamental leadership principles.

Victim, villain or hero?

There are a number of common, villainous types of leader operating within our workplaces and if we are brutally honest with ourselves, there are elements of each and every one of them within our own leadership identity.  If we want to keep our inner leadership villains in check, we must first get to know them a little better before taking a long hard look in the mirror.

Excellent leadership liberates teams and individuals – allowing you to create great results, enjoy your work and appreciate the company you work for. Villainous leadership on the other hand leaves behind a trail of disaster, broken individuals and teams, low morale and poor results.

Alongside my own experiences as an army officer serving in Iraq and then in the corporate world you’ll find a series of provocative, playful leadership parables that are designed to help you identify the victims, villains and heroes of leadership—these are not just other people though… You will sometimes exhibit the traits of victim, villain or hero.

It is through these though provoking parables that I share the fundamental principles of leadership, prior to describing them explicitly in the final section of the book.

For now though, I will share with you a story of just how far people will go for each other, and for their leaders when we take our principles based approach to leadership…

“Gas, Gas, Gas!”

Before the last word was shouted, I had instinctively closed my eyes, held my breath and ripped open the pouch on my right hip reaching for my gas mask. With my hands grasping the rubber straps, I thrust my chin into the mask pulling the straps over my head. As I opened my eyes and shouted, “Gas, gas, gas!” myself, I smelt the familiar, stale rubber smell that I had smelled so many times before.

When you serve to lead, you inspire that same ethos in the hearts and minds of your team. This is at the very core of true leadership.

I then looked for the nearest piece of cover and ran a few metres taking shelter underneath a four-tonne army truck. As I hauled myself under that vehicle with five or six of my soldiers, I checked that everyone was OK. Yet, even though the Gulf War that I was now a part of was very real, I still assumed this was just another false alarm. Until this point there had been no action, and the number of times the gas alert had turned out to be a false alarm had instilled an underlying complacency in me.

My nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) warfare skills were now such a part of me that I did everything I needed to do without thinking. However, beneath the automatic response of getting my mask on within seven seconds, there remained a knowing that this was just another drill.

This was not just another drill.

Leadership is an alluring and evocative skill. It is often thought that leadership is about controlling others, having some form of power over them, or forcing them to act on one’s every command or whim.

I believe that, whilst the effects of leadership can be measured in the actions and behaviours of other people, the foundations of leadership stem from how you serve other people. When you serve to lead, you inspire that same ethos in the hearts and minds of your team. This is at the very core of true leadership.

History is littered with leaders who cajoled others into action by fear and threat, however, the leader who truly inspires their team does not need to rely on forcing people to act against their will. The leader who creates relationships of trust and respect; who is in service of their team—is the one who can galvanise the most profound bond with their people.

When people trust, respect and believe in a leader, not for what they do, but for who they are; those people will march towards their own deaths, knowing that, if the tables were turned, their leader would do the same for them.

Leadership is not what you do… it is who you are.

This was a lesson I learnt in the most palpable and visceral of experiences, one that would affect me to this day.

I was stationed at the centre of the British Army’s build-up area in the Kuwaiti desert, just thirty kilometres from the Iraqi border. Less than a mile to the north of the camp a Scud missile had come down and was now spewing a potentially lethal, yellow-green smoke into the air.

A fellow officer from the NBC Cell came to the entrance of the HQ tent and beckoned for me to approach, which I did immediately, still unaware of the real danger that was unfolding just a short walk away from our current location.

As I got to him, he instructed me to take two soldiers towards the fallen missile. We were to conduct the Two-Man Sniff Test. And, whilst my response was one of compliance, my head was thrown into a quandary about whether I had heard him correctly. The sniff test… seriously?

The two-man sniff test was a procedure I learnt during my officer training at Sandhurst. In addition to practising the routine for getting into full NBC Kit, we also learnt what to do in various scenarios that involved a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

The sniff test seemed completely bizarre when I first encountered it. Something so primitive and archaic surely could not be a part of modern warfare?

Two years previously, on a patch of grass in Sandhurst’s grounds, a Colour Sergeant was getting us to role play the sniff test, which is the final procedure for checking that an area is safe before ordering all troops to remove their gas masks. Two soldiers are positioned facing each other, about a metre apart, whilst their commander stands beside them.

Leadership was presented, not as a list of processes or a set of steps that we did, but the person we became. I discovered that being a leader was more about the perspective you experience the world from, rather than a model you try to fit the world into.

The soldiers then take a long, deep breath, filling their lungs. When they have inhaled to capacity they each take two fingers and break the seal on their masks. Lifting the mask away from their faces by just a centimetre, they take a tiny sniff of air. Now, because their lungs are already full, this last bit of breath would be minuscule, but if the air were contaminated, it would still have an effect on them.

Once the last sniff of air was taken all three would watch for signs of contamination by a nerve agent or poison. From the pin-pricking of pupils to body tremors, and so on, staring at a fellow soldier who could be dying beneath the dark black fascia of the mask was somewhat surreal.

I took turns to perform this, both in the part of the soldier and the officer. It was a very simple routine, but so strange in that simplicity, because it was two soldiers risking their lives for the sake of others. Such a grave sacrifice masquerading as the simple lifting of a mask; it seemed utterly removed from anything I would actually be asked to do in my army career.

However, here I was, being ordered to carry out that very same test in an extremely real, life-threatening war. So, now I had to make my way back to the four-tonne truck where I had been sheltering moments before and order two men to risk their lives on my say-so.

Part of my Sandhurst training was that of a solider; foundation training that encompassed the basics, such as… how to survive on a battlefield. I was also taught how to lead others into conflict; an essential aspect of being an officer.

Leadership was presented, not as a list of processes or a set of steps that we did, but the person we became. I discovered that being a leader was more about the perspective you experience the world from, rather than a model you try to fit the world into.

The power of what I learnt at Sandhurst was that a leader did not demonstrate their leadership by giving commands—they proved their leadership through a myriad of factors that took place long before a single command was ever given.

By the time that moment came when I asked those two soldiers to risk their lives, I was already assured of their unquestioning loyalty. Some may say that, as soldiers, these two men were trained to obey orders; that as mere squaddies, they would just obey regardless of the context, all because of my rank.

I believe the reason they sprang into action willingly and without hesitation was precisely the opposite—it was because I related to them as people, rather than expendable things.

I knew both of those men as individuals with complex and multifaceted lives; they each had a mother at home who was worried senseless, as was mine. They had fathers and brothers and sisters; they had girlfriends; they were loved. And if they died on that day, in that place, their loss would be grieved by countless other people. The pain would not be over, for it would impact the daily lives of their loved ones for a lifetime.

The two soldiers and I walked across the sand in silence, away from the safety of the camp and towards our fate. As we took each step forward, I found myself checking that I was prepared for what came next; from the procedure if there were some noxious agent in the air, to the combi-pen set I carried in my kit— three EpiPen-like devices that, when injected, would each buy a soldier twenty minutes of life enabling them, hopefully, to reach a field hospital.

The consequences of these fleeting moments affected all three of us; however, I would only know to what extent many months later. Whilst they would be the ones taking the risk of breathing toxic gas, I was with them every step of the way, valuing their lives as I would my own.

This is leadership. This is what it means to be a leader.

In Mission: Leadership I help you explore what it truly means to be a leader, and how you can evolve into your own unique perspective of leadership. Through the principles of leadership and an understanding what it truly means to be a leader, I guide you step by step though the secrets that I have uncovered not only in my career as an officer in the British Army, but also as an operative in a very different context; the corporate world of business.

There are many insights to share with you, and whilst these are both rich and diverse in nature, they can be summed up in effect by that one moment of time. That moment when I watched those two men, standing beside me. Two men who came to the end of their breath, and without a pause for doubt or misgiving, raised their hands and lifted their masks to take one last sniff…

Ben Morton’s latest book, Mission: Leadership: Lifting the Mask is now available on Amazon

Ben Morton

Iraq war veteran, author, and leadership expert Ben Morton began his career in the British Army and trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Following two operational tours of...

Related Topics

Business Leaders