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Be Bothered: How the Royal Navy Gets it Done

It started with Admiral Nelson’s order of battle, set out a month before Trafalgar, which covered all contingencies and ensured that people were equipped, trained and trusted to do what they do best.

Nelson at Trafalgar

It’s still working, 450 years later, as the Royal Navy sails across 140 million square miles of ocean.


It is the Royal Navy Way, summed up in two words:  Be Bothered!

Attend to detail, overlook nothing, if it’s not right, fix it now.


So what can the Royal Navy teach you about leadership?  A lot.


First, the Royal Navy workplace is actually similar to yours since, at any one time, half their personnel are working in an office.


Second, The Royal Navy is all about getting things done in small groups, which is where we spend most of our working lives.


Third, the surprising secret is that the Royal Navy runs on “soft skills” (they never shout orders).


Soft skills (ie, interpersonal skills arising from character and culture) are easy to identify but hard to learn.


They need to be learned, however, since empirical evidence confirms that people flourish in a workplace in which these soft skills are exercised.  The Royal Navy excels at getting things done because it runs on high emotional intelligence and treats people well.  Their soft skills = leadership that inspires people and educes effort.

 royal navy

Andrew St. George spent three years with the fleet and wrote the Royal Navy Way of Leadership.


He spent long spells at sea on all types of vessel, studying officer training in the Navy and the Royal Marines.  He says, never have I found a more cheerful, consistent, flexible and innovative working environment.


When people gather together to pursue excellence, says St. George, it’s the soft skills that matter most.  Where two groups attempt the same thing, the successful group is the one whose leaders understand how to use soft skills in motivating their people.


People thrive on autonomy, trust and responsibility – the fruits of a soft skills ethos.

The Royal Navy also shows us that the soft skills are not expensive to develop.

This simple formula is understood instinctively by every Royal Navy captain, galley chef, and officer of the watch:  how people are treated at work affects how they work.


Don’t Worry, Be Cheerful.


Cheerfulness is a military value.  Why?   Because no one follows a pessimist.   A cheerful workplace is a productive workplace.  For example, up to 25% of employees’ performance can depend upon a sense of wellbeing at work; happier workers are +10% more productive at work.  Feelings count.   Soft skills give a competitive edge.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA happy navy is an effective navy.

Leadership Management


Managing doesn’t get you anywhere, says St.George, management is for the status quo.  Leadership is for change.


The Leader is a chief architect of culture.  When British Admirals stood boldly on deck during sea battles and calmly comported themselves, amidst cannon fire and whizzing musket balls, it wasn’t because they were unafraid, it was because they knew they were being watched by their followers.

(By the way, so are you if you’re a leader or manager.)


In business, companies employ managers to do things right and leaders to do the right thing.


Doing the right thing means: looking after your shareholders, your customers and your people.


Alas, it’s the latter where many leaders fail.


Good leaders possess the emotional intelligence, the subtlety of character to elicit the best from their people when times get tough.  That’s leadership not management.  Cultivating leadership is what the Royal Navy does best.


The Royal Navy take-home — or rather, take-to-office— advice for business leaders:

The longest-serving woman retires

The Royal Navy Way:   for guys and gals.

Susan Morgan, the longest-serving woman in the history of the Royal Navy, 34 years, was awarded the MBE in 2010.



First, develop soft skills.  Employees who are trusted, valued, respected and treated cheerfully by leaders will flourish and prosper.


If money is not the employee’s first reward, then improving the individual’s relationship with work should be.  People achieve more with fewer resources when they feel that they are valued and considered important.  Telling them won’t suffice; you must show them.  That’s demonstrable leadership.


Second, figure out your culture (which really just means “the way we do things around here.”).  Once you establish culture, customer service becomes a reality rather than a promise; innovation becomes commonplace because it’s inculcated into the way everyone thinks all the time; honesty becomes a matter of fact, not a matter of compliance.


Third, be clear in your thinking because it breeds efficiency. The Royal Navy sets out the intent, strategy, resources, contingency and inspiration for any large-scale activity (this derives from Nelson’s order of battle set out a month before Trafalgar). It covers all contingencies: people are equipped, trained and trusted to get on with what they do best.


This simplicity is compelling because it works and has been battled tested for 350 years in all manner of fast, dangerous, uncertain and difficult conditions.


Since it’s still working for the Royal Navy it’ll probably work for you.


Bottom Line:  the Royal Navy way can be stated in two words:  be bothered.

Practically this means pay attention to detail.

If something is not right, address it, don’t ignore it.


Imagine, what kind of manager (or person) would you be if you displayed the leadership traits of the Royal Navy?


Now ask, what’s stopping you?

About Dr. Duff Watkins [www.execsearch.com.au]

international executive search consultant / author-- dispensing career advice about how the job market really works


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