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Book ReviewsPeople and Leadership

Stand up straight: 10 life lessons from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Available here from Century Publishing

This book, written by the departing Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Major General Paul Nanson, is aimed at the wider, non-military audience. Its stated aims are to dispel myths about the Academy and provide thoughts on good leadership.

It begins by describing historical aspects of the Academy and its aim of creating leaders who are “capable of making difficult and mature decisions in some of life’s most demanding environments” and who have “attained a confidence that radiates from their very being”.

The first chapter looks at effective habits: look good, feel good. Of standards, cohesion, discipline, making beds and cleaning shoes. The second looks at the importance of a sense of direction and purpose in our lives, and of taking time to think; describing a regime of getting up at 0530 to allow time to exercise, to think and to plan. The book nicely highlights how such behavioural changes can in turn lead to helpful cognitive and emotional changes, and is vividly illustrated by reference to experiences from the author’s career.

The benefits of using failure as an opportunity to learn is covered in the third chapter, followed by some practical advice about how to pack a rucksack in the fourth, illustrating the benefits of careful planning and organisation. Next, team-work is covered: its purpose, the need for morale, and honesty in leadership.

There is then a helpful section on how to deal with situations once things go wrong, to try to prevent matters going from bad to worse: it is particularly useful. Going back to the last point you knew where you were and examine what went well at that point – to help avoid panic. Far from limiting this to military exercises, the author extrapolates this to life in general.

The value of time to think – “taking a knee” – follows, as does the importance of preparation. The penultimate chapter on standards is particularly good and draws on perspective from leading Sandhurst alumni. Facing one’s fears and weaknesses, teamwork, discipline, the need for a level head under pressure, humour, positivity, going the extra mile, and persistence are just a few of the qualities highlighted.

The book finally examines the issue of leadership through the power of example; dissecting strands such as service, honesty which elicits trust, integrity and moral courage: creating something people really can believe in.

So, what is the verdict?  Is the book of any value to the wider audience? Are there any criticisms?

The book is rendered slightly anodyne in places by cautious editing: for example the need to warn readers that the advice that the best way to “eat an elephant” is “in chunks” was a metaphor, and in the shoe-cleaning section making no mention of a blow-torch which I hear is often used to melt the polish!

The single typographical error Field Marshall Slim on Page 129 paradoxically proves the value, identified in chapter one, of attention to detail as my subsequent search for similar “chinks in the armour” was ultimately unsuccessful.

The book resonates well with what we know of psychological development. Anxiety and panic often seem to be a release phenomenon with regression to earlier stages of development, at a time when stabilising forces in the present are removed or changed: it can be contagious. Going back to the last point where you knew where you were sounds like a useful technique.

The book addresses the need to achieve depth, integrity and consistency in personality development. Unsurprisingly, a recent parallel leadership podcast by a previous Sandhurst Commandant, which I came across while researching this review, also highlighted just this. The need to remain true to our core personality, albeit moulded and developed by occupational training. Adopting a false façade is unlikely to work. People will see through it.

I recently came across an obituary of a headmaster who said, 40 years ago, “you are really here for one main thing: to acquire the right habits for life”, and “there is little point in a polished veneer if the interior is rotten”. The habits described in this book should be of value to those who read and think about them, both in good times and in bad, and help personal effectiveness. Once ingrained they may prove of some enduring value, both for resilience and effectiveness.

Look good, feel good. Maintain direction. Learn from failure. Work as a team. Go back to the last point you knew where you were. Take time to think. Prepare. Work to a high standard. Try to lead by example.

The aim of sharing thoughts on good leadership which would be of value to a wider civilian audience seems to have been well achieved; in an interesting way, and with both clarity and with aplomb.

This small book succinctly crystallises some quite fundamental concepts, has emotional resonance, and may well be of significant practical value. I do strongly recommend it.

Dr Stephen Carey
Consultant Psychiatrist

Dr Stephen Carey is a Civilian Consultant Psychiatrist with the MOD. Views expressed are personal.


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