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“A good leader identifies the most dangerous part of the battlefield, moves to it and influences it”, or so said my most recent boss, an exceptional US special operations force type with a world’s worth of leadership experience.
But what about the rest of the soldiers on this notional battlefield? What are they getting upto when the boss is away influencing the dangerous bit?
This got me thinking of an analogy I used to use when teaching officer cadets at the Royal Air Force’s Officer Training Academy. Many cadets have been subjected to my analogy of the leadership torch in the two years I spent there. Subjected to, or enriched by? I’ll let you decide at the end of the text.
The leadership torch
Picture you and your team being in a dark room, trying to complete a task (the task doesn’t matter). The leader is the only one with the torch. The leader has several options: they can stand behind their team, using their torch on a wide beam to illuminate as much space as possible. Alternatively, they could focus their torch on one or two of their team, giving those team members the benefit of the totality of their attention. Finally, they could choose to use their torch to complete the task themselves. After all, they are the leader and the one with the most experience/wisdom/knowledge/insight.
With the first option, a leader is standing back, giving direction and guidance but without being too focused on one area. The whole team gets a share of the attention and light. On the face of it, that looks good, right? But, what happens if the team are not all of the same standard, or are facing different challenges in completing their tasks? These people may become left behind and disillusioned or disinterested.
So, the leader may choose to use their torch more precisely, giving some of the team more light than others. This can have the effect of giving the chosen team members a boost in ability – they have much more light to see by. However, there is also a possibility that this becomes dazzling, whereby the team members struggle with the torch in their face and, as a result, their output decreases. Additionally, whilst the leader’s light is focused on a small portion of the team, the rest of the team is left in the dark. This is fine if they understand what they need to be doing whilst the light is away from them, and they are capable of achieving it. If not, they are just scrambling around in the dark without any help from their leadership.
In the final option, the leader may give some general direction to the team, allowing them to complete supporting or ancillary tasks whilst the leader goes off to pursue the task themself. This could be quite an attractive option, especially if the leader knows how to achieve the task and therefore could probably do it better than the other team members.
This can leave the team fumbling in the dark or, worse, completely alienated from what the leader is trying to achieve. Without the benefit of any of the torchlight from the leader, the team’s goals may steadily diverge from that of the leader. This type of absentee leadership may make the leader appear to be successful in the short term, as they are able to achieve small goals. It will never, however, allow the leader to progress beyond the abilities of one individual. They will never harness the abilities of the whole team and will ultimately fail.
As a leader, therefore, the challenge is to work out where your torch needs to be pointing at any given time. In some situations, it is perfectly appropriate to be stood at the back, offering everyone a bit of light. This works well during routine tasks where the team know and understands their role.
There are other situations, exactly as described by my hard-charging American boss, where a leader must focus all of their attention on a single point to best influence the situation. This should only be a temporary arrangement: once the danger has passed (hopefully through careful application of light), the leader should look to widen their beam, supporting the rest of the team. Before moving to influence one small area, the leader must make sure the rest of the team is suitably equipped to operate in the dark for that short time.
Not every job will require leaders to run headlong at a dangerous situation, in fact, most don’t. But the analogy applies to all leadership positions. If you are constantly asking yourself: “Am I shining my light in the right place right now? Is there anyone left in the dark, or am I dazzling someone?” you will be prepared to position yourself where your leadership is most needed at any given time.
And for those situations where there is simply too big of an area for you to light with your torch? Create more leaders. More leaders equals more torches, equals more light.
Adam Booth is a Royal Artillery officer who served in a variety of disciplines. He has commanded at troop and battery level. Between 2020 and 2022 he was the British Army exchange officer at Royal Air Force Cranwell, teaching leadership to officer cadets.