New Leadership Habits: An Interview with General Sir Peter Wall

General Sir Peter Wall, CEO of Amicus and ex chief of the British Army recently spoke at an Armstrong event at the In & Out (Naval and Military Club).  He shared his thoughts on what leadership needs to look like in prolonged periods of uncertainty. 

When we first discussed speaking at our event it was to talk about leadership following Brexit and the pandemic, now we have Russian’s invasion of the Ukraine. What does this tell you about future uncertainty? 

Western democracies have become complacent and Putin saw his chance and took it. We should accept this is not a passing phase and we’re in unpredictable times. Our society is neither particularly resilient nor robust and the inversion of business priorities in favour of the individual employee over business needs is placing a major constraint on businesses. Added to this are the growing challenges of supply chains fragility, energy prices, inflation and depletion of natural resources. CEOs certainly have plenty to think about.  

Private equity is perhaps more comfortable with disrupted environments and uncertainty – but their portfolio companies may well be less so.  

What do companies need to do to adapt, survive and thrive?  

Any growth plan that doesn’t consider how to get the best from their talent is missing a key element – and that’s primarily about leadership. Just look at the difference between Ukrainian and Russian forces to see how important motivation and alignment behind a just cause can be; and how leading your people by sleight of hand, where alignment is lacking, leads to failure.  

In most businesses the cost of people is their biggest expenditure: you want a culture that justifies that cost in getting the job done. Leadership, creativity and innovation are all part of that equation. This calls for sound leadership habits – there are no silver bullets – it comes down to a mixture of character and approach. 

What are the new habits needed from leaders? 

Our view at Amicus is that there needs to be shift to solving problems rather than admiring them. Leaders need the trust of their people and have the confidence to empower them to execute credible strategies. 

  1. Get people focused on how to think rather than what to think. Regulation and compliance are forcing people onto stereotypical solutions; that may be ok for steady-state. We want free-thinkers who can adapt to changing circumstances and have the confidence to explore the unknown. 
  1. Leadership is paramount.  How else do you get people to trust you enough to make difficult decisions on your behalf, rather than referring their problems upwards for you to deal with? 
  1. In uncertain times we need an acute comprehension of the risks we are carrying and our appetite for them.  We may need to increase that risk appetite to maintain momentum. 
  1. In difficult times we clamp down on cost, which is usually a blunt solution.  It’s important to distinguish between cost and value, and maximise the latter.  There will be difficult choices: savings often erode resilience, which may seem attractive in the short term but can have awkward consequences. 
What would you look for in a management team in 2022? 

They need to be brilliant at the basics.  Giving people their heads is a strength. I would want to see a team empower their direct reports and actively manage delivery performance. Insist on excellence; accepting mediocrity isn’t leadership. 

About Amicus

Amicus is a strategy and leadership consultancy; they help companies create sustainable results by bringing out the best in their people. You can learn more here