Interview with Lord Richard Dannatt

The Three Keys to Successful Leadership Today

From my forty years as a soldier conducting operations in the “battle space”, I have learnt three key lessons about leadership which, in recent years working in the commercial and charitable sectors, I believe have universal application in the “business space”, where people work, and in the “community space”, where people live.

ONE: That leaders must know at any one time which of the three levels of decision-making they are operating in, and both think and act accordingly. The demands of those three levels – the Strategic, Operational and Tactical – of thought and action place separate demands on the leader. Of the three, the first and last – the Strategic and the Tactical – are quite well understood, but the middle level – the Operational – where an end to end plan is made to join strategic objectives to meaningful action on the ground is the most demanding and the most important. It is success at this level which lifts the mediocre leader to the exceptional. Can you translate a brilliant idea into useful and productive work from your team?

TWO: That leaders orchestrate the most effective action when they delegate tasks to the maximum extent possible , having first set out their clear statement of what is to be achieved by all concerned, while remembering that delegation is the start not the end of a process. Thus appropriate supervision of what has been delegated is vital. Appropriate supervision must not stifle the initiative of others but must ensure that firm guidance is given when required. Am I getting the best out of my team, while remembering that I still carry responsibility for all that they do?

THREE: That leaders will only be effective if those that follow them do so out of respect for both the character and integrity of the leader. The leader must engender a desire to be both followed and trusted. This flows from the personality and the qualities that the leader possesses and exhibits, of which integrity is the key quality. Does my team trust me to do the best for the organisation and for the individuals within it, or is there a risk that they think I am only in it for myself?


In past generations leaders could only communicate to their people by talking directly to them – politicians held town hall meetings, shop stewards gathered everyone on a sports field – today there are a plethora of ways to communicate – emails, Skype, conference calls, VTC links – but people are still people, and human interaction matters. Of course, information needs to be got out quickly and widely but there is no substitute for walking the shop or trading floor, for being seen to be available and to be known as someone who genuinely listens, and acts. The successful leader will be clever on the keyboard but he must be adept at the microphone, too, and willing to spend time with this person or that person, as individuals.

Core Value

Most organisations have Core Values and place them on attractive posters on their office walls. But what good does that do? If Core Values are to make any real difference, they have got to be explained and understood by all within the enterprise and then lived by them. Whose responsibility is that? Is it the HR department? Or is it the responsibility of line management? The answers to those questions will determine whether Core Values are simply pretty wallpaper or a guide to the conduct, productivity and success of the enterprise.


Core Values when properly developed and applied form a sound moral baseline for any organisation, but is that enough? Should there be something more? These are key questions for a leader, and they are questions that only he or her can answer personally. It is often said of someone that they are a “truly inspirational leader”. What creates that? The word “inspirational” is the clue, and within that word is the smaller word “spirit”. Spirit is of the heart, Core Values are of the head. The truly inspirational leader believes in something bigger and greater than him, or herself. What is that? Answering that question is vital, and you can only answer it for yourself.


Challenges today, as in the past, come in all shapes and sizes and often come along in an unwelcome bunch. Pressure can be huge – the company is on the verge of going bust, the key man to the operation has just been shot – faces turn to the leader with the unspoken question: “What do we do now?” This is when the leader really earns his or her pay. But how? Some leaders are born as natural leaders – but not many; most leaders are developed and made through acute situational awareness – looking around them, seeing what others do, modelling themselves on successful leaders, bouncing ideas and experiences off other people and experimenting. One mistake may be acceptable, but not the same one twice. We will all face challenges – the real determinant between the good and the moderate leader is how we deal with them?


Leaders should recognise that ambition is important – they should be ambitious for the success of the enterprise, ambitious for the development of their people and ambitious for themselves; but in that order. And this applies to small teams and large ones. It is my experience that the core principles of leadership apply equally when heading a small team on the shop floor or chairing a board with a multi-billion budget. Whether it is in the private, public or charitable sector the same principles apply. Of course, they must be adapted to circumstances. Principles guide, however your judgement, based on training and experience, will determine how they should be applied. In turn, this will determine your success as a leader.