Leadership Under Pressure


Tuesday 16 September 2008

Colonel Bob Stewart DSO

Leadership Under Pressure: A morning with the European Business Speaker of the Year and former UN Commander

The Army & Navy Club, London

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Event Review

If anyone is qualified to talk about leadership under pressure it is Colonel Bob Stewart. Stewart's address to the London Business forum was a reminder that however tough it gets in business, that's nothing compared to what the 1st Cheshire Regiment faced in the Balkans in 1992. An experience, Stewart explained, that was to age him rapidly.

Stewart was on holiday in Berlin in 1992 when his second in command gave him the news that their battalion had been ordered to go to Bosnia. Two days later he was at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in London being briefed by intelligence staff. However, Stewart explained to the London Business Forum that he was given neither a mission nor a plan to direct him at a time when the bloody Balkan conflict was at its height. It was the operational tour from hell, as General Rupert Smith acknowledged in his note to Stewart at the MoD briefing: "Bob, It looks like a 'crock of shit'! Best of luck."

'Leadership Under Pressure' was held at the Army and Navy Club on Pall Mall. Inside it evokes a Victorian gentleman's club with its library, smoking room, resident barber and the faint scent of Trumper's Extract of Limes which lingers in the entrance hall. The London Business Forum event was held in the wood-panelled Malborough Suite and plasma screens effectively displayed Stewart's presentation.

Stewart, who by his own admission is an "insecure" man, had to find his own style of leading. "I am not", he said "a Montgomery or a Napoleon". He realised on his arrival in Bosnia that he would not only be very stretched with less than 900 men but that he would have to be creative and find innovative solutions to the problems that he would inevitably face. Not only did he see that he was going to have to negotiate with three sides but "very quickly", he said, "I learned that the fourth side was the Bosnian Mafia".

Stewart's task was an enormous one he was governed by strict rules of engagement, which he showed us he had to find creative ways to bend. His battalion had to maintain strict neutrality and were only permitted to open fire if there was a direct threat to there own lives.

First, Stewart explained it is essential that you know what your mission is. Lacking official direction Stewart determined his own mission: "to save lives." He told the London Business Forum that he was once advised by a senior officer to always "make time" to write down his decision making process. Stewart then went on to illustrate to the London Business one of the key tools that helped him when leading under pressure - a "Mission Analysis". Throughout the presentation he presented pages from his notebook used in the Balkans which showed him using this tool to solve what often seemed like insurmountable problems. The Mission Analysis involves asking three questions:

  1. What requires to be achieved?
  2. What tasks are crucial to that?
  3. What resources/constraints apply?

Stewart also explained that he was often forced to take risks as commanding officer in the Balkans. "Military officers" he said, "are there to take risks. That's why officers are officers". He extended this to business arguing that this is also an executive's role, and that with this comes a great degree of responsibility.

He described a time when, wanting to negotiate a ceasefire, he wrote a mission analysis, but admitted, "I am not as good as others and so I distributed it amongst my officers for advice." Stewart's leadership style was an inclusive one; he said that as a leader it is essential to listen to the opinions of others and that he himself was always seeking reassurance. The reassurance he sought came from his junior officers, demonstrating that he followed his father's advice given to him on entering Sandhurst at 17: "Even the Queen gets diarrhoea, and always look downwards before you look upwards." Bosnia was, Stewart explained, "an officer's war." He was always conscious that it should be the officers taking the risks and not those they were in command of.

After one failed attempt Stewart managed to negotiate a ceasefire that lasted until after the Serbian Christmas so that UN troops could escort people coming across the battle lines in safety. In order to break through the lines and achieve the ceasefire Stewart also had one of his battle group, who was a piper, play music. A wacky idea some might think, but it demonstrated how he often had to be innovative to get what he wanted. The logic behind it was that you can hear pipes from miles around and people would stop and listen as well as serving as a warning that UN troops were approaching.

In 1993 Stewart and his battle group were to face one of their toughest challenges yet. In an attempt to stop fighting around Ahmici they approached the Bosnian Muslim front line. However, they refused to stop the fighting, claiming that many women and children had been killed in the town. Disbelieving that anyone could possibly have done this, he conceived that his new mission was to convince the Bosnian Muslims that this had not happened.

On their journey to Ahmici Stewart and his convoy were attacked several times. The rules of engagement stated that they were allowed to open fire under these circumstances but he explained to the London Business Forum that "thinking was required, not just taking orders." He asked his officers and soldiers to always think before they opened fire, "Will it make it worse?" On their journey to Ahmici no one opened fire on those who were attacking them.

What they were to discover at Ahmici was one of the single most horrifying examples of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Stewart was facing an ethical dilemma of epic proportions. He had been ordered by the MoD not to interfere. A page from his notebook read "What to do?" He saw that there was only one clear conclusion even if it did mean the end of his career: "Can I ignore a war crime? No!" He sought the counsel of his second in command and adjutant who both agreed that something had to be done and they suggested using the media. He called a press conference and knew from then on there was no turning back and that drawing media attention would signal the end of his career.

Consequently the War Crimes Tribunal was set up and in 2000 five of those who were responsible for the massacre at Ahmici were sentenced. Undoubtedly bringing this atrocity to the world's attention played a major part in justice being served but Stewart remains self-effacing saying: "Was this down to my actions? Maybe, maybe not."

Still Stewart does recognise the achievement of his battalion. He was told before he went that he would achieve nothing and the Prime Minister's advice to him was a pessimistic, "Do the best you can." However, as his penultimate slide showed: "In Bosnia nobody starved, froze or failed to receive medical supplies in our area". Yet despite this success, he sees the loss of three men as a failure, "One is too many" said Stewart, "one is a sign of failure."

The military tools that he presented to the London Business Forum, such as the Mission Analysis were, he said, vital to his leadership. "My style of leadership was tentative" Stewart said, and he always went back to his colleagues to help him determine what to do in such extreme situations. He used these tools he said, "As checkpoints, to buttress me up, a bit like crutches." He told the London Business Forum that they were, "My guide to help me overcome the fact that I didn't consider myself the best leader in the world."

Stewart emphasised to the London Business Forum that leaders must be prepared to take risks but he also showed that he never lost sight of the process. He always made use of his note pad, not just to help him think through his options and make clear objectives but so that the rest of those around him were also clear on what they had to do.

When answering questions he explained that he knew that he would have to alter his leadership style for Bosnia. He negatively interpreted the comment, "He has a caring style of leadership and a slight tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve" in one of his annual confidential reports saying, "That's army speak for 'He's a bit soft'." Stewart staunchly believes leadership style can be improved, concluding: "All of us are the best judge of ourselves. We all know how bad we are, how unmotivated we are, how weak we are. We need to identify our own bad points and address them."