How to lead when managing competing priorities

Written by Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE Tuesday 12 October 2021
The situation is chaotic. Everyone’s stressed. Where does your duty lie: to the task, the team or the individual? A lesson in the art of leadership from Lt Cl Langley Sharp
Two Major generals in British Army uniform in deep conversation

When Sergeant Ben Wallis’s battalion was ordered into battle on 30 January 1944, the British Army was 16 hours into an effort to break out of the beachhead it had established at Anzio, eight days after its amphibious landing on the west coast of Italy alongside the US 3rd Division.

At 15:00, the order was given to advance. Beside Sgt Wallis, his friend was killed almost immediately by sniper fire. Ahead, the platoon commander also fell and Sgt Wallis stepped forward to take the lead. At a heavy cost to the platoon, this desperate assault succeeded, both machine-gun crews surrendering when their positions were overrun.

In temporary command of a battered but reinvigorated platoon, the sergeant had to move quickly to control the situation.

“It would have been easy for us to follow through and kill them, but I was the leader [...]. I knew what needed to be done and what would happen if we slaughtered the enemy in cold blood. Where would it end? [...] I got some stick afterwards, of course I did, but I knew it was the right decision and it did not take long for the other blokes to see it as well.”

His experience at Anzio illustrates what is often required of Army leaders on operations: to take charge of a chaotic situation, lead soldiers in conditions of extreme duress, and exercise influence in contrasting ways, inspiring action one minute and compelling restraint the next. And it captures the multiple levels at which a leader must operate, delivering the task at hand, leading a team towards that end, and managing the individuals in it.

The leadership balancing act

The balance in any situation between task, team and individual is something reinforced by the Army’s Action Centred Leadership model, which stipulates that leaders must consistently balance three interdependent needs: to achieve the task, build teams, and develop individuals – all governed by an understanding of the operating context. This is illustrated in Professor John Adair’s visual model, which demonstrates how the three priorities interrelate.

A Venn diagram with three overlapping circles labelled task, individual and team
Adair's Action-Centred Leadership model defines leadership of effective teams in terms of three interlocking, or overlapping circles of core concern

The Army leadership model builds on this, adding the additional dimension of context. This recognises that leaders cannot just look inward, to their mission and people, but must also develop an appreciation of the operational, political, environmental and cultural context in which they are working, as well as factors that may influence their team and the people in it.

As Army Leadership Doctrine states: “The circles overlap, suggesting that there will always be some degree of tension between them. The role of the leader is to address this tension, and ensure that the three groups of need remain balanced.”

As this suggests, the constant requirement for leaders is to take necessary action while respecting the three components to which they have a duty: task, team and individual. In practice, this means understanding the long- and short-term priorities of your role, and managing the mutual dependencies.

There is almost never a perfect equilibrium (consider how small the central intersection of all three circles is) but leaders should be aware of when they may be in ‘debt’ to any one of the three priorities and need to rebalance accordingly. A leader who is too unrelenting in their everyday work will crush the spirit and stamina of their team, while there will also be situations when the overwhelming need for action calls for task-focus first and foremost. Equally, even when a task has narrowed to the point of a bayonet, the needs of individuals and the relevance of the team are never absent.

Leadership may be underpinned by theory, but in practice it is an art, to take an understanding of the context, define what needs to be done and determine how that can best be achieved, all without losing awareness of the actual and perceived effects of decisions. Leaders do this while keeping each of their three priorities in balance, recognising that it is not enough to achieve the task at all costs: a mission has not been successful if the team or individuals were broken in the process.

This is a lightly edited extract from Lt Col Sharp’s book The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works (Penguin, 2021) – out now.

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Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE

Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp MBE

Lt Col Langley Sharp is head of the Centre for Army Leadership, part of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and responsible for championing leadership excellence across the British Army. Having graduated from Sandhurst two decades ago, his career in the Parachute Regiment has seen him deployed to Northern Ireland, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Among his many varied roles, he has led a counter-insurgency Task Force operation, commanded a Parachute Regiment Battalion, and delivered the Ministry of Defence's training programme for the London 2012 Olympics, for which he was awarded an MBE.

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