In conversation with Major General Paul Nanson & Brigadier Bill Wright


4 min read

Major General Paul Anthony Edward Nanson CBE is a British Army officer who serves as Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and General Officer Commanding Recruiting and Initial Training Command. Brigadier Bill Wright OBE is Deputy Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and an ex officio Trustee at the Sandhurst Trust.

In the army, crisis is the “norm”. What’s your advice for boards when dealing with crises?

Firstly, you can’t control a crisis — it will be an everchanging situation and you can never have all the information. Instead, you need to be comfortable making decisions without all the information. We train commanders to trust their intuition — so they know when enough information is enough to make that crucial decision.

Training is a key part of coping in a crisis. Having thought through the kinds of things that might go wrong, you should consider your response, provide clear intent to your team, and empower them to deliver the plan.

Decisions in the army are life and death, how do you train your people to make good ones?

We push people to the threshold of failure, where they will make that bad call — it’s the best way to learn. We then pull that decision apart during a review process — considering what happened, the conditions and influencing factors — so the individual won’t make the same mistake again.

You can fail as many times as you want at Sandhurst, so things go right in real-life and death situations. We also have an open and transparent culture, so lessons are learned organisation-wide.

Another key aspect is behavioural science — we help our people to understand who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they should balance their team.

The army, and specifically Sandhurst, is excellent at developing leaders. What can business learn from this?

We have a head start as we select people for Sandhurst based on their leadership potential. Over the course, we simply draw it out of them. We focus on three aspects:

  1. Values. Our six core values become dispositional during training, so that in pressurised situations they remain at the core of decision-making. One of these is courage — knowing the right thing to do and being brave enough to do it.
  2. Competence. We train our people for the unexpected, as well as the expected, and then provide them with experience. They learn through leading and making mistakes.
  3. Character. Ultimately, people follow you because they believe and trust you. A big mistake is that people assume leadership and neglect leadership development. The motto at Sandhurst is “Serve to lead”. Before you can lead, you must serve. The intensity of the first five weeks is about forming the recruits into a team and forcing them to realise that they can’t tackle life alone. They need to understand each other, understand themselves, and have the humility to be led by others

How important is the quality of the information you receive in the army?

We need information to make decisions, so the quality and timeliness is crucial. There is so much information on operations, but the right information is not all the information.

The best way to solve complex problems is by empowering those who have the information out on the frontlines — otherwise, an opportunity to get ahead might be missed.

What do you have in place to make sure that, where you have delegated powers of responsibility, there is a very clear feedback loop?

We have a pyramidal command structure and demand that individuals understand a commander’s intent two up — i.e. what their commander’s commander wants them to do.

In operations, there are formal mechanisms in place. We call it the commander’s “back brief”. The commander will give their orders, the individual will go away and plan, before then returning with their plan. A two-way confirmation

How do you ensure you are living and breathing your culture?

We have the advantage that we grow our own strategic leaders. Every commander understands and believes in our culture, because they’ve grown up understanding it. In business, leaders are often brought in from outside. They begin leading and making decisions when they are cold to the organisation and lack a fundamental understanding of its culture.

We sign up to live by our six core values when we join the army — this binds us together from the start. We embed the meaning and importance of these values through providing examples from previous operations.

Moving forwards, the values are talked to every day — they are the focus of all progress reviews, and you are held to account for them. If you behave in a way that compromises one of our core values, you are subject to disciplinary or administrative action.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

General Paul. Be yourself, don’t ever pretend you’re someone else.

Brigadier Bill. “The headquarters above you is always full of idiots, and those below is full of naïve fools who don’t get the bigger picture…” As long as you know that is utter rubbish, you can get away from that instinctive behaviour that only you know the truth.

What book is on your bedside table?

General Paul. The Captain’s Class by Sam Walker — a fascinating book looking at the top sixteen best-performing sports teams and what makes them special. Serve to Lead — everyone in the army will have this book on their bedside table, it is the motto of the Sandhurst Academy. It includes vignettes about why our core values have made us who we are through the ages.

Brigadier Bill. I always have two books on the go. Currently, it’s The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni and Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan — an interesting study into life and business decision-making.

What you need to know, when you need to know it

Register for our newsletter to get a monthly compilation of our latest chair interviews, governance research, and upcoming webinars and events, along with weekly round-ups of the top news that matter to board members.