This branch of the British armed services consciously fosters cheerfulness and nourishes its collective memory. Business executives should take note.
Britain’s Royal Navy is a disciplined command-and-control organization that moves across 140 million square miles of the world’s oceans.
Navy life has created a style of leadership that fosters trust, respect, and collective effort. Softer skills such as cheerfulness, storytelling, and the creation of a collective memory - all of which make indispensable contributions to the effectiveness of ships and fleets - merit serious reflection by business leaders, too.
No one follows a pessimist, and cheerfulness is a choice. It has long been understood to influence happiness at work and therefore productivity. The cheerful leader in any environment broadcasts confidence and capability, and the Royal Navy instinctively understands this.
How do you teach cheerfulness? The Royal Navy takes every informal opportunity to demonstrate its usefulness. To fill the dead time that invariably occurs during training exercises and other routine activities, for example, navy personnel routinely hold informal games or contests. And Royal Marine commanders understand particularly well that cheerfulness is fueled by humor.The practice of “banter” - a peculiarly British form of playful, if gently mocking, communication - is also openly encouraged as an upbeat and informal way to regulate relationships and break down hierarchy.
Conversely, empty optimism or false cheer can hurt morale. As one naval captain puts it, “Being able to make the uncertain certain is the secret to leadership. You have to understand, though, that if you are always über-optimistic, then the effect of your optimism, over time, is reduced.”
Keep spinning ‘dits’
The Royal Navy has a highly efficient informal internal network. Leadership information and stories known as dits are exchanged across it—between tiers of management, generations, practices (branches), and social groups. With the help of dits, the Royal Navy’s collective consciousness assimilates new knowledge and insights while reinforcing established ones. Visitors to naval establishments or ships are often invited for a few dits; crews are encouraged to share theirs. These dits are one way the Royal Navy fosters what a business would call its culture, or philosophy.
Many organizations lack a strong collective memory wind up ignoring their own wisdom in uncertain times. They’re also more likely to follow the latest nostrum on leadership without digging into their past, thereby deskilling themselves. One antidote is making time for storytelling: low-tech oral history or cutting-edge social-media platforms that give today’s leaders new opportunities to spin dits on a regular basis.
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