Five leadership tips for combat and parenting

By way of introduction, my name is Major Bram Connolly. For fifteen of my twenty-year military career, I worked at the tip of the spear in Special Forces as a leader. I commanded the finest young men on reconnaissance and combat missions across multiple operational theatres including Afghanistan. These men were hand-picked, specially selected and specially trained at great expense. Most of the tasks we conducted were long-range vehicle patrols, ambushes and time-sensitive targeting operations against an enemy who would rather die than be captured. I was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for “Leadership in Combat” by the Queen’s representative in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Prior to these experiences I was in charge of a platoon of snipers in the National Counter Terrorist Team. These men dedicated their lives to the defence of the Nation, and I was also the Officer in Command of Selection for Special Forces. However, my greatest life test was none of these jobs or combat experiences. My greatest life test to date has been being a Dad.

Luckily, these combat experiences did prepare me for this task. In particular, the leadership lessons that I learnt while commanding young men in Afghanistan have held up well in the operational environment of parenthood.

Let’s start first with a definition of leadership.

“Leadership is getting someone else to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” Simon Senik.

This is a great definition and when you look at it closely and then think about what parenting is, it’s easy to see how brilliant a definition this truly is. Getting a toddler (or a teenager for that matter) to do something because they want to do it, especially if it’s something that you want them to do, is the nirvana of parenting.

But how do you get soldiers (and kids) to do what you want them to do because they want to do it?

Here are the 5 main things that I learnt from being a leader in special forces that I now use regularly as a Dad:

1. Help them visualise the journey

A great leader takes their people on a journey. A great leader uses storytelling to show their team where they are all heading together and supports their subordinates in growing to meet the challenges.

When talking with your kids you need to provide them with a mind’s eye view of where the future is for the family and your child’s place in that future. Set dates in advance and do count downs with the kids. This can be for holidays; house moves or special events. Your children will want to grow and learn if their development is also linked to the growth of the family. The end state is the goal – but the journey is the most important thing to the kids.

2. Clearly set out expectations

A set of values is important for high performing teams. Clearly articulated standards of behaviour are vital for maintaining discipline and a list of daily tasks empowers the team to do what is necessary for the mission. These three elements together form the basis for a leader’s expectations.

I was in a flat spin heading out to sea for a while with my kids. They weren’t considerate to others and I couldn’t control them when it counted. My wife and I were doing everything for them and in some weird way they had turned us into their slaves. Then I remembered how I had helped raise the Tactical Assault Group. I grabbed my sons and we sat around a whiteboard and together we developed our family values. Then I gave the boys a set of behaviours that they needed to learn and strive to maintain and finally we settled on a list of daily tasks. The values, behaviours and tasks are written on a huge post it note, stick on whiteboard, that is right there on the kitchen wall and we discuss it daily. Structure ensured that I won back control and it means more freedom.

3. Reinforce through positivity

I have never seen a leader be successful by leading through negativity. My rule was always to praise in public and adjust behaviours in private. By always focusing first on the things that are right about a situation and then dealing with the things that need to be amended away from the main group a leader is able to always keep a positive relationship with their subordinates.

Kids are no different. Telling a child off in front of their friends or siblings has many second-order effects, some of which cant’ be immediately seen. By leading through positivity and then taking them aside, either in private right away or at a later date, pays dividends when communicating. I have found this technique especially beneficial with one of my sons who is very stubborn and will argue just because it’s an argument and he enjoys it.

4. Give them choices that you want them to choose from

Leaders, by virtue of the position, generally have to have the last say on a decision. What if you get to have the last say on one of two variations that you wanted anyway? It’s a great leadership trick and it helps when you want “buy-in” from a team that needs your guidance. I used this technique a lot when planning for combat jobs to get my soldiers thinking about alternatives and to take responsibility for the decisions that we made as a team.

This is great to use when your kids want to feel empowered, or when they are experimenting with making their own decisions and particularly when they are stubborn and won’t be told …no. “Would you like a banana or an apple as a snack”? Either way, you’re getting fruit. By at least giving the child an option between two choices that you are happy with them making you are giving the child the ability to exercise his or her right to make their own decisions. You’d be surprised how many fights this circumvents.

5. Celebrate good behaviours and success.

Celebrating when the platoon or company reached a milestone was paramount to creating a good operating culture. If we had just let those big moments pass, then the importance of what it was we were doing would have been diminished. As leaders one of our secret weapons is influence, and we influence through giving our subordinates purpose and providing them motivation. People are motivated by public recognition and celebrations.

You remember how important birthdays and Christmas used to be to you. Your kids are the same, these celebrations are important. You can also replicate that feeling by taking them out for a surprise dinner because they met your expectations or because they achieved something. When you recognise someone publicly, especially a child, for something they have done the feelings that evokes makes them want to have those feelings again, you are reinforcing good behaviour or all the work that it took to have that success.

And so there it is; my five rules for leadership, drawn from combat experience and applied to parenting. I believe that if you can provide your kids with a vision of where you’re heading as a family, clearly set your expectations around your children’s values, behaviours and the tasks they need to be completing, provide positive reinforcement to them, limit their choices to the ones you want, but allow them to at least make their own choices and finally reinforce their successes publicly – then  you will have a better chance of getting them to do, what you want them to do because they want to do it.

Bram Connolly DSM

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