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No-one said it would be easy.

What follows is a true story, a condensed account of the difficulties I experienced over six months working with unfamiliar staff under pressure and without a great deal of practical support. Doing the right thing required me to eat a large slice of humble pie and it wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did.

Several years ago, as a newly-minted officer in the British Army, I was sent overseas for a prolonged period. In my charge were a mixed bag of 20 soldiers and airmen from various units, none of whom I knew particularly well, having only arrived at my own unit a couple of months prior. Our task was to identify and upgrade some 2,000 pieces of communications equipment in use by around 2,500 personnel, replacing both hardware and a range of software. We were given a couple of months in the UK to meet one another, sort out all the necessary equipment and undertake a couple of days’ collective training, before departing. It was not nearly enough time to foster any kind of team spirit or understanding of our relative strengths or weaknesses. However, the upgrades were deemed urgent and delay was not an option. Increasing the challenge – and the stakes – the entire operation took place during a summer in Afghanistan, typically the busiest of the annual war fighting periods; the team would have to contend not only with the heat and dispersal across a wide area, but the fact that disrupting more typical operations was a non-starter. Placing further pressure on the work, a major move of personnel and equipment was scheduled for the middle of the tour, further increasing the difficulty of execution.

This notwithstanding, the operation began well. With over half of equipment in one large, reasonably safe location, the team focused on upgrading this area first, a task which took the better part of three months. The arrangement was straightforward:

  • One person would contact units to visit in person and physically identify the quantity and type of equipment requiring upgrade; this would then be scheduled alongside other units to ensure the upgrade teams were worked to their full capacity each night.
  • One of the night teams would take prepared equipment to those locations and swap it for the existing kit, installing and testing the setups; the other night team would perform preparatory work on the recovered equipment, storing backup data securely and erasing hard drives for upgrade.
  • One of the day shifts would continue this upgrade while the others visited the units and provided in-person support, navigating the new OS and programmes to ensure operations ran smoothly.

In this manner the upgrades ran more or less continuously for several months (note: on deployed operations there isn’t really such a thing as a “weekend”, though we did try and give everyone a couple of hours’ extra rest at least once a week).

Some weeks into the operation, I arrived one morning to our main office to be greeted by one of the more senior airmen, absolutely outraged and not sugar-coating his feelings either. Digging into the matter revealed differences of opinion; the senior airman was irate because a more junior airman had worked two shifts back-to-back, apparently ordered to do so, and he felt this was unacceptable. Therein lay the first difference, that working a one-off 24-hours during live operations was not right! But more importantly, the airman had not been ordered to undertake this work; he had instead chosen to, for reasons which were logical but not strictly necessary. He had not communicated this to anyone and had just done it in his usual good-natured manner. It was only in the morning that the “problem” came to light. This at least was relatively easily rectified: we explained to the junior that he could not do this again without permission, and I explained more privately to the senior airman that I would have appreciated these facts being confirmed before being publicly berated first thing in the morning.

I would like to say this was the end of all problems on that tour, and that I am entirely brilliant with a shining halo. But where would a decent story or lesson be, if that were so? For what has not yet been revealed is that I had not yet determined quite how to work with airmen, the RAF being a different organisation in many respects than the Army. I was – I freely admit – quite full of the hubris which comes of training, entirely without a decent Senior NCO to curb my enthusiasm and authoritative bursts, and not without my reservations that the RAF approach to work was frankly too “civilian”. On a couple of memorable occasions I definitely got the seniors’ collective backs up with off-hand and (in hindsight) flippant comments. And on other occasions, as noted above, they certainly got me riled. Work went ahead as scheduled, and was always performed to a high standard, but not because we were a well-oiled machine, only that everyone acted professionally and saw the importance of the “bigger picture”, the stakes of getting this wrong being too large.

Eventually, something had to give. We had only a few weeks to push but the veneer of cooperation had long since been scraped thin and tensions were mounting. I sought advice from peers and senior colleagues alike, but routinely met with unhelpful approaches that didn’t suit me, among them:

  • Just get through it. You’ve only got a few weeks. Finish the job, never see them again.

And one gem, from a peer whose unit was comprised of soldiers mostly younger than his 25 years, on learning I was dealing with a group 20 years older and more experienced than me:

  • Oh, you’re f*cked, then.

Thanks, hugely helpful!

Well, something did give, and it was me. I did something surprising, to myself, my peers, and certainly to the airmen. I took them out for a meeting away from our usual HQ, where we began with some slightly forced but light-hearted conversation. After a few minutes, I broke the news to them: I knew exactly how they felt about me (it wasn’t difficult to determine!) and, more importantly, I felt quite similarly about them too (if they hadn’t guessed). I felt they had not been terribly supportive of me, and that had been hard to manage. But – and this is the important part – I also acknowledged openly that I had not treated them as well as I should have, that my flippancy and occasional disregard for their experience was wrong, and that I was sorry for my behaviour. I explained that I didn’t want to or care about being friends but I very much wanted to mend the working relationships I had been responsible for breaking, and to at least end the tour on a better note.

It worked. By their own admission they had absolutely not expected anything of the kind, not least of all from this man who had masked his inexperience in arrogance for so long. They – like so many others – firmly believed reconciliation was a lost cause, with ending the tour and parting ways the only option. So long, good riddance, and all that. They certainly didn’t want to broach the matter with me. I learned it takes moral fortitude to address one’s own shortcomings, but the rewards run infinitely deeper than the worry of admitting failure or wrongdoing; over the years which have followed, I have become much more aware of my own shortcomings, able to admit or apologise for them far more readily, and to recognise that lacks are not necessarily weaknesses. The hubris is gone, replaced with a far more objective, pragmatic and practical approach to people and problems; I only wish I had learned this sooner.

For the record, the tour ended well despite a couple of other hiccoughs (the result of yet more inexperience on my part!) and I have since on occasion bumped into some of the same soldiers and airmen, always amicably. I owe them a great deal in not having lynched me quite deservedly several months prior.

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