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Leadership

Lessons from military leadership: the importance of morale

Published 31 January 2023 in Leadership • 7 min read

Since the pandemic, we have been seeking to describe the phenomenon of how feelings impact performance. We explored resilience, well-being, and self-care, meandering through agility and mental health

Now the peak of the pandemic seems to have passed, we are still trying to pinpoint exactly how our internal state and outer productivity are interrelated. 

Beyond this semantic quest, a word to describe these dynamics will help leaders focus and build on the well-being we have been trying to promote for the last three years. 

Due to my experience in managing personal energy, I am often invited to talk about this topic – and yet, I have not found a label that coachees can easily share with their teams. 

The breakthrough came from a very surprising field: military leadership. They call it ‘morale’ and it has been the key to how well soldiers carry out their missions for centuries. 

The concept was embodied and patiently described to me by Stephen Kilpatrick, a former British colonel who saw operational service in multiple global locations as well as two tours as an instructor at the UK’s world-renowned military leadership academy, Sandhurst. 

What is morale? 

Morale, or sense of well-being, is a key feature of a soldier’s life – and as any military commander knows, it is a critical consideration in his/her approach to leadership. There are many definitions of morale, but the following sums it up well: 

Why does it matter? 

Soldiers are asked to behave in a certain way, both individually and collectively, often in physical discomfort or under emotional stress; to do so they must be motivated and energized to perform those tasks, often at considerable personal risk. Whilst motivation can come through coercion, the energy to engage and stay engaged can only come from a sense of wellbeing and purpose, a conviction that the task is worth the effort. Napoleon said that ‘moral(e) is to physical as three is to one’. 

How is it produced? 

The formula is not straightforward and requires careful thought and experience to ‘strike a balance’ amongst the constituent components. For example, whilst perhaps enjoying a relaxed regime, the morale of a poorly disciplined unit can only hold up for so long until it is undermined. Similarly, a unit operating under a highly strict regime might function well for a while, before the highly restrictive atmosphere will overcome a sense of well-being and reduce morale overall, affecting the ability of the group to operate. The challenge for a commander is to strike that very fine balance in all the factors that influence morale, such as the intensity of training, the time committed to rest and recovery, the attention to entertainment, the investment in career management, and others.  

Boosting morale doesn’t mean going easy 

As a young, newly commissioned commander of a platoon of 30 young men, Stephen made the mistake of placing popularity before professional reputation when he allowed the delivery of the soldiers’ mail to interrupt an important briefing on live firing training. His heightened popularity lasted no more than five minutes, but not only did he lose their attention to the musings of wives and friends, most critically, he detected a sharp drop in the faith of his experienced and battle-hardened corporals. It took Stephen months to regain that faith.  

Thirty years later, he assumed command of an infantry battalion of 650 men and women, and it was suggested that they might cancel the Friday battle run as a way of celebrating his arrival. Tempting, but no. He had the battalion run hard that day – and every Friday from then on, finishing the run with wry smiles on their faces which concealed a certain pride that said: “This is what we do – we train hard to fight easy.” Stephen notes that throughout those 30 years he made many slips, but the need to invest thought and effort in the soldiers’ morale was ever present. 

This is not dissimilar to taking on a new leadership role within your company. It is tempting to take actions to be popular with your team, but it’s important to remember that, as a leader, it is your job to keep them on task. This means you may not be everybody’s friend all the time, but most people appreciate a leader who keeps the team running well. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a secure base for your employees, but it does mean you need to stay balanced and not sway too much towards either friendship or command and control. 

How can it be measured? 

It is difficult to measure the level of morale, since there are many factors which hold different levels of impact, but for military units an indicator is often the rate of retention of personnel. A simple rule is that a unit with high morale will retain personnel at a higher rate than one with lower morale. This is a useful but rather blunt indicator. Another indicator might be the proportion of soldiers who report to the doctor complaining of ‘stress’.  

In a corporate setting, this doesn’t differ dramatically. Ask yourself when you last checked your company’s attrition numbers. Have you looked at the numbers by department? This is a good indicator of which teams might be suffering from low morale. If your company tracks sick time, you may want to examine that as well. Just keep in mind, it could be people are simply sick on the same team because one coworker brought in a contagious bug – but if there are patterns that look unusual, take them as red flags, and dig a little deeper. 

The broad view 

Attention to morale goes beyond the short-term completion of a military mission, but in the longer term can be reflected in individual mental health. This is very important. More and more, humanitarian organizations are expressing concern about the mental health of their employees, concerned at claims of ‘burnout’ and keen to learn how to address it. To do so, however, is to confront the symptoms rather than the cause. It is more important to focus on the individual and collective morale of an organization, and the elements that go to generating that morale, than to confront the consequences of a lack of attention to those elements, day to day. These factors go beyond military and humanitarian organizations, of course, in the business world, especially when times have been stressful or turnover has been high, so companies need to review their morale and what they are doing to bolster it at its roots. 

Questions to ask 

To try and learn more about the level of morale in their organization, and maybe feel the temperature of the water ‘beneath the surface’, leaders might focus on some of the following questions: 

Does the organization have a sense of purpose, are its values well-articulated, and are employees engaged in the organization’s success? 

This is really the first tier of building morale. If your company hasn’t set a strategy with a purpose at its core, it should be your first line of attack. People in any situation need to have an idea what they are working towards; it’s this common goal that allows teams to bond and find common ground. If you have stated your purpose, has it been communicated, and are employees buying in to the idea? This should indicate whether everyone is pulling in roughly the same direction and are committed to the organization – not simply punching in and out. 

Is the flow of information timely and effective in all directions, and do employees feel that their ambitions and concerns can be met by leaders who care?  

This can be hard to determine because often employees won’t openly express themselves when they feel their concerns aren’t relevant to leadership. Instead, you can look at the signals leadership is sending to get an idea of how you are doing. When was the last time the CEO spoke to workers on the shop floor, and what was the outcome? Is there a quarterly meeting of managers when employee morale is on the agenda for discussion? This should demonstrate how the organization – and its leaders – are walking the talk. 

Is time off available and taken? Is the retention rate at least comparable to that of other organizations? 

It pays to dig into these metrics a bit. Do records of time off indicate that employees feel that they are able to take their leave and are doing so according to their allowance, or is there a culture of unease at being away from work that might result in a less-favorable appraisal? What is the rate of absence for medical reasons and how does it compare with previous years? 

Are employees’ appraisals completed by managers according to time? 

This is a good signal for a step up from the shop floor. If managers are overwhelmed, chances are their teams aren’t thriving. Talk to managers who are lagging and find out what’s going on – and what you can do to help make a change. 

The state of the spirits of a person or group as exhibited by confidence, cheerfulness, discipline, and willingness to perform assigned tasks. 

These and other metrics should enable leaders to carry out an objective assessment of the atmosphere ‘below deck’, rather than an abiding sense that ‘everything’s fine. Morale matters, and investing in developing high levels of individual and collective morale is critical. Neglecting it could mean the organization and its employees will suffer the consequences.  

Authors

Francesca Giulia Mereu coaching corner

Francesca Giulia Mereu

Executive coach

An executive coach with more than 20 years’ experience, Francesca Giulia Mereu is also author of the book Recharge Your Batteries. She regularly works with Frontline Humanitarian Negotiators (CCHN) and at IMD with senior leaders of global organizations. You can follow her LinkedIn Group on managing your energy here.

Stephen T. Kilpatrick

Former British infantry officer

Stephen T. Kilpatrick is a former British infantry officer who saw operational service on multiple tours to Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. He also completed two tours as an instructor at the UK’s military leadership academy at Sandhurst. He now works in the humanitarian field with a focus on reducing civilian harm resulting from military operations. 

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