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Civil Service

Leadership in the Ministry of Defence

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders, Good management

Thank you all very much for your interesting contributions to the consultation on leadership in Jeremy’s blog a few weeks ago.

I am sure that our Civil Service-wide consultation will result in the production of a Leadership Statement that is ambitious, challenging and unique to the Civil Service.  The team will take all comments posted to date and assess them alongside the responses that they have received through other digital channels and the many face to face discussions that have taken place with Civil Servants across the UK.

The findings of this assessment will be used to draft the Leadership Statement which will be launched in the next few weeks. If you have any burning thoughts which you would like considered, please email the Leadership Team direct.

Today though, I wanted to tell you about my experience of leadership in the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Jon Thompson talking to a Royal Marine Commando at Civil Service Live 2013
Jon Thompson at Civil Service Live 2013 (Copyright: Civil Service World Events)

When I was appointed as Permanent Secretary of the MoD one of my personal priorities was to try and improve the quality of leadership in defence. It seems to me that one of the critical roles of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) is to lead and the annual staff survey was stark in assessing our ability to lead, listen and communicate the change needed in defence. Over the last two plus years we’ve been on a fantastic journey, investing time and resources into improving all our leaders, not just those on particular development schemes.

Initially we worked in small groups on what leadership meant for all the SCS.  Over 200 SCS colleagues participated and we developed the “Seven Part Leadership Offer”. Everyone, including me, received the same offer to develop themselves as leaders. That included secondments to partner organisations, being mentored, structured learning and development and personal coaching. Take up was incredible, for example, everyone did 360 and had structured feedback from a third party coach. We’ve been meeting as an SCS cadre every six months for a day on leadership to continue to reinforce how important this issue is for us as a team. These events have pre-work, including seminars or on line questionnaires, that feed into the day with follow up for people afterwards. For me, there have been very powerful days on inclusion, led by Dr Binna Kandola, and resilience, led by John McCarthy.  Exploring the different aspects of leadership has been really excellent in creating both a team ethos for the SCS and a sense of real momentum on a business critical issue.

With this momentum colleagues have taken the lead in a range of related areas.  For example all the SCS taking on mentoring of other leaders early in their career, or the local SCS link to defence sites all over the country. We’ve now begun to roll out an offer for Band Bs (Grade 6 and 7). We are five conferences into a series of ten, given there are 2,000 colleagues in this level of leadership and every one has a different leadership flavour.  We’ve developed a leadership offer for these leaders and all other grades. Take up has been impressive.

In the end it is my view that single great leaders don’t deliver, it’s improving all leaders and creating a team, with purpose, that delivers sustained organisational change, improvements in efficiency, implements policy and, critically, leads all colleagues in an inclusive way.  We remain on a journey, I personally love it and am relentless in doing so, and I hope you are too.

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  1. Comment by Mushroom posted on

    I'm surprised that the CS (MOD or otherwise) simply haven't borrowed from the Values and Standards of the British Army, freely available at
    Nothing in that about 360 degree mutual backscratching exercises.
    Just :
    "Those in authority must be loyal to their subordinates: representing their interests faithfully, dealing with complaints thoroughly and developing their abilities through progressive training. Subordinates must be loyal to their leaders, their team, and their duty. Being loyal to ones’ leaders or subordinates does not mean that wrong-doing should be condoned or covered up:
    this is misplaced loyalty and questions a soldier’s integrity. Loyalty, though expected, must be earned through commitment, self-sacrifice, courage, professionalism, decency and integrity.
    These qualities are required both on and off duty as they are enduring characteristics that cannot be turned on and off at will."

    Says it all really.

  2. Comment by Steve C posted on

    We realise that Mr. Thompson has his hands tied by government in terms of what he personally can and can't do about pay and conditions. However, as most of us cannot reach the politicians, particularly the senior ones, we require him to do it for us. What I want to hear from Mr. Thompson is how he had meetings with senior politicians and fought our corner, how he defended our conditions of service, how he fought and argued for pay increases, how he issued statements to the press defending Civil Servants in the face of the relentlessly negative rubbish we see in the papers. I want to hear that Mr. Thompson has been threatened with disciplinary action for arguing with the Prime Minister on our behalf.
    Instead we see all this twaddle about leadership. Follow me chaps, you too can be a jargon spewing corporate zombie! Leaders are born, not made. Managers may be trained, and many need to be, but leadership you got or you aint. Oh, and the last time I looked, Fantastic Journey was a sci fi movie about a submarine being miniaturised and injected into somebody's blood stream, which is about as likely the results of the your say survey being interpreted realistically.

  3. Comment by Graeme R (MoD) posted on

    You say you are putting together a statement of behaviours expected of our leaders. Three suggestions:

    Lead by example

    Treat those who work for you as you would wish them to treat you

    Do not undermine the trust of junior staff

    If I misbehave then my managers can put disciplinary charge to me, but what is my recourse if it is my managers who are misbehaving? - power without responsibility if senior managers can push aside the issue with correspondence that makes no attempt to address what has been reported to them.

  4. Comment by Steve posted on

    Maybe I've been unlucky as I have not seen an improvement in leadership, but a backwards step at Abbey Wood. Perhaps this is because too many senior staff are 'leading' - all in different directions, rather than 'managing' as John Brett highlights.

    Question - What will leadership sucess look like and how will the VfM be assessed - after all this has taken a lot of resource away from managing the day job?

  5. Comment by Steven posted on

    Many words, little content.

  6. Comment by Brian posted on

    Senior management in the MOD sounds to be just as blind to junior staff concerns as it is in HMRC.

  7. Comment by Disillusioned posted on

    " of my personal priorities was to try and improve the quality of leadership in defence."

    Objective not achieved.

    "....the annual staff survey was stark in assessing our ability to lead, listen and communicate the change needed in defence."

    Still not listening. Or 'leading'. Communication all one-way. Survey grossly misinterpreted for disingenuous purposes.

    "Over the last two plus years we’ve been on a fantastic journey, investing time and resources into improving all our leaders, not just those on particular development schemes."

    Minimal progress towards objective. 'Fantastic' means unreal, unbelievable, derived from fantasy. How appropriate.

    " is my view that single great leaders don’t deliver..."

    Practising what you preach? Churchill might disagree with you.

    I think you'll find the vast majority of MoD staff are not impressed with this level of vacuous rhetoric. More action required, less self-congratulatory back-slapping.

  8. Comment by John Brett posted on

    So, we have a leadership objective, within DWP at least, and we are now to have a Leadership Statement. These alone show a lack of understanding of leadership within a workplace where people are administered let alone managed, let alone led. I don’t want to be led, leaders are as rare birds, I’ve only bumped in to a couple in my life; I want to be managed by someone trained to. The majority of us would settle for this I think..

    When the Service first promoted this nonsense about leadership I had the thought that it might just be a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that people in management roles are no longer trained for the role ( please don’t refer me to CSL as these are voluntary courses the completion of which will only be undertaken by the more enlightened manager). I am now convinced my initial thought was correct. People are given responsibility for subordinates and in this role make decisions which can make or break careers, enhance or spoil a working day yet we don’t train them in the functions of management. We allow untrained people to play with the lives of others and here we are banging on about the most complex of concepts, what does and does not make a leader. When you know the answer bottle it, you’ll make a fortune.

    Senior managers seem to hold to the conceit that everyone can be a leader despite our instincts telling us this isn’t so and there being no empirical evidence to support it. But, train someone in the functions of management e.g. planning, controlling, finance, communication, time management etc., and you have a base from which a leader might evolve. Show me a leader who can’t communicate and I’ll show you an empty chair.

    Please don’t forget that whatever is developed by the Leadership Team (another example of a misunderstanding of leadership where mere membership of the team makes one a leader) its implementation will be in the hands of untrained managers so you shouldn’t be disappointed when you reflect, in a couple of years time, on the results of the exercise. Still, there will always be another “ initiative” to promote; may I suggest you make it MANAGEMENT.

    The rubric “Leadership in the Ministry of Defence” is interesting as the armed forces, along with sportsmen, and mountaineers are the stock from which leadership gurus draw their examples of good leaders (if you can indeed use a qualifier for leadership, someone is either a leader or they are not)

    This “Civil Service-wide consultation”; how far down are you drilling? I’ve not been consulted..

  9. Comment by Paul posted on

    I like Jon Thomson as the Perm Sec at MOD, overall I think he has done a good job in difficult circumstances. And in areas important to personnel in these austere times the fact is that no matter how good a leader someone is, their hands are tied by government policy on pay and pensions. That said some of the interventions have not been thought through. For example the 360 process has felt imposed by many SCS and the feedback has been done over one session, when best practice would have been two. There is an obsession with certain models of leadership which themselves are not actually underpinned by rigorous research but which sound good and have had a charismatic persuasive salesman operating working at (previous) Cabinet Secretary level. Leadership in the civil service is incredibly difficult, we all feel frustrated when we can book certain tickets for travel cheaper in one class than another using popular websites but are forced to go down central services. I'm not sure there is ever a "right" answer and I'm suspicious of leaders who say they have "the answer", yet I can't help think that for most of our leadership positions there is a case of power without responsibility. So my question is when was the last time that a member of the senior leadership team in the military or civil service in Defence or for that matter across government was sacked for incompetence?

  10. Comment by Defence Academy posted on

    Your blog on Leadership in the MOD context was a really enjoyable and informative read which will hopefully resonate with colleagues across the Department. Here at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, as part of our continued role in delivering the leadership offer to Defence personnel, the ability to quote PUS’ views is invaluable. We’ll look to share your experience with our audiences through our social media sites and with our students as part of their learning experience.

  11. Comment by Robert posted on

    "In the end it is my view that single great leaders don’t deliver, it’s improving all leaders and creating a team, with purpose, that delivers sustained organisational change, improvements in efficiency, implements policy and, critically, leads all colleagues in an inclusive way. We remain on a journey, I personally love it and am relentless in doing so, and I hope you are too".

    No Mr Thompson, we are too busy struggling to live while you endorse the erosion of our terms and conditions of service, and fail to defend the staff you purport to admire so much. I realise it will be of little concern to you, but morale has continually dropped since your assumed leadership of the Civil Service.

    Enjoy your leadership meetings and your fantastic journey, hopefully it will take you a long way away from the Civil Service and we will then be blessed with a leader who does not rubber stamp government decision regardless of the impact on junior staff

  12. Comment by Jeff posted on

    I think the manadatory drugs test for the armed forces should be extended to the SCS.

  13. Comment by Dave posted on

    Seriously, is Mr Thompson having a laugh - Leadership in the MOD is a non event. However I sincerely hope he enjoyed the endless meetings and group discussions at public expense, while his lowly paid subordinates struggled with low pay, increased pension costs and a plethora of other soul destroying measures imposed under his oversight. There is a stark dichotomy in the fact that whilst Mr Thompson states Leadership is improving, those working within the organisation know that staff morale has never been lower - for which Mr Thompson must take a large part of the blame

    What the majority of Civil Staff would love is to actually be led, to have their terms and conditions defended and to stop being used as guinea pigs in numerous HR experiments by their metaphorical leaders - I use the word metaphorical as good leadership in the higher levels of the Civil Service is rarer than a 2 horned unicorn.

    That said, there are bonuses in these endless "leadership meetings" continuing - at least it takes up time which our SCS colleagues would normally use interfering in the efforts of those who actually do the work instead of talking about it.

    • Replies to Dave>

      Comment by Rob Davies posted on

      Well said Dave. Not in MoD myself, but in the Civil Service backwater of APHA. What you say rings true, sadly. Also note MoD's record of squandering public money on punitive contracts for arms and equipment while squeezing staff. Let alone military adventures overseas at horrendous expense while we fester in austerity.

    • Replies to Dave>

      Comment by Andy posted on

      Leadership in the MOD is far from flawless, but the worst problem I've encountered working in the Civil Service is an attitude of entitlement from ordinary employees and a tendency to whinge about tough issues and blame other people. Dave's comment is a case in point.

      • Replies to Andy>

        Comment by Hugo posted on

        Well said, Andy. Very true.