Conduct the orchestra

While in the Royal Navy, one of the roles I trained for was to be a Principle Warfare Officer (PWO) – the person who ‘fights’ the ship on behalf of the Captain.

During the sea-phase of the course I was give one very simple but hugely powerful piece of advice – “Don’t try doing it yourself, sir, be the conductor of the orchestra.”

This gem was handed to me by one of the Senior Rate Instructors who had accompanied us to sea to help coordinate and support our live sea training period.  At the time, I was sat in the Principle Warfare Officer’s chair in the Operations Room of a Type 42 destroyer, surrounded by a warfare team of about 40 people.

Spidering out from the Ops Room, the Officer of the Watch on the Bridge was awaiting his instructions from me, as was the ship’s helicopter crew, the missile and gun teams, the engineering department and other ships accompanying us as we set ourselves up for a mock sea battle against other live ships, submarines and aircraft.

This was a ‘make or break’ career course and the sea phase was a critical aspect of demonstrating my knowledge and abilities. 

No pressure…

I can honestly say that me ending up being the top student on my course came down to that single piece of advice.

Acting on that advice, I was able to avoid getting sucked into the detail of what was going on; instead, I was able to stand back in order to see the bigger picture, then deliver clear, timely instructions to the various teams and sub-teams supporting me. 

Doing this meant I had to trust everyone to do their jobs properly.  But, as I was able to create thinking time in order to make my orders and instructions clear and concise, I made their jobs easier and so it worked.  I like to think that had they had time to reflect on what was happening and how they were being trusted they would have felt valued and respected by being allowed to do their jobs without being over-ridden or micro managed.

As other course members took their turn in the PWO seat I was able to observe how they did it.  I don’t know if they were given the same advice as me or, if they were, why they chose to ignore it.  Most of my colleagues passed but, sadly, a few did not as they became overwhelmed by the sheer pace and information overload of the situation.

So what is the point of this story?

Don’t try and do it all yourself; there is a reason why you have a team around you;

Make sure you keep the team informed of what the desired outcome is/what the main aim is.  If they understand the bigger picture, then they will understand how their actions will help to achieve it;

Give people clear, timely direction and trust them to carry out their roles and responsibilities without micro-managing them.

I believe this lesson is as pertinent to any leader in business as it was for me sitting in the Ops Room that day.


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