Sandhurst Confronts the Ultimate Military Dilemma

Review of Sandhurst, BBC4, by Tudor Rickards

The BBC is following the progress of a group of officer cadets in their early months at Sandhurst, the UK’s elite military academy for its army officers. This week’s episode explored the deepest moral dilemma confronting every military leader

In Leaders We Deserve recently I have been musing on what makes a natural born leader. This was prompted by a news report that Graeme Swann had been labelled as such a rare person at a military training event. I should have remembered answers that might be found in the Officer training regimes in military institutes such as West Point in the United States, and The Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in Surrey.

The Mini-series

The BBC4 mini-series provides coverage of the extensive process of selecting and training all UK army officers receive. In episode 2 [Tuesday 27th Sept 2011] the emphasis was on the way in which the cadets were confronted with the deepest of leadership dilemmas for every military officer: that of taking life as a way of life.

Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent provided a sensitive review of the issue: He permitted himself a flight of fancy on the impression which the film may have left on hypothetical observers from Taliban intelligence:

What may puzzle [the Taliban intelligence officers] is the odd combination of aggression and sensitivity that runs through the Sandhurst training. We have what they might recognise as mullahs – army chaplains who tutor the trainee officers in the theology of justified killing – and we even have something that they might identify as a pale (and far more thoughtful) equivalent to their own cult of martyrdom. The soldiers here were taken on a trip to a military cemetery to impress upon them just how terminally demanding their career choice can be, and they were also encouraged to read the combat diaries of an exemplary young officer who had been killed just four weeks into his first tour in Afghanistan. There are also elements of training designed to replace humane instinct with a more brutal reflex. In bayonet training, a phalanx of young trainees chanted “kill, kill, kill” as a colour-sergeant screamed his dismay at their lack of obvious blood-lust.

The dilemma

In the BBC documentary, the would-be officers are followed as  they wrestle with the ultimate dilemma. One painfully decided that he did not feel he could accept utterly the implications of killing as an essential part of his career choice. He was counselled sympathetically by senior officers, and eventually left the course to seek another occupation. As Sutcliffe points out, the behaviours we observed would probably have been somewhat different in the absense of the BBC  cameras. Nevertheless, the programme seemed to capture much that is consistent with what has been reported elsewhere is authentic about the ethos within the UK military training as captured in public addresses by senior figures .

Leasons for organisational leadership

The attention to leadership goes far beyond rhetoric.  The subject is directly addressed in formal studies, and runs through much of the drilling and preparations for taking tough decisions under battle-field conditions. In a very real way, officers experience the sometimes brutal and de-sensitizing treatment meted out to the troops they have to lead.  Followership as well as leadership is recognised as an important part of the training.

Born or made?

There can be little doubt that the Sandhurst culture is geared to selecting officers with potential to survive the training and perform as leaders under extreme conditions. Within the selection criteria, most are ‘made’ into effective leaders. Yet Sandhurst would have little to quarrel with the US Marine Corps list of fourteen trait-like characteristics such as  intelligence, resilience, dependability, decisiveness, mental stability, loyalty, and integrity which are broadly consistent with the the well-known big five personality traits of cognitive psychology. The practical challenge is to identify them within the development process.

Pitfalls and paradoxes

Even as I write them down, I see that potential paradoxes and pitfalls of putting total faith in behavioural traits, some of which which can become weaknesses if treated as absolutes.   Unreliable, neurotic and manipulative behaviours are not unknown among great leaders and tyrants alike.


Image is from Ian Mansfield’s informative Ian Visits blog.


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