Many of us are worried at the moment - what with massive cut backs in public sector work, the knock on effect on private business, the deficit and then there is global warming, oil running out and the threat of terrorism. It would be easy to feel sorry for ourselves at being dealt this hand. So I am grateful to be removed from the gloom by a book I am reading which has left me feeling upbeat about how we are all going to cope with these (and other) challenges. I reckon this is the third recession I have worked through (well the others involved a certain amount of unemployment for me too) and I have been made redundant three times in my career. In other words, I would not regard myself as being naive about the situation. So what business book has had this effect on this cynical middle aged business academic? Of course it isn't a business book at all.
Bullet proof by Matt Croucher. It is the true story of a lad from Solihull who joined the Royal Marines and went to war. I am reading it as part of the work I am doing with the Imperial War Museum on an exhibition on courage which is based on a very large exhibition of the highest gallantry medals - the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. My job is to interpret the acts of heroism marked by these awards through the psychological processes involved. In other words, what goes through someones mind when they put themselves deliberately into mortal danger to save others? The answer is complicated, but I want to bring out two things from Crouchers book; self-efficacy and realism. Self efficacy is the quality of believing that in any given situation, one can find a solution. It is a little like self confidence but the difference is that self efficacy is about a generic and general belief in ones abilities whereas confidence is usually more specific to a particular skill or knowledge set you may (or not!) have. The forces are brilliant at instilling it during basic training where many years ago when I went through it, every day I remember being confronted by tasks which at first I simply did not believe I could accomplish; and every day somehow I did. The effect of this is that eventually you believe you can do anything. For example, basic military doctrine has it that in order to attack an enemy which is dug in, you need to outnumber them about 3 to one. Croucher describes how his detachment of 16 Royal Marines successfully took on over 60 well trained, heavily armed, determined enemy. There is no sense of arrogance in his account but just a feeling of trust in his officers, his equipment and the plan. But most of all, there is a quiet, understated but rock solid confidence in is own ability.
The second quality is of realism. He describes how 60 of his comrades were to take on an unknown number of enemy - but estimates are there might be as many as a thousand. He realises this is going to be tough but rather than shrink from this, he goes about preparing for the onslaught by preparing equipment, defences and himself. He knows it is going to be unbelievably tough and maybe impossible but he appraised the situation and calmly makes plans and prepares. In this second scenario he combined both the sense of realism about the seriousness of the situation and the self efficacy borne of superb training and battle-honed experience.
I know that mercifully most of us will never have to face these life and death situations but I do think there is something we can all learn from this story, and perhaps apply to our everyday work. Self efficacy is something which can be encouraged in our team by showing how well they have done in the past, encouraging them to innovate and find ways through problems. Most of all, as leaders, we can instil a positive frame of mind and show leadership in making bold decisions where necessary, taking calculated risks and allowing our teams to work things out themselves. But we need to be realistic too, so be open about the difficulties, don't brush things under the carpet, face up to difficult situations. And remember, no matter how tough things get, for the majority of us, it's unlikely that anyone is going to fire a rocket propelled grenade at you!