Paratrooper selection or P Coy, is one of the most arduous courses the British Army runs. As with the Commando Course, it is an opportunity for individuals to try and demonstrate their physical and mental robustness through a series of gruelling tasks and team based activities spread over a number of months. Whilst you must be fit to attend (running 3 km in 18 min whilst wearing fighting kit of 35lbs plus water and weapon is a ‘minimum expectation’), it is as much about your mental resilience as it is your physical. If a candidate is successful on the course, they will be presented with the coveted maroon beret and go onto serve and/or lead some of the British Army’s finest troops. Often a good proving ground for future special forces operators, paratroopers can deploy on operations in support of the SAS/SBS/SRR and operate in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
Starting with 160 candidates on day one, the objective of the instructors is to push everyone to breaking point. Hunting out the weak of mind and body, they home in like hyenas and hound them to quit. It is rarely malicious, just part of their job. They are the gatekeepers to the airborne forces and know every successful recruit will be joining a unique group of individuals who have endured the same journey and expect only the best and worthy will join them. Attending as a team leader, I needed to overcome the same challenges as the other candidates, whilst also trying to motivate and lead them through the physical and mental onslaught.
As one of approximately 20 team leaders on the course, instructors demanded more from us than that of the soldiers we would eventually serve with. As leaders we needed to be able to demonstrate that we could endure everything our teams did, plus more. On combat operations we would be expected to match our soldiers in every sense, carrying the same equipment, across the same terrain whilst all the while monitoring and supporting them and the broader operations whilst juggling the expectations of those above and around us. If someone were suffering, regardless of how we felt, we would need to push through and ensure we did all we could to support them. This was the expectation of any service personnel, yet in volunteering to become a paratrooper we were signalling our intent to carry out these duties to the extreme.
Reflecting on those experiences and comparing them to the corporate world I now find myself operating in, there are several similarities that can be drawn if you remove the physical activities. Yet it was my lessons on the physically demanding training grounds that I learned one of the most effective skills to support others despite my own challenges.
During a particularly hard training session – we were all openly suffering – I remember a physical training instructor (PTI) challenging me to find my ‘leaders legs’ i.e. the mental and physical strength to push through my own self-pity and exhaustion, so I could motivate those around me to achieve the objective. This was a code word that I had absorbed through osmosis at some stage earlier in my career and was just the reminder I needed to snap out of my own self-pity. It worked. In focusing on others and encouraging them to dig deeper, ignore the pain, focus on the end goal, I found my own suffering dispersed and I was able to navigate the situation more effectively. One of the best parts of leaders legs though, is whether used on the battlefield or in the boardroom they are contagious. Other leaders in the groups found their legs over the remainder of the course at varying times, and once one of us started the encouragement it would ripple like wildfire through the group. And what goes around, comes around.
Whilst I may have left my military days behind and the need to inspire people to overcome physical and mental exhaustion is limited to my Dad’s Saturday workout group, the principle of leaders legs still stays with me. There have been many occasions during my corporate career where I have strived to support others in their struggles meeting tight deadlines, balancing unforgiving clients and managers, and maintaining their own wellbeing – all whilst battling my own frustrations. Yet each time I have sought to help, I have found focusing on the needs of others above my own has subconsciously assisted me in my own struggles, shining a different perspective on the situation and allowing me to focus on what actually matters – the team. The COVID world has highlighted this need for us to support one another more effectively, especially as the barriers of a virtual world mean we are inclined to become more self-centered as we focus on ‘sole survival’ outside of our zoom calls.
I challenge you to reflect on when was the last time you dug deep and utilized your leaders legs to place the needs of others before yourself, despite your own suffering. For those of you who remember, what benefit did you find subconsciously came off the back of it? For those who don’t, maybe its time to find them again.