An SAS Definition of Leadership

David Gilbert-Smith was an exceptional Rugby player with caps for Scotland who went on to serve as an army Officer, winning a Military Cross in Korea and subsequently serving in the SAS as a Troop Commander and the Regimental Training Officer.

Gilbert-Smith defined leadership as;

‘Using your personal power to win the hearts and minds of others, in order to achieve a common purpose’.

It’s a definition which is still used on SF leadership courses today where unpacking the key phrases generates insight into what it means to lead effectively.

Personal power.

Personal power is about you. Your personality, character and values. It is not about authority, rank or position. It is about how you are able to connect with and influence others and the conscious choice that you will lead. It is the power you are going to apply to winning hearts & minds.


Not by right, not by coercion but in the choices of others to follow a leader. To be led is not a passive response but rather an active choice. Does it make sense to follow this person? To win that response is to be able to influence, persuade and connect.

Hearts and minds.

A cliché and so easily skimmed over. Heart is about emotional connection and relationships. How do you make others feel? Minds is about what is rational, reasoned or analysed. But the most important word in the phrase is and. Leadership is neither one or the other – though most leaders will preference toward one side or the other in their style and approach. Good looks like the ability to do both. Personally, I would also argue that they appear in the right order. As Teddy Roosevelt quipped; ‘nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care’.

Common purpose.

Leadership is a goal directed activity, it seeks to change the status quo and to solve problems or move toward a more advantageous future. In the absence of a common purpose there is simply a crowd or the confusion of trying to go in three different directions at once.

There are hundreds of books about leadership, almost none of them define what leadership is, but being clear on what it means gives us shared insight from which we can start to grow.


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