Lessons From The (Splendid) Spectacle of Army Officers Wasting Their Time

Sovereign’s Parade by Anthony Shallow


The Sovereign’s parade marks the culmination of the year-long commissioning course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. It’s an entertaining spectacle, a monument to many hours of dedicated training and effort, but also a tremendous folly and a glittering example of misplaced precision.

Foot drill in the Army was a tactical battlefield innovation that dates back to the late 16th Century, (though its roots can be traced into antiquity). It enabled precision manoeuvre on the battlefield and concentrated firepower. It served as an essential counter balance to the terror of combat and allowed commanders to direct events within the course of a battle. An additional benefit was that the massed ranks of soldiers performing in choreographed unison in response to a single voice of command or the beat of a drum created an entertaining and stirring spectacle that quickly developed into ceremonial pageantry. Sadly what was once tactically expedient and focused on the physical and psychological defeat of an enemy has over the centuries ossified into mere buffoonery.

When I served on the Directing Staff at Sandhurst the drill programme was an intrusive distraction from the job of actually developing Junior Leaders and Officers fit to command soldiers. In their final term at the Academy, Officer Cadets had 28 Hours of timetabled drill in comparison to 9 hours focused on the estimate and orders – in English, developing their ability to think and plan, in essence the core of an officers job. At face value a ratio in favour of drill of 3:1 – but even that disguises the reality. In truth for each hour on the drill square there will be at least another off it spent in preparation, polishing boots and pressing kit.

This is the kind of baked in bull-shit that institutions struggle to escape. Activity too often becomes an anaesthetic that gets in the way of thought. We become so wrapped up in running around a wheel that we lose the ability to think critically and question assumptions.

The adverse impact of drill at Sandhurst is that there is negligible consolidation of classroom material, too little time for directed reading no overall ethos of professional curiosity and learning not to mention the impact on the morale and enthusiasm of Officer Cadets.  Misplaced precision is the ability to focus intently on the wrong thing.


Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all’ Peter Drucker


A fat man on a £6000 bike provides a similar example. You can obsess over the quality of the components and the lightness of the frame whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that the major component is the rider. A titanium bottle holder may save you 6g, but if you’re carrying kilos of excess weight, the drinks holder is irrelevant to your problem.


Business teams and business leaders very rarely have the luxury of training. The nature of business is always to be delivering and engaged in activity. One challenge is to be able to dissect the activity in order to fully understand it. Performance should be defined as a system of interlinked skills that are explicitly understood and managed in order to deliver a result. For the cyclist the system could be broken down into the fitness and conditioning of the rider; their nutrition, hydration and sleep; the bike and its components and the ability to ride it. For an Army Officer their performance can be broadly described as consisting of professional knowledge, the ability to communicate and the ability to think and make decisions, often under great pressure. Developing and improving performance depends firstly on understanding the system you are in and secondly on paying close and deliberate attention to getting better at the things that actually matter most. To have the greatest effective impact effort has to be focused on the things that matter most, not the things that matter the least. This is the responsibility of everyone but a particular discipline for senior leaders not to shoot their messengers and to seek out and treasure your iconoclasts. Strike up a brass band though and beware the desertion of your critical faculties!

The great mistake in inspections is that you officers amuse yourselves with God Knows what buffooneries and never dream in the least of serious service. This is a source of stupidity, which would become most dangerous in case of serious conflict. Take shoe-makers and tailors and make generals of them and they would not commit worse follies!’ Frederick the Great

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