An Old Soldier’s Advice on Leadership and How to Conquer Your Challenges

British Army Rt. Major General Tim Toyne Sewell — not so secretly known as Big Tim to his subordinates at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he was Commandant in the 1990s — was born to adventure, exploration and leadership. Aged four, with his father stationed in Egypt, he swam across the Suez Canal, and back. As Toyne Sewell explains, there was no good reason to stay on the other side.

To listen to Toyne Sewell is to receive an insight into the formative powers of education in military practice, international diplomacy and individual motivation. He currently runs the support team for British extreme swimmer, Lewis Pugh, the first man to complete a long swim at the North Pole and who last year set a record for the highest recorded swim. Pugh uses no wetsuit.

The venue was a heavily silted lake in the shadow of Mount Everest at a height of 17,400 ft, with a water temperature of 2 degrees centigrade (approx. 35 degrees Fahrenheit). Pugh's first attempt failed. The notorious Everest weather was closing fast. There was one more chance if Pugh, exhausted, demoralized, and suffering from altitude sickness, could be motivated to take it.

Toyne Sewell's advice: Don't fight the mountain. Less cryptically, try breaststroke instead of freestyle. Pugh did, and set the record.

Now the chairman of United World Colleges, Toyne Sewell was a panel member discussing exploration, adventure and leadership at the recent Festival of Thinkers event in Abu Dhabi, where he spoke with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Your student body at United World Colleges is about 10,000 students from 120 different countries. What is their favorite study topic?

Tim Toyne Sewell: The mission of UWC is, 'to create a more sustainable and peaceful world,' and therefore the students are fascinated by conflict resolution. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds. When Iraq, Afghanistan or the Arab Spring hits the headlines, they will all have a debate about it. It's because so many of them have lived through such events and because they're mini-ambassadors for their countries — there are usually only one or two from each country at each college — they have a natural curiosity about world affairs.

So they have lived it. They understand it. We had a Yemeni boy at our school in Canada, summoned home to deal with a tribal dispute where hostages had been taken. He had to settle it. He was 18-years-old. But that means a child from Middle America, a fellow student and his dorm mate, will have a far greater understanding of the complexities of tribal responsibilities because they know him and have studied with him.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What do students of that age know of leadership?

Toyne Sewell: They're not conscious as to whether they can lead or not, but the fact that they have come forward to take an opportunity like this would indicate a potential for leadership: they have the spark and our task is to blow that into a flame. My own latent leadership was nurtured at Sandhurst, the motto of which is, 'Serve to Lead.' You cannot lead unless the team you are leading, in any sphere of life, knows that you care about them and will put their needs before your own. The same applies in UWC.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It's said there's two types of leadership — the inspiring type, from the front, and from the rear, which is less proactive and delegational. Do you agree?

Toyne Sewell: When you lead 30 soldiers it's simple. You say follow me, and if they have confidence in you they will. If not, you are on your own! As you get more senior in the army, you have to take more advice, you have to take people with you by persuasion, and you have to communicate more and better than you would as a 20-year-old, with 20 Scottish jocks behind you.

As a young officer it was relatively easy to obey the command, "Take that hill and clear it of snipers." It was much more difficult to command a brigade of five thousand soldiers consisting of infantry, armor, artillery and so on which all have to be concentrated to support the soldiers at the sharp end. Soldiers don't want their generals at the front: they want them to use their brains to make best use of the facilities needed by those at the front. The more senior one becomes the more complicated becomes leadership.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: To what extent does ego play a part in leading from the front or the rear?

Toyne Sewell: I don't think it's different. I was a platoon commander on operations as a 20-year-old and it was fairly gung-ho stuff. As you get older and more mature, you realize you can't do everything yourself and need good subordinates to help you do it, without losing the ability to command. You have to create a team and have faith in the team. Have trust in them and let them build trust in you so that together you're creating the right facilities for the people at the very sharp end to do what they have to do.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are the fundamentals of leadership?

Toyne Sewell: I think they're eternal. The leader has to have a clear aim of what he wants to achieve, and the determination to get there despite any obstacles. He has to take as much advice as possible and take a decision based on that advice. And the decision has to be his and his alone. You can't afford to court popularity because you occasionally have to take decisions people don't like. You need to create a team in which you have trust, and give authority to members of that team to do their jobs without interference. You have to allow people to make mistakes, because that's part of risk culture, and to learn from those mistakes. If they make mistakes repeatedly, you sack them

You have to accept that while you have a plan, that's only the starting point, and that to get from A to Z you will have to adapt your plan on a daily basis according to the circumstances. And that's the same whether you are a soldier, businessman, explorer or academic. But never forget that getting to Z is your aim, however much you have to zigzag to get there.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: During your time in Zimbabwe and Mozambique as commander of the British Military Training and Advisory Team, you witnessed the rise of two African leaders, Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela. What were your impressions of them?

Toyne Sewell: Mugabe used to tell me, "Stay in as long as you want, go anywhere you want, as long as when we meet you take 10 minutes with me, and tell me what you see."

A little later we were having lunch on the day when Margaret Thatcher (the then British Prime Minister) was thrown out, in November 1990. He was surprised. "How can you do that?" I told him, "That's democracy. If your time has come, you have to go." He was not convinced! But if he had gone then, he would have been considered one of the great leaders of Africa. He still is, in some places, because he overthrew the white colonialists but not in the wider world. It's a great sadness because he could have done so much more for his people.

He was also hugely jealous of Mandela. When Mandela was released from prison all the spotlight turned on him, and Mugabe was sidelined. That was the start of his megalomania. For instance, when Mandela came out (of imprisonment, earlier in 1990) there was virtually no mention of it in Zimbabwe's newspapers. When Mandela came to visit Zimbabwe, the national stadium was filled to capacity for his speech. Mugabe held him at Government House for three hours, supposedly to let him rest, so by the time he got there, the stadium was practically empty.

"Never take what I say as gospel," he once told me, "Watch what I do. The farms are safe." Not quite the way it has turned out!

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: At 70, do you think you will ever lose that sense of curiosity and adventure?

Toyne Sewell: No, and you hope it doesn't ever leave you. It's what keeps life interesting. As you get older, it's your wife who says, "Stop being so bloody curious!" I always want to know what's over the next hill, and what the next challenge is.

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