What have self licking lollipops got to do with sustainability leadership?

Remind me about the 5 Ps?

I’m reading a book by a former British Army Officer, Frank Ledwige, about the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ledwige is highly critical of the army’s culture and approach. He blames the generals and the politicians for failing to plan for what would happen after the invasion of Iraq. This absence of strategic thinking at the highest levels, Ledwige argues, impacted on the performance of leaders at operations level, and led to army’s defeat.

Ledwige’s book is called ‘Losing Small Wars’

I can’t help thinking, are sustainability leaders ‘losing small wars’? Are leaders in business and government investing enough time in thinking strategically about sustainability? And if not, are middle managers destined to mess up in their attempts to implement sustainability policies and strategies?

OK, enough musing. This is a blog for leaders at operations level. What can we sustainability believers, converts and sympathisers take from the mistakes of the British Army in Basra? Here are some possible lessons based on what is my interpretation of the messages in ‘Losing Small Wars’:

Listen to Pope Francis

Challenge any profession or organisation that says ‘Leave it to us, we know what we are doing’. According to Ledwige, there is an inherent belief within the armed forces that they are uniquely well qualified to discuss military matters. I think this kind of attitude exists in many different professions and sectors. In my experience, quite a lot of sustainability leaders seem to think they know what they are doing. As Pope Francis has shown, humility is a valuable commodity.

Look beyond your network for information, and learn how to listen

Ledwige describes the British Army as a closed society that did not entertain the possibility of failure. He says the army developed an unrealistic belief in its ability to ‘crack on’ (muddling through). The British liked to share their expertise with the Americans, but were less interested in listening to others. If you wake up one day believing that your way is best, maybe it’s time to get out more, and listen to what other people are saying.

Learn something every day, and use it

According to Ledwige the lessons from previous British Army campaigns ‘were not identified, let alone learned’. Good leaders are good at learning from experience, and applying what they have learned.

Don’t make assumptions

The army mistook Basra for Northern Ireland. They used tactics that had worked in the past. In ‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond describes how the Vikings failed to adapt to the environment in Greenland, and eventually starved to death. Like the British in Basra, they thought Greenland looked the same as the place they had come from.

Try to avoid becoming “a self-licking lollipop”

According to Ledwige, the British force in Basra ‘existed not to protect the Iraqi population in the city: it existed largely, indeed almost exclusively, to protect itself. The soldiers coined a phrase for this approach. They were “a self licking lollipop”’. How many organisations engaged in sustainability are at risk of becoming self licking lollipops? And are we capable of being honest about our approach?

Where does urbanism end?

When General Petraeus, who commanded the coalition presence in Mosul, asked ‘Where does this end?’ he got no answer. So where does urbanism end? After we have designed and built the most technologically advanced and sustainable urban environments, taken out the evil developers, and reformed the greedy bankers, can we withdraw, and say, we won? I think not. But don’t ask me where urbanism ends, because I don’t know. I just know about that old military axiom called the 5 Ps.

Preparation and planning prevent piss-poor performance.


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