Great Debate

At ACS I’m often asked to fill in various duties which fall outside the remit of the day to day courses. By far the most unusual but enjoyable to date was the Debate on Leadership in the RAF. 

Initiated by the Generic Education Training Centre (GETC), and hosted by Dr. Howard Tuck a fellow of Cambridge University, we were privileged enough to be granted the use of the hallowed Cambridge Union debating chamber home of the Cambridge Union Society. The exact origin of the Society remains steeped in legend, but as the story goes, the Union was founded in 1815 at the conclusion of a drunken brawl between several smaller college debating societies.  The “union” of the three societies provided the basis for the name ‘The Cambridge Union Society’.  The layout and strict conventions were the adopted by the Commons in the Houses of Parliament.  Union came into its own during the early half of the 20th Century, playing host to many famous statesmen, such as Anthony Eden, David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and James Ramsey MacDonald. Although the Union stopped most of its activity during the Second World War, the building did not stay empty, as Field Marshall Montgomery used the Chamber for a meeting which laid some of the first draft plans for D-Day.  More recently the Union has flaunted with controversy inviting such speakers as Nick Griffin (Leader of the BNP) and in the last year has hosted such speakers as the brilliant scientist Richard Dawkins, former British Prime Minister John Major, acting legend Sir Ian McKellen, and Olympic hero Lord Sebastian Coe.

What were the reasons for all of this pomp and ceremony? Twofold: to get the RAF Leadership and Management training community together in a place where they could have a day of meaningful discussion and to debate a question that had become a real sticking point for the authors of the new Generic Education Training Requirement (GETR).  What was this sticking point? Probably a question that has been baffling great minds for as long as the society has been in business. The brief was as follows: “does the RAF expect higher leadership qualities with higher rank? The exemplar contains many qualities that could be considered universal – self awareness, integrity, ability to inspire; therefore, is a Wing Commander expected to inspire his or her immediate subordinates any more than a Corporal is his or hers? If the promotion system in a particular specialisation is slow, do we expect a Sergeant not to improve in leadership ability if he remains in rank for 10 years? Should leadership be context-based not rank-based, and the context be set elsewhere in the GETR? Is the difference between a Corporal and a Wing Commander (or Air Marshal for that matter) simply the strategic, operation or tactical context in which they must apply the same general principles of leadership and followership?” Therefore should performance in leadership be defined, developed and measured according to rank or context?

I was assigned to the team that had to effectively defend the status quo and argue in favour of rank. Initially I was a bit disappointed with this and thought I’d backed the outsider in a two horse race, but the more I looked into and reasoned the need for rank the more comfortable I found the argument. To compound my initial fears of standing up in front of the great and good of the RAF Training world and holding my own I then found out that I would be the only non-commissioned representative, flying the ACS banner. However I was soon made to feel at ease when I travelled over to The Defence Academy at Shrivenham to meet the other two members of our ‘team’ Wg Cdr Alex Jones (PJI) and Sqn Ldr Stu Coffey (C-130 Nav). We drew up our battle plan decided a running order and kept a real strong thread running through all of our arguments. Armed with a robust case I was confident that we could at least give a good account of ourselves.

The actual debate lived up to all expectations, we were introduced in full ceremonial order in latin and all the formal conventions were followed, with one over enthusiastic observer being chastised for clapping which is deemed vulgar however foot stamping was allowed. The sparring swung from side to side and there seemed to be nothing in it, even when it moved into open debate there didn’t seem to be a decisive ‘winner’. And so to the vote where Dr. Tuck invited the assembled to ‘vote with their feet’ and chose either the ayes or neys door. It was close but to our joy we had prevailed 17 votes to 15, it was close but that only went to prove the case that this is a real sticking point.

As a direct result of the inaugural Leadership Training debate GETC have moved quickly to set up a forum known as the Executive Air Group for Leadership Evolution (EAGLE), where the debate rumbles on unabated. It was a real honour to be part of this unusual event and hopefully it will eventually lead to a GETR fit for the 21st Century.

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