The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works 
by Langley Sharp.
Penguin, 320 pp., £20, October 2021, 978 0 241 50750 6
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In​ August and September 1990, Richard Sale, a lieutenant colonel from the Light Infantry regiment of the British army, toured the UK and West Germany – then just months away from reunification – with a primitive Zenith Supersport laptop. Sale had commanded a company, some 120 men, in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s and later a battalion of 650. Now in his early forties, he was among a cohort of army officers offered the opportunity to undertake a higher degree, a masters in defence administration, while still a serving officer. For his research he chose the field of psychometrics, the quantitative measurement of psychological traits. He persuaded the makers of MANSPEC, a psychometric assessment system for management consultants, to grant him a licence to their software. The program came on a stack of floppy discs. Sale’s sample would be the army’s brigadiers, a rank then reached after around 25 years of service, and only by the most successful candidates.

In 1990 there were 49 brigadiers in command roles, in charge of brigades of up to five thousand troops or of overseas garrisons, artillery groups and training establishments, with others in administrative positions. Jointly they formed the pool from which the institution’s top leadership, its generals, would be drawn. Sale asked 41 of the 49 – those based in the UK (except for Northern Ireland) or Germany, so easy to interview – if he could assess them. He had one outright refusal; another strung him along. But 39 agreed, and Sale got the sample size back up to 49 by including two subjects who were about to take command of brigades and eight who had recently commanded them. Sale knew many of the men already (and they were all men). Although the army was gearing up for the First Gulf War – Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait that August – the brigadiers made time to see him. West Germany was a necessary part of the tour since much of the British army was still based there, to deter Soviet aggression.

Under Sale’s instruction, the brigadiers filled out a multiple choice questionnaire, responding to prompts such as ‘what I believe I can contribute to a team’ (possible answers included: ‘I think I can quickly see and take advantage of new opportunities’ and ‘I am ready to face temporary unpopularity if it leads to worthwhile results in the end’). There were questions about handling conflict and managerial style. When they were finished, a rudimentary inkjet printer, also part of Sale’s travelling apparatus, spat out the results. A pattern was revealed. The brigadiers were, according to MANSPEC, confident and competent, much like equivalent senior managers in civilian organisations. But they were also highly authoritarian – they didn’t brook dissent – in a way their civilian counterparts were not. Their psychometric scores tended to reflect ‘high-controlling, low-resolving’ personalities with a focus on handling problems via diktat rather than negotiation. The brigadiers scored on average 20 per cent lower in ‘resolving’ than their civilian counterparts; for most of the other scores the gap was less than 5 per cent. It was, in Sale’s words, ‘a clear and powerful indicator of authoritarian behaviour’.

Sale was influenced by the work of Norman Dixon, a psychologist and the author of On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976), which argued that the British army recruited its officers from a narrow social demographic, undervaluing intellectual efforts and overvaluing tradition. Promotion favoured authoritarians, who sucked up to superiors while treating juniors harshly. Leaders ignored individuals and ideas that didn’t conform to their own, learning little from experience. Sale’s quantitative work seemed to reinforce Dixon’s thesis. The streak of authoritarianism he found ‘severely constrained the ability to absorb contrary opinions, led to subordinates becoming “yes-men” and was generally extremely counterproductive’.

Sale’s psychometric work took place thirty years ago, in an army twice the size of today’s. The brigadiers he assessed in 1990 became the generals who led the army in the 1990s and have long since retired. Links remain, however. The junior officers of 1990 run the army of 2022. General Mark Carleton-Smith, the current chief of the general staff, passed out of Sandhurst in 1986. Sales’s assessment is revealing of a culture that requires rigidity in order to function amid the terror, fatigue and confusion of war, but as a consequence often ignores criticism – and even, on occasion, reality. It would be hard otherwise to explain how, two months after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the indigenous security state built up by the West at stupendous cost collapsed in a matter of days, the British army could unblinkingly publish a book called The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works.

When Lieutenant Colonel Sharp’s book was announced, one person on Twitter commented: ‘Thumbing through my copy of The Habit of ExcellenceWhy Wehrmacht Leadership Works (Berlin, 1945). Copy has suffered some fire and water damage.’ On the home front, this is an institution in which three commanding brigadiers have recently been suspended or moved sideways: one for bullying, one for an ‘adverse climate assessment’, one for allegedly fiddling his school fees allowance. (All deny the charges.) In the past year a major general and a lieutenant colonel have been imprisoned for the same school fees swindle. Last July, the Atherton Report was published, raising serious questions about the treatment of women in the armed forces. In October, reporting by the Sunday Times concluded that an infantry unit had for years covered up the murder of a Kenyan sex worker by British troops in 2012. So severe was this spate of scandal that on 8 November the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, summoned the army board to an extraordinary meeting to address ‘core and cultural issues’. Carleton-Smith responded by announcing that an independent audit would be carried out ‘to reinforce the best and weed out the worst’.

The next step came on 25 November, when Wallace unveiled Future Soldier, ‘the British army’s most radical programme of transformation in over twenty years’. The army will have more troops based overseas, near potential trouble spots. There will be an increase in what is called ‘180/360 degree reporting’, which means – apparently – allowing assessments of commanders by subordinates as well as superiors. There will be a new ‘Special Operations Brigade’, centred on a ‘Ranger Regiment’, that will join up with overseas forces for extended periods. ‘An expeditionary army ready for the next challenge, not the last.’

The response was sceptical. A former senior SAS officer described the proposals as a ‘very clever accounting trick’, a way to hide yet another cut to numbers behind a promise of new capability. (The extent of the cut becomes apparent when you learn that under Future Soldier the army will shrink in size from 82,000 regulars to 73,000, a loss that even the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to prevent.) ‘Expanding special forces to nearly division size,’ the former officer said,

is great for the careers, ambitions and egos of those who like having funny coloured berets and badges and stuff, and swanking around on army courses. But is it really special? The special forces’ growth from 2001 to 2021 was necessary because there were so many demands – particularly from the Americans, for muscular, aggressive people running around and doing night raids – that it was really all we did. We didn’t do much else. And everyone was happy with that. But that type of war ended … Surely we are now well beyond ‘peak special forces’?

It isn’t at all clear how useful these additional special forces will be. While much has been made of the future role of the Rangers in training foreign soldiers, there is little chance that they will ever accompany them into battle. ‘Small British teams deploying into combat alongside Third World armies means you need casualty evacuation and fire support,’ Andrew Fox, a former Parachute Regiment officer, pointed out. ‘These things are expensive and logistically intensive. The Ranger Regiment does not have either of those things in sufficient numbers to “accompany” safely.’ Fox agreed that all this was an accounting trick, ‘a means of cutting overall numbers and trying to spin something as a good news story’. Another thing the army has in common with civilian institutions and private enterprise is that those at the top have good PR.

It’s no surprise then that The Habit of Excellence involves a degree of denial. Few would argue that the Iraq (2003-9 for the British) and Afghanistan (2001-14) campaigns didn’t go badly. But for Sharp it’s almost as though they never happened at all. The wars exist in the book as brief vignettes of individual courage, as when a paratrooper rescues a US Marine captain in 2013 (‘I couldn’t let the Reg down. It’s what’s expected’). To Sharp’s credit, he acknowledges the Baha Mousa case of 2003, when the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment beat a Basra hotel receptionist to death. But there is no sense that these were conflicts that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, that sought to remake foreign states and didn’t succeed. Eight years after the withdrawal from Helmand, it is still uncomfortable to think about Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore they didn’t happen, therefore British army leadership works.

There is no mention of the fact that the British military arrived in Iraq boasting to the Americans of their expertise in counterinsurgency operations, learned in Northern Ireland and earlier end-of-empire conflicts, only to lose control of Basra. Nor that five years later, following the collapse of a secret deal with the Shia militias terrorising the city, an American general entered a British headquarters and announced – though his exact wording is disputed – that ‘we’re here to stop you failing.’ Nor does Sharp admit that when the army pivoted to Afghanistan, keen to restore the reputation it had dented in Iraq, military officials ignored their own estimates of the troop numbers required. Nor that in Helmand a purported reconstruction mission became a violent confrontation, sustained by funding, promotions and medals. When the British pulled out of Helmand in 2014, few of their hazy objectives – from dismantling the opium trade to furthering women’s rights – were achieved. Nor does Sharp say that almost everyone in uniform who ran these wars, even those who directly supervised failure, was subsequently promoted and decorated.

This is a painful history. Political leadership played its part, but the army – determined as it was to fend off cuts by demonstrating its prowess and constitutionally disinclined to admit that things might not be going well – was also responsible for its own misfortune. This doesn’t cancel out the fact that British troops often fought with courage in very difficult conditions, nor does it cancel out the 636 British dead, several thousand injured and many hidden psychological scars. But neither does that considerable human cost – which was vastly outnumbered by Iraqi and Afghan casualties – turn failure into success. Hence the need for denial.

Sharp’s career has been shaped by these conflicts. He received his commission in 2000 and joined the Parachute Regiment, a physically elite but socially egalitarian unit of the army, and did multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He doesn’t come from a military background (his father ran a cleaning business), but he is uncritical of the army in a way that other officers and soldiers of his generation often are not. Many of those I have interviewed – tough, operationally experienced people – do not believe in a ‘habit of excellence’. They think the wars were poorly led, driven by careerism and compromised by an unwillingness to speak military truth to political power. For many of these people there is real anger at what took place. One military doctor, deployed once in Iraq and several times in Afghanistan, told me about the ‘often unspoken frustrations, resentments and anger that I know many felt at being involved in futile wars, badly run and heartbreakingly wasteful in young lives and treasure’. Another officer, still serving, recalled the ‘cognitive dissonance in London’ at the time of the Iraq denouement in 2008: ‘The refusal on the part of senior officers and officials even to admit that we had been found wanting and pushed aside by the US haunts me to this day.’

I imagine Sharp knows all this. Yet if he said what I suspect he really feels, his career would be over. ‘Lieutenant colonel’ is a rank once allegedly described by General Mike Jackson, a former head of the army, as ‘senior enough to be credible, junior enough to be disposable’. (Jackson, when I asked him about this, said he couldn’t recall saying it but acknowledged it was the kind of thing he might say.) There is much in Sharp’s book about the need for modern soldiers to question orders and he praises what he calls the ‘challenge’ culture in the British military: ‘Today’s army is one in which “intelligent disobedience”, a term coined by the author and executive coach Ira Chaleff, is encouraged,’ he writes. Yet the book is an inversion of that idea. When, as a civilian outsider, you watch a discussion among a group of military officers, you find that disobedience, intelligent or otherwise, is rarely on display. Deference is built into the system.

Itdoesn’t have to be like this, and in the US it isn’t. In 1997, H.R. McMaster, then a serving US army major, published Dereliction of Duty, an excoriating account of military and political failure in Vietnam. ‘The failings were many and reinforcing,’ McMaster wrote. ‘Arrogance, weakness, lying in pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.’ The circumstances are not equivalent: McMaster was writing 22 years after the fall of Saigon; Kabul has only just fallen. But the fact that McMaster could publish his book and still have a career – he later became a lieutenant general – shows how much more tolerant the American system is of internal debate. (Sometimes the tolerance goes too far. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, McMaster – a former national security adviser to Donald Trump – ranted on Twitter that it was, in fact, all the fault of the press: ‘US media is finally reporting on the transformation of Afghanistan after their disinterest and defeatism helped set conditions for capitulation and a humanitarian catastrophe’.)

The Habit of Excellence proudly defends the continuing division of the military into three dispensations: soldiers, direct-entry commissioned officers, and non-commissioned officers who have risen from the ranks. The split, Sharp argues, allows officers to command and NCOs to implement. ‘Where the role of officers is to direct, make decisions and take responsibility for results, soldier leaders are primarily agents of influence and delivery.’ He implies that this division of responsibilities is necessary to success, as though the outcome were determined first and the way to implement it conceived next. This is sophistry. While its defenders like to say simply that ‘it works,’ the real reason the British army is split between officers and men is inertial – we do it because we’ve always done it – and historical: the system is rooted in the British class system. It’s true that most militaries maintain a similar split, but in armies with a strong conscript tradition, mixing up demographics, it is nothing like as class-based. ‘Because we’ve always done it’ isn’t a great justification either. ‘We’ve always had horses’ – until the tank came along. ‘We’ve always worn red coats’ – until accurate long-range firearms made them a liability. ‘We’ve never had women in combat units’ – until, in 2018, we did.

Officially at least, the link between rank and class has been broken for thirty years or more. By the 1980s the consensus was that officers should be selected on some combination of leadership potential and academic nous. Sandhurst has been used as a class correction facility to homogenise an increasingly diverse intake. In practice this means teaching proper behaviour. After all, to quote a former company commander at the academy, when officers have to perform a diplomatic role, ‘the shape of your shoes’ counts. Examples of the chameleon effect can be seen as far back as 1987, when a reporter observed a Sandhurst presentation called ‘How to Behave in the Mess’:

A loutish character comes on stage, a jock-strap stretched over his tracksuit bottoms and a Sony Walkman dangling from the convenient pouch … The slob is soon joined by his opposite archetype, a splendid vision in bowler, breeches and boots … All manner of characters soon appear to demonstrate the pitfalls inherent in the complex etiquette of the mess … A gushing Sloanish girl in Barbour and pearls asks if she might use the loo. The slob shouts across stage: ‘There’s some bird here who wants to sling her drizzle!’ … The message of the officers’ mess presentation is clear: don’t be an oik, show proper deference to seniors and get a decent tailor.

This dispatch, which appears in Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell’s 1989 book A New Model Army, sounds like a transmission from another era. But the practice of moulding the intake has continued. Patrick Hennessey, the author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, served from 2004 to 2009. ‘What I find slightly depressing,’ he recalled of Sandhurst, ‘is that it was a genuinely diverse place at the point of entry. A bunch of normal guys and girls in their early twenties arrive looking just like you’d expect, but somehow, a year later, half of them are dressed like cartoon fifty-year-olds in pink cords and blazers.’

More recently, a document titled ‘A Guide to Officer Cadet’s [sic] Civilian Dress’ surfaced online. ‘“Jean cut” trousers are not to be worn as a replacement for chinos,’ it warned. ‘If trousers have a horizontal pocket openings [sic] and/or press studs they are not to be worn.’ Two of the models in the accompanying photographs were of women, one Black, implying that the document reflects social change. Yet it still insists that, when cadets are not in uniform, ‘shoes should be polished leather or suede in a lace or loafer form. They should not be dual coloured or have different colour laces.’ Codifying these standards is arguably more egalitarian than having cadets navigate the rules themselves. But how much do horizontal pockets actually have to do with the army’s central business, the organisation of violence? In this atmosphere, is it surprising that around half still come from fee-paying schools?

It’s hard for a civilian observer really to understand what rank means in the army. It’s an aura; you feel it in every interaction between officer and soldier. There is a lot of rank about in the British army. An institution that is heading towards a full-time strength of 73,000 still has no fewer than eighteen ranks, eleven commissioned and seven non-commissioned. In April last year there were 213 officers at brigadier level or higher, even though there were fewer than ten deployable brigades. A clear and rigid hierarchy has advantages in combat, where the system has to function reliably under pressure. But in almost any other situation a surfeit of rank is a problem. The challenge when filling a particular role is to find someone of the appropriate rank who also has the appropriate expertise. When these requirements are in conflict, the former often prevails. The problem is compounded in jobs involving modern technologies, where younger people often have superior knowledge. As one serving military IT expert said to me, ‘the army makes the mistake of thinking it can solve cyber by letting in fatties who don’t like shaving, but doesn’t realise it needs to get the disruptive types through.’

The Future Soldier plan will supposedly increase opportunities for ‘a private soldier to leave the army as a general’. But another option might be to define more clearly what an officer is and why their privileges are justified. You can still enter the army’s leadership cadre with an academic record that would preclude the civil service fast stream or a promising position in the private sector. While most Sandhurst cadets are now graduates, a degree is not required, and the minimum academic requirement is 72 UCAS points at A level – equivalent to three D grades.

An even bolder approach would be to make the first steps of an army career identical for everyone. Everyone who enlists could undergo the same initial six-month basic training, not on the Georgian lawns of Sandhurst but at less architecturally distinguished sites across provincial Britain. (In his recent book, Stand Up Straight, Major General Paul Nanson describes his morning run around the lake at Sandhurst, ‘the mist hovering over the water, the early morning sun flashing through the trees and glittering upon its surface’, which sounds somewhat less character-forming than a stint in, say, Sutton Coldfield.) If egalitarianism is the aim, everyone should train together, university graduate and school dropout, general’s son and former nurse. This could be followed by twelve months as a private soldier. Those who had passed an assessment before entry could then go on to officer training. But, crucially, they would be joined at Sandhurst – if that is the best site to use – by those who had not passed the pre-entry assessment but whose commanders identified their potential during the year-long probation. Equally, the pre-enlistment pass to Sandhurst would not be guaranteed. You could pass the test and still lose your spot if you performed poorly in your probationary year.

Such a system would make it possible for the army leadership to have experience in common with the troops they command, something that is lacking in today’s institution. Requiring middle-class recruits to live in the same accommodation and eat the same food as entrants from council estates would improve conditions and prospects for private soldiers far more certainly than any amount of ‘parental leadership’. But the likelihood of this kind of reform in the current climate is microscopic.

Ishould​ declare something of my own experience here. Sharp’s book, like Paul Nanson’s Stand Up Straight, is published by Penguin Random House, with which I have a mixed history. In 2015 they commissioned me to write The Changing of the Guard, described as an account of ‘how the modern military works, where it’s gone wrong and what that means for British society’. I had joined the army in 2003 on the institution’s Gap Year Commission scheme before university; eleven years later, now a journalist, I reported from Afghanistan as the Helmand deployment came to an end. Between 2015 and 2018 I interviewed 260 people for the book. But shortly before it was due to be published, in March 2019, PRH cancelled my contract and asked me to pay back my advance, apparently for fear that various military figures would be unhappy with the book and might pursue it through the courts. Support from organisations including the energetic European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Index on Censorship and Reporters without Borders, as well as coverage in the Guardian, wasn’t enough to change their minds. The book was published instead by an independent, Scribe, leading to not a hint of legal action despite widespread coverage.

The fact that PRH is responsible for producing Sharp and Nanson’s books as well as a number of heavily fictionalised SAS memoirs suggests that the world’s largest trade publisher is somewhat in thrall to the publicity and recruitment operations of the British military. This is an editorial and financial decision but also, ultimately, an ethical one. We stand at the end of twenty years of failed war. We should not be allowing this institution to mark its own homework.

Richard Sale, the psychometrically inclined ex-colonel, wrote to me after he read The Changing of the Guard. His research on brigadiers was published in 1992 in the journal Defence Analysis. Afterwards, he was informally co-opted into the American military’s personnel development programme and regularly flew to Washington DC. He now sees the 1990s as a time when the US was trying to rein in the princeling generals it had created, typified by Norman Schwarzkopf, who led coalition operations in the first Gulf War. (In Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Rick Atkinson recounts the complaints of Schwarzkopf’s main deputy in Saudi Arabia about the ‘tirades, the histrionics, the regal trappings’ of America’s most celebrated general.) The US military authorities appreciated Sale’s work. One admiral even wrote to Sale’s boss at the British garrison in Cyprus to describe the MANSPEC research as ‘a cutting-edge technology vital to our strategic leader development programme … We hope it may also be of interest to the British army.’

It was not. A plan to continue Sale’s research by assessing cadets at Sandhurst was derailed when he lost access to military personnel gradings after leaving the army in 1995. As a civilian, Sale ran a consultancy offering psychometric assessment to organisations such as the British Airports Authority, PWC India and GlaxoSmithKline China. He recently described to me what his feedback from thirty years ago would look like today. In 1990 he told those his software scored as ‘high challenging, low resolving’ that ‘in an ideal world … you would function best in a role where you have substantial laid-on authority and where it would be relatively rare for you to be strongly challenged by others.’ People with a similar score on the assessment today would be given a more explicit warning:

Where we would see you having problems is in ‘flatter’ and more democratic working environments, where the culture does not support or reward such an application of power. In such cases, exercising power in this way is almost certain to build up resistance against you, the more so if you don’t especially enjoy the respect of those you are trying to persuade. We would see you being most effective when you can maintain a clear awareness of the potential you have for leaving a trail of bruised and demotivated people behind you.

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Vol. 44 No. 7 · 7 April 2022

Simon Akam quotes from the directive to Sandhurst officer cadets regarding the wearing of mufti that ‘“jean cut” trousers are not to be worn as a replacement for chinos’ and horizontal pocket openings or press studs remain anathema (LRB, 10 March). That had me reaching for Customs of the Army 1956, a pamphlet issued to me at Sandhurst in 1963 which I never bothered to read. It states:

An officer should be smart and well turned out at all times. This is most important in plain clothes … Above all, an officer must avoid buying flashy or highly coloured clothes … As regards the wearing of sports clothes and scarves in the Mess, officers are recommended to seek advice from the Adjutant or from some other officer of the unit.

I then turned to the 98-page hardback Royal Artillery Standing Orders and Instructions 1955, given to me when I was commissioned and also unread until now. In the section ‘Articles of Dress: Officers’, sandwiched between instructions on ‘Gold Shoulder Belt’ and ‘Jacket – Service Dress’, paragraph 22, titled ‘Hose Tops’, ordains that ‘Turn-over of hose top will be 3 in. wide. Top of hose-top to be 2 in. below the line of knee joint at the break of the knee.’ Some things have changed, clearly, but not that much.

Akam refers to the magisterial On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976), in which Norman Dixon showed that the army attracted precisely the most unsuitable personality types into its officer elite. My Sandhurst instructors rushed around talking enthusiastically about ‘initiative’ (as they had been instructed to do) but adhered to dress codes with such conformity that you knew initiative or independent thinking was never going to have a chance.

David McDowall

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