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18 January 2019
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Every man in the fleet knows what to do except the commanding admiral

9 March 2015  


The words above were written by Ian Fleming for his creation ‘M’ to utter in conversation with 007 and they convey an important leadership principle, blogs John Bowen.


On first reading it may seem wrong that the leader doesn’t know what he is doing, but the phrase is probably rooted in Fleming’s military background. He was briefly at Sand Hurst in the mid-1920s and then joined the Naval Reserve where he served through the Second World War in military intelligence, from where he drew much inspiration for the James Bond stories.


We tend to look to leaders for direction; they have the vision and point the way. People follow the leader, so surely leaders have to know what to do, don’t they? Well, yes, but there is a subtle point to the words that Fleming gave ‘M’ to speak and while it is based on military theory from many years ago, it encapsulates the essence of leadership as it should be applied in any organisation.


Try it from this angle. The leader has prepared all of his team members through training, briefing and equipping them so that they can do their job. They are well set to be able to handle everything in their area of responsibility thus: “Every man in the fleet knows what to do”. That does not imply a rigidity – far from it. Because the training and briefing allow for flexibility and permit each person to react to circumstances; they know what to do regardless of what they encounter.


The leader, on the other hand, is free to steer and direct the team as needs dictate. He has time to plan, to observe, to lead, to adjust. To say that leaders are the only ones that don’t know what to do doesn’t question their competence or ability – it is about them being free to lead.


Perhaps the most significant aspect is about delegation. The leader has delegated responsibility and made sure that his people understand what is expected of them, and that delegation allows the leader space and time to use effectively rather than being bogged down in the minutiae of management.

John Bowen is an FM consultant