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Leading from the frontline…

At Breakfast we are great believers in the power of a story to carry a wealth of meaning and insight into specific issues in our everyday and working lives. We also appreciate great story-telling from others.

This is one such occasion.

This is the story of two days in the life of one man under the most immense pressure, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Hill. His insights into leadership were given in a talk to 50 or so business leaders at The Brand Exchange in July. Stewart’s story focused on his experiences in Afghanistan in 2009. His profound self-awareness, humility and leadership learning has been sharpened by reflections on how the brain works under pressure and how a new perspective on life through art is shaping his future life. The following passages were extracts from his talk which we think richly deserves consideration for the #SirAlexAward

Stewart Hill begins his talk..

“Let me take you to Garmsir in Afghanistan in 2009…

In the Army you get used to good days…and bad days.

This was a relatively good day.

I decided to conduct a Company patrol in the area of a large village to get an understanding of the dynamics and any insurgent activity. A Company consists of 3 or 4 platoons, anything up to 30 odd soldiers in each, and supporting assets such as Air Defence, Engineers, Counter IED teams, Afghan Police etc. We carried out the patrol in the village, had a bit of a firefight now and again but it was a relatively relaxed day. I determined we should patrol back about four o’clock in the afternoon. I was at the back edge of the lead platoon with the remainder of the Company behind me. As we crossed the first open field on the outskirts of the village, we came under fire from 3 separate firing locations.

I managed to get forward with the lead platoon behind a bank that provided protection but two thirds of my Company was now fixed in the open under fire from these 3 locations.The one to the right was subdued leaving one to the left, along a tree line and one to the front on top of a compound, an Afghan dwelling.

I called mortar fire onto the left hand enemy position. Unfortunately there was a calibration mistake in the mortar barrel and the rounds landed in and amongst my own men. Thankfully there were no casualties but plenty of shouting, check fire.

The main threat came from this compound firing position. It was accurate and heavy fire. My higher headquarters were telling me I had a guided missile launch available and it could be on target and destroy the threat in 30 seconds from when I ask it to fire. However, I knew an Afghan family lived in this compound, I didn’t know if they were there at this particular time but our remit in Afghan was to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties.

So I have most of my men in the open pinned down, my own mortars had just dropped in around them, this ear piece is full of commands, information, requests, this ear is Brigade HQ telling me I have a guided missile available, what do I want to do, it’s my decision, and every time I try to see what’s going on a few rounds whizz by me.

Then LSgt Collins, about 15 feet from me gets shot in the back. “MEDIC, MEDIC” “AARRGGHHH”

There’s a lot happening and I feel under pressure. That was when I thought of the quote I often used when under pressure – FM Montgomery “Decision in action, calmness in crisis” I relaxed, allowed my brain some room to think and decided to put trust back in my mortar team and get them to lay down smoke in front of the compound, trust in my soldiers to conduct a fighting withdrawal, did not take the easy option and destroy the compound and showed compassion to a probable Afghan family within the compound. My men withdrew safely without any further casualties but I do remember my CSM puffing and panting “I’m too old for this shit”

Then there are bad days.

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On the 4th of July I was leading 160 men and two women of B Company, 2 MERCIAN against the Taliban on the first day of the largest ground offensive operation in Afghanistan.

Suddenly there was an eruption of machinegun fire and explosions.

Almost immediately I heard over the radio from twenty seven year old Lt Guy Disney “0A, 20A, Contact, casualties, I need a heli, I think I lost my leg.” I could hear the sound of men screaming in the background.

My CVR(T)s had been ambushed.

An insurgent had fired a rocket propelled grenade that penetrated the rear of a vehicle, went through the right leg of Guy Disney, and embedded itself in the chest of nineteen year old Robbie Laws, killing him instantly. My Company Sergeant Major called me over to discuss how to tell the guys it was Robbie Laws who had been killed. Whilst talking, LCpl Dennis stood on an IED we had not detected. He was killed instantly thrown as high as the tree line. The blast destroyed my tactical HQ. My CSM was knocked unconscious along with my signaller, my Forward Air Controller was thrown into a stream and had shrapnel rip through his arm causing permanent nerve damage.

Shrapnel penetrated the back of my brain, through my cerebellum, punched its way through my brain stopping 1 mm away from my spinal cord. The blast burst both eardrums.

To add to that, the blast caused my brain to smash around inside my skull, and then I was thrown ten metres away, landing on my head, causing severe bruising to my frontal lobe. I was found in a bush cradling my head with an antenna embedded in my skull. I suffered what is called a TBI – a Traumatic Brain Injury. That was my last active involvement in Afghanistan.

I have been left with impairments in the area of the brain responsible for Executive Function skills: organising, planning, problem solving, decision-making etc. I struggle with Information Processing, chronic fatigue, I have some memory difficulties, severe and persistent tinnitus and bilateral hearing loss.

I have become the antithesis of what I was; from commanding hundreds, potentially thousands of soldiers, and now I have great difficulty managing myself. Making basic decisions or plans is exhausting and really difficult for me.

I can no longer manage in the workplace, but I can still inspire and lead people.

I do not lead through a position of management or authority. I have become a person, who can only use leadership to draw, to guide, to take someone or something with me.

So let me talk to you about leadership.

The definition of Leadership is simple.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: – Leadership is the action of leading; To lead is to draw, guide or take someone or something with you.

So you lead from the front.

Leading from the front means pulling people along with you/ getting them to follow you. Better still: being the person people WANT to follow / have them “behind you” in the true sense of the word. Getting people to believe in you, to make them feel valued, make them feel they matter.

In order for this to happen, what you do has to be meaningful for your employees. They need to feel that you understand them, their needs and will consider them.

If you are seen as someone who has your employees’ interests at heart, then they will follow you even through difficult times – and they can learn to cope with change, adversity and complexity.

There are three key ingredients to successful leadership.

It does not matter whether you lead yourself or many.

Trust, Compassion, Courage


The firm belief that someone or something is reliable, true and able to do something.

Trust in yourself, in relationships, trust in the organisation, within the market.

Can you be relied upon? Are you true to your word, do you show integrity? What are your motives? To serve you, others, the organisation?

Trust inspires confidence. It creates a better workplace, communications, mutual tolerance and acceptance, collaboration.

Communicate decisions, cascade information, listen, engage, delegate, empower.

An increase in trust means it takes less time and effort to get things done, thereby reducing the work and cost for the individual and the organisation.

The opposite of trust is mistrust. If trust is removed, it will destroy the most powerful friendship, relationship, business or government.

Mistrust undermines the work environment, manifests itself in micromanagement, defensive posturing, bureaucracy, doubt. It is expensive. Decreased trust means things take longer to achieve, increased regulation, time, effort, thereby increasing the work and costs to the individual and the organisation.


When people are faced with difficulty the ability to carry on with their lives and their work is compromised.

Compassion helps employees get through hard times, it has a lasting impact on the way that people see their role in the organization or the kind of person they can be at work.

Compassion in the work place generates positive emotions, shaping employees long-term attitudes and behaviours.

Compassion shows you care.

To care fosters loyalty; loyalty fosters pride; and pride fosters self-respect, self-esteem, self-performance – from your own employees.

Showing you care inspires the greatest trust.

The antonym of compassion is indifference, cruelty. If you don’t care, what you say and do will take more time and persuasion and cost more.


Courage. Being prepared to ‘do the right thing’ and make the hard decision is the mark of moral courage.

The courage to correct and challenge wrongs, to address problems, repair conflicts, stick to your values.

The courage to admit your own mistakes, be accountable, show fallibility.

The courage to show loyalty, keep commitments, talk straight.

The opposite of moral courage is being dishonourable, being cowardly. Do you want yourself or your company to be seen as cowardly? Cowardice is a weakness and will be exploited by people to suit their own agenda.

These form the foundation of successful leadership and if one is broken or missing then you will struggle to lead.

Though TRUST, COMPASSION AND COURAGE are essential to successful leadership I was in a position to make my decision because I quoted Montgomery and gave myself time to think clearly.

Be mindful of the present, live in the absolute now, ignore thoughts on the past and future, learn to appreciate the present, empty and free your emotional brain.


To lead successfully as an individual or an organisation you need to make people believe you, to make them feel that they matter, to make them feel valued.

In a world full of process and deadlines we tend to forget about people. In war this cost lives. In the workplace this costs engagement and performance.

To lead you need to be trusted, show compassion and have courage. To be able to think clearly you need to be able to free your mind of emotional weight, to be totally calm, to allow the blood to flow to your frontal lobes.

I have experienced many emotions and different therapy techniques during my rehabilitation. This has cemented in me how our minds, our behaviour and our personality impact on ourselves, on others, and everything around us.

The mind is key; it is so powerful, so influential.

My daily life is a struggle. It is hard work but I want to do the best that I can within my own ability. My developing work in fine art has been a great comfort to me and a route to profound self-expression. The quality of your thinking determines the quality of your life in any realm of work.”

Stewart sat down to a stunned audience who then stood and applauded for 5 minutes…

Trust? Compassion? Courage? What Ernest Hemingway was able to capture in words, Stewart Hill is starting to capture in oils. His story is quite simply transportational; his work and life inspirational.

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