June 14th, 2017

Good Leaders Must Empower Others and Embrace Change, Says Former SAS Commander Butler; MMC Young Professionals’ Forum 2017

Posted at 8:32 AM ET

The lessons learned during a distinguished military career, during which the nature of the threat changed dramatically, can be applied to leading in the business world, Ed Butler, Head of Risk Analysis at Pool Re, told delegates gathered at the MMC Young Professionals’ Forum in London Wednesday.

During his 24 years of front line service in the British Army, much of it spent in the elite SAS force, Ed Butler, CBE DSO, said he had learned many things about leadership and how to manage and mitigate risk, while also embracing change and seizing opportunity.

Mr. Butler, now Head of Risk Analysis at the UK’s government-backed terrorism insurance scheme, Pool Re, addressed the forum on the theme of “Disrupting the disruptors: Inspiration, motivation and perspiration.” He said one of the important lessons he had been taught during his military career was that “tactics without strategy is the noise before the storm.”

Leadership, according to Mr. Butler, is “about your personality.” If you lead an inadequate team, he said, that is your fault, not the fault of the organization or system. During his military career, he described how he would take time at the end of each day to ask himself how he had performed as a leader that day and what he could do better next time. To lead well you must “ponder the imponderable,” he said, and always try to be ahead of the game.

In the Army, Mr. Butler witnessed great courage. He thinks there are other types of courage that are vital for effective leadership. This includes courage to think beyond the margins; the courage to know yourself; the courage to have trust in your team and the courage to make difficult or unpopular decisions. Great leaders need to encourage people to take risk and be bold, but not to be gamblers: “You need to know the difference.”

Leaders must also give their team the tools to take decisions: “You have to empower others and delegate more than you are comfortable with,” he said.

Mr. Butler began his Army career in West Germany during the Cold War, and said that the predictability of conditions during that time were very different to today “where there is no front line and it is not always clear who the bad guys and good guys are.”

He spent three years on operations in Northern Ireland, and here, Mr. Butler explained, unlike the terrorist threat of today, the IRA was comparatively rational, typically giving warnings before bombing shopping centers, for instance. The target was more likely to be government buildings than members of the public, although killing soldiers and policemen was their priority. We had to be “smarter, quicker and more agile than the competition to disrupt their activities,” he said.

During the First Gulf War of 1990-1991, the British Army joined forces with its allies to stop “a disruptor” - Saddam Hussein - firing scud missiles into Israel and to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. During a tour in the Balkans, seeking out individuals indicted for war crimes, Mr. Butler came across a local population that had been worn down by war, and said this became a case of “slow burn disruption.” During a successful hostage rescue operation in Sierra Leone, in 2001, was where he first encountered “an enemy that didn’t play by the rules” and would not negotiate.

All of these experiences taught him a great deal about what success and failure look like, and also about the complexities of both physical and reputational risk.


Ed Butler, Head of Risk Analysis at Pool Re, addressing delegates gathered at the MMC Young Professionals’ Forum 2017.

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