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June 20, 2018

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Nicky Moffat: What good leadership looks like

Nicky Moffat brought decades of military experience to the Safety & Health Expo to explain what good leadership looks like.

Over a 27-year military career, Moffat rose to the rank of Brigadier and took on leadership roles in personnel and training departments, including three years as Director of Personnel Administration, establishing strategy and driving cultural change across the Army and British Defence operations.

It was during this time, says Moffat “that I began to understand what leadership is – both in theory and its practical application”.

Since leaving the Army in 2012, Moffat has been consulting on leadership, people development and transformational change, helping companies and teams, including those in health and safety, to drive inclusive leadership and enact cultural and behaviour change.

Nicky Moffat

Are you a leader?

Kicking off an afternoon of events dedicated to women in health & safety, Moffat started by asking the bumper Keynote Arena audience how many of them considered themselves a leader. After only half of the crowd raised their hands, she reframed the question: “How many of you are in a leadership role; how many have a leadership responsibility in terms of line management, even if for just one person; how many are leading a project, or leading a team; and how many of you want to display attitudes and behaviours that will help people in your organisation do well?”

Everyone, it transpires, is a leader in some way, and therefore needs to know the skills that will get the most out of their team and organisation. She relayed a quote from an unknown source: ‘All leaders lead by example, whether they intend to or not’, and asked the audience whether they create a culture in which everyone thrives.

Moffat drew comparisons between the military, the environment that has developed her leadership techniques and attitudes, and the health & safety profession. The similarities are numerous: both share similar mission goals (the military’s mission is ‘Protecting and Serving the Nation’), both work at scale and often with heavy machinery. Both are about people, working with teams and technology, assessing and neutralising threats, managing and mitigating risk and building relationships.

The military challenge put simply, she sums up, is “how to get a disparate group of individuals to work as effectively as part of a team”, with emphasis on “minimising operational risk and maximising operational success”.

Conditions for success

With this similarity laid out, Moffat discussed how to create the conditions for success. People, she said, tend to be experts in their profession, but haven’t thought about what it means to lead people.

She explained that leadership, as covered in the panel session held earlier in the morning, is about vision and empowering your teams, taking the resources you have and powering them up. Pulling up a Euripides quote – ‘Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head’ – Moffat recalled her largest military command as Brigadier.

Taking charge of over 4,500 across the world, she was unable to know what each was doing at any one time, and was certainly not able to tell each of them what to do next. Instead, she set out a three stage rule for how to lead a large group: Direct – Trust – Empower.

First, direct or give your team their objective. She used the example of an army unit being told to attack a hill. Give them a clear piece of direction and, importantly, let them know why they’re doing it (i.e. to clear a path).

To make sure they can do this effectively they must have trust, both in their team and the leadership handing down the instruction. This needs to be cultivated and earned over time.

Finally, you must empower your team to get the job done. Rather than explaining exactly how they are going to take the hill, give them the power to make their own plan. That way, the team can respond to any unexpected issues and if it simply cannot be done they can, armed with the knowledge of what the end objective is, find another way to achieve the end result.


Nicky MoffatAs the former highest ranking female officer in the British Army, Moffat knows a thing or two about thriving in a traditionally male-dominated environment, and says we need to reframe thinking about diversity and unpack our biases.

Moffat did not make it to the rank of Brigadier through any political correctness, she did so because she was given the opportunity to deliver.

“In any organisation, if we are a leader it is important to think about how we include everybody”. But this is not to tick boxes, but to utilise the variety of strengths and approaches that a diverse workforce can bring.

She showed the audience a slide featuring a range of categories that could be used to distinguish people: age, religion, sexual orientation and re-framed them to suggest strengths that these differences could reveal. Somebody going through gender realignment, she said, should not be looked at as someone who is different, but as someone who has shown incredible bravery and resolution. Thinking about diversity in this ways drives home the qualities that those with different lives and backgrounds as us can offer.

Knowing your people and understanding how they see things is a vital part of being a leader, says Moffat.

“When most of my team celebrates Christmas, how difficult is it for me to find out when Diwali or Eid is and how it is celebrated? And how much better would it be for someone in my team to feel like it has been considered?”

In a similar vein, it is important to understand why everyone is fundamental to the cause, and for them to know you feel so.

Moffat used the examples of the administrative officers whose job was to input the emergency contact details of soldiers. One slip, one incorrectly entered address or contact number, could end up with a relative of a wounded or killed soldier not finding out, a “completely unacceptable” scenario that would have massive ramifications on wellbeing.

Everyone is a vital cog to the machine, and it is important that they know it.

Get your free ticket to Amy Williams MBE's talk at Safety & Health Expo 2020

ExCeL London, 11:30, Wednesday 9 September

Be inspired by Great Britain's first solo Winter Olympics champion for 30 years. Hear about the value of teamwork and physical and mental preparation to Amy Williams MBE's triumph in the skeleton bobsleigh event at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Get your free ticket today and secure your place at the Keynote Arena.

Amy Williams

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