Airbrushing Leadership

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The blog below highlights that when a challenge is successful, then the leadership of it is almost always deemed a de-facto success. This may be human nature, but it also misses the point, in that lessons in leadership can easily be overlooked through the filter of a job completed, a mission succeeded and a challenge overcome.

The article’s title of ‘Don’t Airbrush Leadership’, written by a member of the Gurkha Everest Expedition in 2017, focuses on the leadership lessons that can be lost and the opportunities that should not be missed. For the full version, follow this link.


On 15th and 16th of May 2017, 13 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas stood on the summit of Mount Everest, the first serving Gurkhas ever to do so. It was the culmination of a 5 year journey. It achieved a 100% summit success by the summit team and it returned all members without any serious injury. It was, without question, a huge achievement.

How it was achieved is important because, in my experience, when we are successful we are even less likely to engage with the subject of leadership.

Leaders should be willing to acknowledge and reflect on the messy realities of leadership in practice. This both makes us more humble and honest and gives us a chance to consult others about our own leadership – something that is rarely done.

Leadership literature from military writers often falls victim to a false dichotomy. Success meant impeccable leadership. Failure meant blithering idiots in charge. We like heroes and villains in neat narratives. The good leader/bad leader story hides a much more varied and common reality. It is a reality we should become more comfortable with, and more willing to acknowledge and explore after the event. Most of us can make real gains in the quality and consistency of our leadership by simply engaging better with the subject.

When accounts of military leadership skip over the detail and iron out the creases, vital lessons are lost and opportunities missed. What we need are more ‘warts and all’ accounts. Honest accounts help to dispel an unrealistic expectation of perfection and defend against hubris.

I could wax lyrical about how the Gurkha Everest Expedition success was down to textbook leadership not seen for generations. I would be lying. The expedition, over 2 months long with years of build-up training, involved friction, argument and uncertainty. Constant questions were asked of the leadership. Mistakes were made, leaders were challenged robustly and disagreements were sometimes lasting.  

Does this mean the team and leadership was weak? Not in the slightest. I am extremely lucky to have been in and learnt from such a team. I strongly believe that without the balance of personalities and styles the entire enterprise would have been lost very early on. Mistakes are human and disagreements signs of a healthy culture. What matters is how they are dealt with.

Our expedition had various levels and styles of leadership, and was open-minded enough to let these change as the situation dictated. Most were comfortable moving from a role of leadership to one of ‘followership’, and back, as the situation changed. Our hierarchy was never flat, but was flexible enough that the right person could be at the top of the tree at a given time. 

What I took away was that we should be more comfortable in this sort of environment. And more willing to acknowledge it in public and to analyse it for future benefit. Of course there is a fine line between such leadership producing creative, empowered individuals and degrading into a toxic mess. 

The job of the leader is to be confident navigating this fine line. Developing this leadership style will come partly through sharing and analysing experiences openly and frankly so we can learn from each other. Success often removes the incentives for developing our leadership.

For any team, the fear of airing our dirty laundry in public is understandable; it detracts from the appearance we like to apply for external audiences and our peers. It can have measurable consequences for recognition, future funding and the like.

However, denying there were issues airbrushes leadership, hiding lessons from those hoping to learn from such experiences. We need to accept that good leadership is not perfect or conflict free. It embraces conflict, solves problems, overcomes dissent and revels in creativity.

As leaders, perhaps if we take this latter view we may actually realise that our teams’ laundry isn’t that dirty after all.

LeadershipMartin Head