Leadership lessons from Bletchley Park

On Sunday I visited Bletchley Park for the first time. An inspiring, moving and humbling place filled with exceptional stories of determination and commitment.

In the main house rooms are laid out as they would have been originally, including Commander Denniston’s office who was the Head of Bletchley Park. Aside from the historical atmosphere created, what really struck me was this poster (and in particular the section I’ve highlighted) which talked about Commander Denniston’s style of leadership and management.

In the most stressful, intense and critically important situations imaginable he managed the codebreakers with patience and fairness. He recognised the value and need for motivation and encouragement to get the best out of the people who worked for him; and realised the importance of relaxation & recreation in difficult and demanding jobs.

80 years later I think we still have a lot to learn.

The greater the pressure the lighter the touch

It’s tempting to equate increased demands, expectations, workload or pressure with the need for more control:

‘I’ll just check’

‘Could I just have a look before you send it’

‘Have you made sure the report contains…’

‘Remember this client is really important…’

It may be a well intentioned need to reassure ourselves that things are on track, but inevitably it interrupts and disrupts the normal flow of decision making and action.

If we find ourselves wanting to step in to encourage and push for greater speed and efficiency, that’s often the very moment we need to step back and let people get on with their jobs.

Creating an environment where people have space and are trusted to do their best work isn’t a luxury for a quieter time when things are going well, its essential now.

It’s the pauses between activity that creates great performance

Dennington recognised that intense cerebral work needed to be offset with relaxation and recreation; that the best work, ideas and insights came when brains had space to breathe.

This was a balance; there were crucial times when there was no option but to work through the night and sleep on the floor, but when all your work is critical (and at Bletchley each day required them to break or decode a new cypher) there has to be some light and shade.

Although we’re in a very different place in 2018, it got me thinking about how often our brains and bodies have space to breathe in the workplace today?

How many opportunities there are for people to come together (from the same or different functions) and talk, share, laugh, rest their brains and restore their energy?

Over the last 10 years I’ve seen a significant reduction in these opportunities and I think we’re worse for it.

This isn’t about days out, big events or initiatives that cost lots of money, it’s about informal ways to relax and restore – for 10, 20, 30 minutes or longer; alone or with others; quietly or actively – and the recognition that this is important; vital to us doing our best work in the short and long term.

And as leaders this starts with us.

Dennington was fundamental in helping to make relaxation and recreation an important part of what they did at Bletchley. It’s not necessarily about explicit permission but implicit action and role modelling.

Its holding your nerve during a busy and stressful time and encouraging your team to take a leisurely lunch together. It’s helping a tired team to feel it’s ok to go and have a cuppa together outside in the sun. It’s finding out what helps your team relax and laugh and building those things in through the weeks and months. It’s leaving on time; more than once.

We’re human beings not assets or resources. We need light and shade, sustenance, space, time to rest, relax and re-energise – and sometimes, I think we forget that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this,

Kirsten

Photos taken during Bletchley Park visit and from Bletchley Park website.

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