The Commando Mindset: The Importance of Ethos, Culture & Psychological Wellbeing for Optimal Performance, Part 1 of 3

The Royal Marines (RM) are acknowledged as one of the world’s elite commando forces, working in hostile physical and climatic environments, usually in an expeditionary role, with limited support and under political pressure. Held at a high state of readiness, they can respond quickly to events anywhere around the globe, and are required to perform optimally on every occasion for sustained periods. This they have achieved since 1664, with very few, if any other organisation managing to achieve this level of optimal performance over such a sustained period; there is no ‘Boom and Bust’ in the Royal Marines history.

Many Royal Marines will insist that the Commando Ethos is at the centre of everything that they do, and indeed, are. In discussion with Royal Marines from across the ranks, this Ethos is attributed as the foundation of optimal performance by promoting personal feelings of competence, autonomy, relatedness, value, being listened to, supported, and part of a community. Collectively, these attributes are now widely known as positive psychological wellbeing. Although none had previously considered their experience as being one that actively promoted optimal psychological wellbeing, in hindsight, all agree that the Royal Marines success, both as individuals and as an organisation, is due to the positive psychological wellbeing culture; indeed, a culture and performance attainment that far exceeds anything that any have experienced in the commercial world.

What are the foundations of positive psychological wellbeing within an organisation? Every organisation needs to develop its own congruent foundations. However, as within the Royal Marines, experience and research across sectors, shows the positive effects of positive psychological wellbeing across performance indicators, whilst an embedded, strategic commitment to positive psychological wellbeing is supported as the most effective and cost-effective way to achieve such gains (What Works Wellbeing, 2016). Consequently, this should be a priority for any organisation or team who seeks sustainable, optimal performance.

So, what is ethos? There is much written about ethos and it is often wrongly conceived. However, far from being complex, ethos is straightforward; defined simply, it is, “what a group does and how it does it” (King, 2004). The Oxford English Dictionary (Third Edition) states:

· Ethos: The characteristic spirit of culture, era, or community.

· Culture: The arts, customs and institutions of a nation, people, or group.

The Commando Ethos has three components:

· The Commando Mindset (Part One).

· The Commando Values (Part Two).

· The Commando Spirit (Part Three).

Each is seen as so important to the Royal Marines sustained, optimal performance, that they are emphasised throughout a Royal Marine’s career from day one until retirement. This, and the following two articles, will demonstrate how these Ethos components lead to sustainable, elite performance, and how they are enabled and reinforced by a culture that promotes positive psychological wellbeing.

Part One – The Commando Mindset:

· Be first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome.

A classic example of the Commando Mindset is displayed in this extract from Cpl Hunter RM’s Citation (Admiralty Whitehall, 12th June 1945).

“In Italy during the advance by the Commando to its final objective, Corporal Hunter of “C” Troop was in charge of a Bren group of the leading sub section of the Commando. Having advanced to within 400 yards of the canal, he observed the enemy were holding a group of houses South of the canal. Realising that his Troop behind him were in the open, as the country there was completely devoid of cover, and that the enemy would cause heavy casualties as soon as they opened fire, Corporal Hunter seized the Bren gun and charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground. Three Spandaus from the houses, and at least six from the North bank of the canal opened fire and at the same time the enemy mortars started to fire at the Troop.

Corporal Hunter attracted most of the fire, and so determined was his charge and his firing from the hip that the enemy in the houses became demoralised. Showing complete disregard for the intense enemy fire, he ran through the houses, changing magazines as he ran, and alone cleared the houses. Six Germans surrendered to him and the remainder fled across a footbridge onto the North bank of the canal. The Troop dashing up behind Corporal Hunter now became the target for all the Spandaus on the North of the canal. Again, offering himself as a target, he lay in full view of the enemy on a heap of rubble and fired at the concrete pillboxes on the other side. He again drew most of the fire, but by now the greater part of the Troop had made for the safety of the houses. During this period he shouted encouragement to the remainder, and called only for more Bren magazines with which he could engage the Spandaus.”

Cpl. Hunter RM was killed during this operation. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Except for phenomenal bravery, what allowed Cpl Hunter, RM. VC, to act the way he did? How was he, ‘The first to understand; the first to adapt and respond; and the first to overcome’? He certainly had the autonomy to react to the situation; he had obviously been enabled to develop the competence to do what he did; he clearly felt part of something worthwhile, and his actions showed that he cared for the other members of his community. Attributes nurtured by the Commando Mindset and the overall Commando Ethos and culture, enabled him to possess and best utilise attributes associated with positive psychological wellbeing.

Obviously, no non-military venture should allow its members to put themselves in such physical and mental risk, but everyday an organisation’s members face numerous, often novel, situations where decisions need to be made. Be they admin support, a CEO, an investment banker, a scrum-half, the decisions made will have direct influence on operational success, client satisfaction, brand reputation; sometimes with small consequence, sometimes with big. But through an ethos that promotes positive psychological wellbeing, by enabling members at all levels to feel competent, autonomous, valued, listened to and supported, all will have the confidence, skills and motivation to be the first to understand, the first to adapt and respond, and the first to overcome. In a fast moving and potentially volatile business environment, what mindset would give your organisation the competitive advantage it is always looking for?