Pete Flynn is the Operations Director for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Financial Services industry in the UK. In his former career in the Armed Forces, Pete was a Major in the Parachute Regiment and he spent two years at the Ministry of Defence, providing advice to senior politicians. From 2011 to 2013 he was a member of the Royal Household, where he worked as Equerry to TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall.
Pete sits on the Board of the Royal National College for the Blind and the steering committee of the PwC Foundation. He also remains involved with a number of other charities, including the Princes Trust, Veterans Aid and the Beyond Food Foundation. Here he gives us his incredible insights on leadership.
What would you say is your leadership style? How was it shaped by your experiences at Sandhurst, as an officer in the Parachute Regiment and as Equerry to TRH The Prince of Wales?
Informed! I think leadership styles are shaped by both education and experience – both are vital. I suppose my style could be summarised as collaborative and confident. You do have to flex your leadership style depending on the situation or challenges you’re faced with but I’ve found a collaborative style, where your decisions and directions are informed by the team around you, works best. Teams react well to a confident leader too. Confidence comes with experience and the development of trust in your own instincts and judgement. I’ve found that in tough and high pressure situations, confidence counts for a lot. That doesn’t mean that you should never show weakness, or bluff when you don’t know with absolute certainty the answer or right path to take. But when you do make a decision and need to bring everyone with you on a course of action, leading with confidence (and keeping your own fears and doubts under control) will inspire people to take your lead and follow you.
Sandhurst taught me an enormous amount about leadership, particularly the theory and practical application of leadership skills. The training course is an intense year long course in leadership. I gained so much experience in my 25 years with the Parachute Regiment, completing ten operational tours of duty, including three tours of duty in Afghanistan. You learn a lot about yourself, as well as the people you are leading, during these intense situations. My time with the Royal Household and more recently in the City with PwC, have exposed me to very different leadership styles. I’ve enjoyed seeing different ways of achieving the same goals.
What qualities make a great leader?
At Sandhurst we were given lists of the qualities that make a great leader and had to come up with our own lists too. I’m pretty sure we had to write essays on the subject and probably more than once!
Throughout my career I’ve found a few qualities that are so important, I regard them as vital in a great and respected leader:
- Integrity. Hammered home from the outset at Sandhurst and the foundation of the ability to build trust.
- Moral courage. Often far tougher than physical courage. The ability to ‘do the right thing’, when faced by peer pressure, criticism, personal disadvantage or isolation, is the mark of a great leader.
- Judgement. This quality is tougher to pin down, as it’s made up of a mix of education, experience, instinct, foresight and often pragmatism and/or plain common sense.
- The ability to decide. Napoleon said: “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than the ability to decide.” I very much agree and it’s probably the quality I regard as most important in a leader. The toughest challenges are almost never clear cut, with a binary decision to be made. Putting off tough decisions until you have all the facts and can act with absolute certainty is a rare luxury and quite frankly doesn’t require a great leader.
There are plenty of other qualities, like selflessness, authenticity, vision, loyalty and initiative, but the qualities I’ve set out above, come to the fore in the toughest circumstances.
You have met and worked with and for a whole host of leaders, from members of the Royal Family, high profile politicians, CEOs and philanthropists. When have you felt most inspired by a leader?
I’ll set out a few examples, which were either an inspiration or gave me leadership lessons that I’ve kept with me and tried to apply.
The first was a young leader junior to me in Afghanistan. He was leading a patrol under attack and in considerable danger. He was doing everything right, making bold decisions, using his initiative and showing enormous courage whilst leading his men. It inspired me to do everything I could to support him. I also needed him and his team to know that they could call upon all of the resources at my disposal and that they were my highest priority at that time. We both needed to display enormous trust – I needed to trust him to lead and he and his men needed to trust me and my team to back them up with everything we had.
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we can often draw inspiration from those who might not be senior to us, in terms of the traditional organisational hierarchy.
HRH The Prince of Wales was an inspiration through his charitable entrepreneurship, vision and leadership on tough issues. I have always felt that he has demonstrated considerable moral courage, by highlighting the challenges of climate change, long before it had become a more widely understood and accepted issue. His drive and determination was also inspirational; he really is one of the hardest working leaders I’ve ever met.
Finally, more of a lesson than an inspiration, but during my time at the Royal Household, I noticed one senior leader was always very careful to allocate credit where credit was due. Briefings that noted the original drafter, conversations that highlighted the efforts of others, were selfless and loyal to the team. I’ve taken that lesson on board and have always tried to replicate that practice in my leadership roles since then.
Have you found that men and women’s leadership styles differ? If so, how? How important is gender in leadership?
Firstly, men don’t have a monopoly on great leadership! I can probably be accused of discovering this later in life, as I spent the first 25 years of my career in an all-male regiment. Currently, my direct boss at PwC is a female Partner and that’s both refreshing and encouraging. I really do believe that without the right gender balance throughout an organisation, a large part of the talent pool is being missed.
In terms of style I have found that women take a more collaborative and inclusive approach to leadership and are less directive (or autocratic!), but these are more subtleties in style, than stark differences.
The Royal Household is ultimately lead by a woman in HM The Queen. Many of HRH The Prince of Wales’s charities and foundations are led by great and inspiring women leaders, one of whom showed levels of tenacity, confidence, courage in speaking truth to power and devotion to duty, that I’d rarely seen in my military career.
Overall great leaders are simply that, whether a man or a woman.
The best piece of advice someone has given you on being a great leader?
The best bits of advice I’ve received on leadership were from a former Commanding Officer, when I was a young officer in the Parachute Regiment. He would always counsel ‘it’s not what has happened that you should focus on, the most important thing is what you are going to do about it and the decisions that follow’. Those who focus on, or agonise over, how the situation has happened or who should be blamed aren’t leading; the leader focuses his or her energy on the issue at hand.
The other bit of advice was easier to remember: ‘leaders in our line of work must learn to get comfortable with chaos’.
Follow the inspiring Pete Flynn on twitter @PeteFlynn5