Swiss Re

In June 2018 70 members of Swiss Re Globals flew from around the world to immerse themselves in the Royal Marines culture at Commando Training Centre in Devon. Jon and Alex led a programme to improve team performance specifically leadership, teaming, communications and resilience. The following excellent blog was written by Jing Lang.

Global Leadership Days, June 2018 | Photo credit: Michele Krupers


Five Leadership Lessons From 

The Royal Marines

“Charlie team move!” As the commanding officer shouted in a near deafening volume, eight Swiss Re employees in full tactical gear repeated the order aloud. In unison, we started moving low and fast in a zig-zagging fashion, navigating across the heathland of Woodbury Common. While this might sound like a scene from the latest military series Strike Back, it in fact took place in June 2018 during the Globals Leadership Days.

Recognizing the need to drive a performance culture and succeed in an ever-changing environment, Jonathan Isherwood and the organizing committee decided on an unusual offsite; we were to spend three days with the Royal Marines in the Commando Training Center in Lympstone, Devon. All 7,760 Royal Marines passed through here to receive their Green Beret.

As I reflected on this experience weeks afterwards, my top five takeaways are:

Strong body, stronger mind

All the Royal Marines we met were in incredible shape, fit enough to pose for Men’s Fitness, shirtless. Not a surprise given the 30-mile speed march with 50 pounds of gear that they seem to pull off casually. In comparison, my marathon experiences – with only a water bottle and energy gel gummies as gear – seems like a stroll in the park. We tried part of the famous Royal Marines assault course. And boy it’s hard! The Royal Marines have a way to exhaust you physically while still demanding the mental capability to think clearly and strategically. Thankfully, like physical endurance, mental resilience can too be cultivated.

Success = Teamwork + Trust

Every single exercise we did required teamwork; from detailed planning of a bank heist, to repetitively jumping into a knee-deep pool in order to solve a puzzle on the other side, to diving into an inflated castle and navigating through the obstacles. I was amazed how fast we built trust and rapport while going through these exercises. I remember vividly Peter Elliott’s silent head nod – which I took as encouragement during heist planning; Leopoldo Camara heroically jumped into the pool multiple times, swapping out team members who were exhausted; Karen MacAlpine helped me to get through the obstacle castle.

It is unquestionable that when we work with someone long enough, eventually there will be some level of trust and mutual commitment. How can we accelerate the process in the corporate world?

Challenge when appropriate, with well-articulated rationales

To excel in the military, I have always thought one must obey and not challenge orders. I was wrong. As Lieutenant Colonel Jon Coomber, Chief of Staff at the Commando Training Center explained, Royal Marines operates on a meritocracy basis – where the best idea wins. Yes, there are hierarchies but there is no expectation of orders to be blindly followed. In reality, it is not only encouraged but required for Royal Marines to share their own independent thought process and challenge orders when appropriate. In the end, success of the mission is dependent on having the best plan, it doesn’t matter that the plan comes from the colonel or the most junior person on the team.

“Disagree and commit” for decision making

When a commander has decided on a plan but not all his team members are on board, the commander would ask the team to “disagree and commit”. For the commander, the very act of using the phrase acknowledges difference of opinion from members of his team, which in itself boosts loyalty and asks for genuine commitment. The commander could also be the one who disagrees and commits to his team’s plan instead.

Using the phrase “disagree and commit” fosters a transparent environment to encourage people to voice different opinions. It also increases velocity of decision making. In most cases, the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.

Storytelling is key

“Dit” culture in Royal Marines refers to telling of the stories that happened to Marines on or off operations. A good dit has an important point, as it should reinforce Commando Values (Excellence, Integrity, Self-Discipline and Humility) and Commando Spirits (Courage, Determination, Unselfishness and Cheerfulness). In business, storytelling is also key in delivering a message. Stories have a way of engaging our humanity and our emotions. When we hear a story, we draw on our own experiences and make it ours. We live it.

One month after the Globals Leadership Days, I found an envelope on my desk. Inside was the war picture we took following the tactical assault. We may not have walked away with the same insights but we definitely all benefited tremendously from this once in a life time experience.

Thank you Globals community. Thank you Royal Marines. Oorah!


Many thanks to Jing Lang for sharing her experience!