Interview with Maj Gen Duncan Capps

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Transcript of Interview with Maj Gen Duncan Capps (9 Jul 21)


Maj Gen Duncan Capps is currently the Commandant RMAS, effectively the British Army’s Director of Leadership.  Whilst Sandhurst is often regarded as a vital element in the fabric of the heritage of Britain’s military structure, readers may find his unorthodox background and attitude to the Army refreshing.  Born in Slough, he did not come from a staunch military family and his comprehensive school was not especially pro-military.  Unsurprisingly, his path to leadership has not followed any recognised or prescribed route – offering hope to anyone not currently considered as destined for military greatness.  His reflective, no-nonsense attitude to life, abhorrence of meaningless bureaucracy and over intellectualising of the facets of leadership come through in this interview.

You have served in the Army for nearly four decades, was it always your intention to make a full career of it?  If you had followed a different career, what do you think it might have been?

The Army was not initially a serious career option and my background didn’t naturally lend itself to considering it as such.  The daily televised events of the Falklands War in 1982 acted as a catalyst to my career thinking but not automatically as an officer.  I lacked any military tutorship, although my father thought that I would enjoy the Army. I’d not really travelled anywhere, never stayed in a hotel and hadn’t been on an aeroplane – so no broad social experiences.  I joined the Royal Corps of Transport as a driver and went through the Potential Officer Candidate Troop and completed Rowallan Company before starting training at Sandhurst.  So from the outset I had no master plan and there was no natural path or early identification of me reaching a senior rank.  I completed tours with the junior leaders and then 5 Airborne Brigade and at this point I started thinking that as I was enjoying myself, perhaps I should stay.  So I suppose the take-away is that you have to give it a chance, take some time to reflect before deciding what you want to do.  I always said to myself that I wouldn’t stay if I wasn’t enjoying it and throughout I enjoyed being with soldiers and the responsibilities that come with that.  That said, after nearly four decades in uniform I have no idea what I would have done if I had not made a career of it.

Did you have any doubts in your ability as you progressed?

You always have doubts.  It comes as a surprise to officer cadets when I read my reports to them and expose some of the mistakes I’ve made.  Everyone is work in progress and anyone reading my early reports wouldn’t assume I was headed for the stars.  Development is not a linear process and I tell everyone to expect bumps on the road.  I was 19 when I commissioned and since then I have never taken over an appointment where I thought from the outset that, ‘Duncan, you’ve got this covered.’  I liken it to competing in sport, you should recognise that nerves and a degree of self-doubt are all part of the natural makeup of life and a sort of conditioning process we call a challenge. As you gain experience, so you better equip yourself to deal with trepidation and uncertainty but even when I took over as Commandant I had some doubts – on reflection I recognise it as a positive which helps stop you believing in your own press.  What I would say to anyone taking on a challenging role is that you are never on your own, there will be talented people around you who want to see you succeed.

You have followed an unconventional career path for a logistician, do you believe an individual joining today has the same opportunities that you did in the 1980s?

I see that there is a risk here to what people may want and what the Army can deliver.  All the best experiences I’ve had come from operations.  I think the main reason for this is that operational environments demand and allow you the freedom to do your job and specifically with our capbadge that involves delivering the vital logistics needed for mission success.  So I’ve been lucky that from sub-unit through to red-tab I have had the opportunity to command on operations.  Although the current operational environment may look smaller in scale and frequency, things change quickly and the contemporary security environment, although unclear, is increasingly uncertain and threatening.  There is a danger that young commanders are looking at the potential environment and putting themselves under unnecessary pressure.  It might be an old bloke cliché that life’s a journey but I’ve always believed in enjoying the immediate challenge in front of you and don’t worry too much of what might come next.

You have been fortunate to have been selected for a number of demanding and varied command and staff appointments, to what extent have they prepared you to be the Commandant at Sandhurst? 

I believe that the experiences and education that I’ve been fortunate to have received have prepared me well for my current appointment.  The career diversity and responsibilities that logisticians are offered gives a broad spectrum of useful knowledge whilst at the same time offering considerable depth in some vital functional areas.  Whilst it’s not a business, my previous experiences have given me some insights into business processes of large organisations, including financial responsibilities of circa £1Bn.  So, I believe I was uniquely prepared for this appointment and I think it helped that I was a second tour general when I assumed post.  What comes out of this is that I consider specialising too early in one’s career is not necessarily a good thing, although I recognise that there are some vital employment streams that need early commitments.  There is a balancing act between experience of leadership and management.  Finding the sweet spot will remain a challenge for organisations and individuals.  Those that can attain a high degree of competency in both leadership and management disciplines, the gifted double-blues, will probably be the ones that achieve the highest ranks.  What I would emphasis is that in the RLC, where the logistic functions are diverse and complex, you don’t have to be the font of all technical/functional knowledge – you do have to know where that knowledge resides and have a degree of competency which allows you to ask the right questions.   In a nutshell you put yourself into a position where you can make the best decisions because you’ve got the ability to garner the best information – that’s a big part of leadership.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort has been made to codify values and standards across the Army in an attempt to establish a common baseline.  How confident are you that the RMAS leadership tenets are permeating into the wider Army?

This is a huge area for reflection and debate.  Let’s consider some historiography, British ineptitude in the 1793-94 Flanders Campaign acted as the catalyst for establishing formal professional officer training for the Army.   Two primary objectives were pursued as a consequence of failures, the first, was the recruitment and development of ‘value centered servant leaders’ who understood that they had the responsibility and privilege of leading soldiers.  Secondly, was instilling and confirming a degree of military competence across the officer corps.  If we don’t get that same degree of commitment to value based leadership, clearly demonstrated by personal examples, then we’re going to fail in attaining the tenets of leadership that we desire and we’re unlikely to see the right people enter the Army.  The challenge that I and my predecessors have had is how much we are prepared to condition the development of leaders whilst also allowing individuals to develop their personal styles.  With Generation Z we have to be very careful. In a lot of cases they have fixed views and they are prepared to offer challenges to what we offer.  It’s much more about mentoring and coaching rather than directing and I’m now focused on how we affect leadership development, acknowledging that this generation is different and a different approach is needed.  How do we combine emotional intelligence and social awareness with the self-awareness that they’ll need, if they’re to sustain themselves emotionally and physically when leading teams of soldiers?  This is what my team and I are grappling with today because the challenges they will face are different to the ones I experienced.  Now to answer the broader question of how we are permeating this leadership ethos down into the Army.  There were two leadership studies conducted in 2015 and 2018 and broadly speaking they identified that we were not investing to the same degree in our ‘soldier leader’ development.  So, my takeaway from that is that our soldier leaders, including our Late Entry officers, are successful despite the system, not because of it.  I oversaw a study last year which looked at identifying the best leadership intervention points for junior soldiers and I’m hoping that this is part of a new initiative that addresses some of the shortfalls.  Another inroad is being made through the examination of specific case studies by the Centre for Army Leadership which comes directly under me but is not focused solely on officers.  Perversely, what is also encouraging is that a by-product of Covid restrictions resulted in greater participation from the soldier network who were more confident to participate in digital leadership debates and podcasts.  So, we are now starting to hear the voice of our junior leaders and I’m confident positive changes will be forthcoming.

Mission Command, as adopted by the British Army, is over 40 years old.  How confident are you that it has been accepted and adapted by all ranks and that soldiers recognise what their leaders are attempting to practice?

It’s worth remembering what mission command means and what it relies on.  It’s about giving people the maximum freedom in how they deliver a task within an agreed resource envelope. It relies on innovation of leadership at all levels and at all times, which subsequently instils mutual trust and confidence.  If you don’t practice these tenets in your routine tasks then you shouldn’t expect it to work when the push comes to shove on operations or exercises.  The positive here is that we have proved on recent operations that we are very good at utilising a mission command philosophy but there is a danger that without similar challenges we may revert back to a constrictive form of leadership.  This is likely to deny freedoms to junior commanders and stifle any innovation in future leadership.  If we fall into this trap, the likelihood is that command may fail in the future operating environments we are envisaging.  We have to practice what we preach and my command philosophy is that we must be aware how we continue to instill trust outside of operations.  So when people who directly work for me ask for some time to attend their child’s sports day or their own sport, I let them go.  What I then find is that not only are they motivated to perform in their day jobs but their immediate subordinates are given a chance to step up and experience greater responsibilities.  These responsibilities may have to be bounded to prevent thrashing people but ultimately you are developing succession planning in a controlled, incremental way.  It is incumbent on all leaders to consciously develop their people by identifying opportunities, no matter how insignificant they may seem at the time.  I have been fortunate that I have been on the receiving end of this forward thinking leadership philosophy.  I do worry that we talk a good game and we advocate a safe to fail philosophy but soldiers and junior officers are the best judges as to whether we are delivering on what remains an essential element in leadership and they may well voice their experiences through 360reporting.  What I would say is that I have learnt more from my mistakes but I was fortunate that I retained a confidence in and from my immediate command.

Courageous disobedience seems to be gaining some traction in some leadership discussion groups.  There seems to be a degree of controversy over how we categorise it and how it is bounded.  If we are a reflection of society and that society is becoming increasingly questioning over authority, is there a danger that any direction/command can be questioned?  Is there not a case that encouraging courageous disobedience could lead to endangering lives of soldiers and potentially undermine the ethos of military leadership?

I think when the Centre of Army Leadership talk about this they are debating intelligent rather than courageous disobedience and it’s an important distinctionYou need to be intelligent about it and recognise that at its heart, it’s a subset of mission command.  If you have been given orders and directed to do something and the situation fundamentally changes, you need to have the confidence and initiative to be trusted to decide on a course of action that reflects the change in the situation.  You also need to be able to look at what you’re being told to do and ensure the context hasn’t significantly changed.  Contained within this is one of the issues that we grapple with which is toxic or destructive leadership.  However, it is not toxic for me to tell someone to do something in a certain way, if broadly I’m looking most of the time for input, conjecture, discussion.  If I’m doing this for 80-90% of the time, then the time when the situation does not allow debate or reflection and I just need it done in a certain way seems right but if it still looks like a ‘charge of the Light Brigade situation’ then people should have the confidence to clarify the task.  Situations like this should not happen.  So, what I’m saying is that there is a place for mission control.

Digitisation could be construed as a significant challenge to the hierarchical organisation that forms the structure of the Army.  Whilst digitisation and mission command have a synergy, do you see future challenges for commanders exercising their will on their subordinates at physical distance?  How is RMAS addressing this?

We are still grappling with digitisation.  The truth is that the generation of directing staff dealing with this grew up without computers or mobile phones, memos were written in manuscript and distributed in hard copy.  Life was conducted at a relatively sedate pace.  We recognise that digitisation has changed the landscape, actions are monitored and therefore judged down to the lowest tactical levels.  We recognise how this puts a pressure on individuals, festooned with various data inputs with the real potential of strategic interference but also guided by what seems a competing philosophy of mission command. Command decisions are becoming more visible to a wider audience which opens them up to acute examination and could lead to paralysis if we’re not careful.  Look at the team who undertook the raid on Osma bin Ladin’s complex where the President himself was on the wire.  These are difficult challenges but we recognise at RMAS that we need to harness the tools of digitisation whilst keeping the person at the heart of the command decision loop.  As we develop the syllabus at Sandhurst, the kind of inputs we make are guided by the behavioral science team with advice from 77 Bde.  We consciously layer up the complexity for cadets; fusion of data, satellite imagery etc whilst carefully playing in all the lines of operation they are likely to experience, including media.  I recognise that we can only touch on this at RMAS but the cadets respond well to these challenges.  There is a syllabus review going on at the moment and subsequent to this there will be a fundamental look at the whole training performance statement to make sure it’s in keeping with the direction of travel that the Integrated Review is advocating.  I’m conscious that we could quickly overface cadets here and I firmly believe that we need to keep it as simple as we can.  Crawl, walk, run is a good training mantra and if you give people some basic concurrent challenging building blocks and then throw people, some environmental stresses and time pressure into the mix they start to build confidence levels with a corresponding ability to take on increasing layers of complexity, including a myriad of digital challenges.  I am amazed at the capacity of this generation to absorb information and process it. We get to a point at the end of the third term where cadets start to discard data that they don’t need for the immediate tasks in hand and this is borne out from a confidence developed through careful, incremental training.  In essence, they’re developing an ability to protect themselves against being overloaded with data when they have to make clear command decisions.

The Army is often quoted as an institution that continues to offer credible opportunities for social mobility.  How confident are you that RMAS cadet entrants reflect the UK’s diverse social/cultural character?

I do see a greater diversity across the intakes compared to when I joined.  It’s not however where we want it to be and so it’s not yet a true reflection of contemporary UK society.  It’s worth going back a step to understand how the social makeup of Sandhurst is constructed.  Sandhurst doesn’t select the candidates that come here, that’s undertaken by a separate organisation at Westbury, known as the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB).  This selection is conducted through a series of physical and mental assessments over four days where candidates are only recognisable by a unique bib candidate number to avoid any conscious or unconscious bias.  That organisation however is only dealing with people who apply to join.  Candidates that are successful at AOSB arrive here as cadets and Sandhurst is pretty successful at getting them through the syllabus with about 90% of cadets passing the course.  So, I’m confident that the large majority of cadets that commence training have been correctly selected, based purely on their potential to become leaders.  What does the social makeup of Sandhurst look like in the summer of 2021?  We have a 13-15% female cadet population, which is clearly not representative of the national population and we need to do better in that space.  In terms of ethnicity we are around 13% of the cadet population, which is broadly in line with the social makeup of the country but we are underrepresented across certain ethnic groups and again we need to do better.  With regards the split between state and public/independent schools, the figures are showing 56% from state schools but as only circa 7% of the population go to public/independent schools, the 44% public school intake represents a higher overall proportion of the cadet population.  Additionally, about 85% of the cadet population are graduates.  There is a reason for this makeup.  Traditionally, not all state schools were very positive about advocating the Army as a career.  I think we could do a lot more in this space, selling ourselves through role models for example.  I truly believe that the Army is an extraordinary organisation which consciously promotes social mobility.  Looking specifically at the RLC, I genuinely believe that individuals are respected for what they do and not assessed on the basis of their background.  I don’t think there are many organisations where your background is not a limit to your progress and is probably one of the reasons I have stayed so long.  There is also another challenge that we need to recognise and that’s the increasingly limited connection the UK population has with the Armed Forces.  Mass is important here and as the Army reduces to 72,500 regular soldiers, there will only be a tiny civilian minority who have any connection with the military going forward. If the Army is not in the national consciousness, it will no doubt prove increasingly difficult to recruit.

There is a high probability that a future Commandant RMAS is currently in training today, what advice would you give them?

Don’t worry about what job you might be doing in 37 years; worry about what job you are doing in the here and now.  If you want to get to the top, you’ll get there by doing the best by your soldiers and not thinking about how you progress.  Don’t be seen to do the right thing – do the right thing.

The old adage is that we should never stop learning/developing, what is the next challenge on General Capp’s bucket list?

I suppose my biggest challenge is leaving the Army next year.  I’ve been a soldier all my adult life and I don’t know what it’s going to be like not to be a soldier.  I know my family believe I’ll find that difficult, as a lot of my Army friends have before me.  On my bucket list, in order of priority; racing as the reigning Army kayak champion and winning my age group in the over 54s at the National Kayak Championships, competing at the RLC Ski Championships next year and leading a patrol team as a 2* which I love doing and competing in the World Masters Games in Japan next year and hopefully winning a medal in the over 55 age category.

(Readers may be interested to know that General Capps represented GB internationally at the sport of marathon Kayak racing form 1993 – 2002 and still races regularly at National level as a master and in both open divisional (ability based) competitions and for the Army and UK Armed Forces).

Any afterthoughts on the Corps as you leave the Army?

I see a lot of people apologising for being in the RLC and I see a lot of people standing up and giving presentations and saying, ‘I apologise, I’m going to talk about logistics’.  I genuinely think that with the Corps having been formed in 1993 and coming through an incredible period of operational excellence and service, where we really were acknowledged as outstanding at what we do, the Corps should be rightly proud at where it has got to.  We don’t need to apologise anymore, we should be confident in what we do, to be good across all areas of the Army and wider civilian life, which plays into the initiatives being pursued by the Foundation on behalf of its members.