Interview: Stuart Skeates

“You should address him as ‘General’, or ‘General, Sir’ if you want to be extra polite”, a vaguely anxious Adjutant tells me before the interview. I am shortly to be introduced to Major General Stuart Skeates, the Commandant of Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training academy, responsible for over- seeing the training of the Army’s next generation of leaders. With this direction from the Adjutant, I begin to wonder exactly what sort of blunt, gruff individual I am about to meet. Perhaps I should be on my my guard?

In fact, I am greeted by a grinning, friendly character. Meeting him is slightly awkward at first: he extends a hand to shake, and questions me on the prospects of my journalism career. He speaks in an articulate and confident manner, and — perhaps unsurprisingly — with an air of authority.

Skeates joined the Army in the tough economic climate of the late 1980s, intending it to be a stop-gap while he waited for better employment opportunities; but as he puts it, he hasn’t yet got around to leaving. Across his career he has witnessed the end of the Cold War, and served in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

“When I reflect back on the 30 years since I joined the University of London OTC [Officer Training Corps], it’s remarkable how much change there has been,” he tells me. “Back in the mid-1980s, the Army was obviously significantly larger than it is now. It had a very clearly-defined role; countering the Soviet threat, and also conducting operations in Northern Ireland, and having something of a contingent capability to deal with situations such as the Falklands War.

“When I look at what we do today, I would say that the role of the Army has changed very significantly indeed. We have just come out of ten years plus of very busy operations, very demanding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have challenged us physically, conceptually, morally, and has — I think — made us realise that the demands that we place on our people, particularly our officers in the modern British Army are far greater than they were 30 years ago.”

Skeates served for 18 months as a senior officer in the US Marine Corps; I question him about how the British and Americans do things differently. He pauses for a moment, apparently musing, and before proceeding to answer the question, issues a clarification, “One should never make the mistake of assuming the Americans are just like us because they speak the same language. America is a foreign nation, in the same way that France or Germany is. And the culture is different, and their outlook, and personal, national and individual backgrounds are very different”. 

He then goes on, “But actually the British Army is about as similar to the Marines as any American fighting force, and the reason for that is the Marine Corps see themselves as being a small force. Now, they are a force of 180,000, which compared to the British Army is very considerable indeed. They have their own aircraft, they have their own ships, they have many helicopters — far more than we do. But regardless of that, because they see themselves as a small organisation, they feel they have to do more with less, and that is a very similar outlook and mindset which we in the British Army have had, and have always had for many years. We have often found ourselves in circumstances where we have been up against it, either in terms of the mission, or in terms of the enemy that we are fighting in any particular campaign and we have had to try to achieve very significant, very difficult missions, with pretty modest resources. And that similarity we share very clearly, very closely with the Marine Corps.”

It seems natural that I should ask the Commandant of Sandhurst – an institution which, in Skeates’ own words takes “young people who have very little, if no military experience, and trains them to be leaders, to command soldiers who have got experience” — exactly what has stayed the same in the way they train their officers. 

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“The constant is probably best defined by the Sandhurst motto, which is ‘Serve to Lead’”, he explains, “and it is the expectations that we have of our officers as leaders, which is timeless, and indeed probably hasn’t changed for a couple of hundred years.’

This notion of instilling a moral authority is a consistent theme whenever I raise the issue of leadership. “Clearly ‘Serve to Lead’ is largely about selfless commitment”, he remarks. “I think any treatise or book on military leadership from the past 100 years would absolutely bear out the fact that you put your soldiers first, your equipment second, and your own needs a very very distant last.

“But I also highlight courage, and particularly moral courage. Physical courage is a given, as far as being a soldier is concerned, and one is expected to demonstrate physical courage when required. But the far more difficult type of courage to display is the moral courage. The dilemmas, moral, ethical and professional that an officer is faced with every day, means that he or she is going to have to make good decisions based on sound moral or ethical principles.”

I get the impression that in asserting the importance of more abstract ideas about leadership, he is perhaps embellishing the realities of physically and intellectually demanding officer training; when I question the Commandant on the process of officer selection, a rather different insight into Sandhurst emerges.

“We look at three things really”, he explains. “Firstly, character: do you have the right personal qualities to be a good leader, particularly under duress, and in situations of extreme pressure? And we try to emulate stress in order to explore that in a little more detail. Secondly, we look at intellect. Officers really are our conceptual component, they are the ones that do the thinking, and who make the decisions, so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got bright and able officers. And the third issue is physical ability, really, in raw terms. And that is an element of professional competence.”

Yet, discussing selection, the impression the Commandant gives is very much that he is running a business, with a clear strategy to that effect. “Sandhurst is a brand which is recognised throughout the world,” he tells me. “And there are many other officer academies around the world which try to emulate precisely what we do. There are many civilian firms who beat a path to our door in order to understand how it is we turn young people into leaders.”

Indeed, when I question the General on employment, he replies, “I really sympathise with graduates today who really have to fight hard to get noticed by employers in a brutally competitive market to get jobs which are going to give them a degree of security, which are going to fulfil their ambition, which are going to make good use of their skills.”

Much like any other employer, he clearly sees his job as working to further the prospects of employees, explaining, “As a civilian employer, if you get a graduate who has been in the Officer Training Corps, or indeed has commissioned into the Reserves, their leadership training is ongoing, and it means that they will be in a position to take on greater responsibility and do more to the benefit of the company, far earlier than their peers.”

Concluding the interview, we look at what distinguishes military and civilian leaders. The General returns to the rhetoric of moral leadership. “I suppose the easiest way to define integrity is doing the right thing on a difficult day when nobody is watching”, he tells me.

“And doing the right thing is incredibly important in the long term, because integrity is as valuable a commodity in the way in which we conduct our operations, and the manner in which we are regarded by the public, by the population we are trying to help, and also, it has to be said, by our adversary.”