Considering a volume of potential ideas on what to write I decided upon carefully, and in many cases selfishly, applying what appeals to me as interesting in order to write a thoughtful and (hopefully) thought inspiring article.

This article was submitted by Nicolas George Taylor, a recent graduate in International Relations & Politics from Oxford Brookes University.

For this reason I chose the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and its focus of Leadership to investigate the foundation behind this seemingly unmovable concept. One might look in absolute disinterest when reading about something that has so often been written about. But, what really appeals to me is the way in which leadership has always been the embodiment of Sandhurst’s academic and practical training.

How the motto: ‘Serve to Lead’ has survived the changing social, political and economic climate, how it survived wars, conflicts and insurgencies, how it survived cuts in defence spending, the change in military structure, and the revision of training styles to better fit current and future conflict environment. How is it that ‘Serve to Lead’ is so evidently concrete and indestructible?

Old College Building – Photo via [CC BY 3.0 (]


The principle idea behind Serve to Lead began after the Second World War, following the amalgamation of the Royal Military Academy Woolwich and the Royal Military College Sandhurst. Serve to Lead served as an anthology of military doctrine, and somewhat of a military Leadership bible to those who attended Sandhurst. Academic staff contributed to this anthology  which has been distributed to officer cadets at Sandhurst since its amalgamation with RMA Woolwich.

Its contents however, required revision as it maintained an abundance of out-of-date information  which were deemed to be ‘factually flawed’. In due course, the anthology was revised, updated and redistributed to address the concerns revolving around the absence of failed military leadership.

It was quickly  acknowledged that the contents of Serve to Lead  , the anthology of British military Leadership, was to remain forever fluid, susceptible to change given the rise of changing circumstance in the global theatre of war.

The motive behind serving to lead is to develop leadership, but how do you manipulate thought and translate that thinking to constitute the end product of a leader? And to that end is it truly possible to quantify leadership? How does Sandhurst’s tradition of leadership quantifiably ensure that the end product for an officer cadet is a leader? The answer seems to lie in so much as the foreword of the Serve to Lead anthology.

“Serve to Lead is of course , a paradox”, “But it is a paradox which must be understood by every officer cadet”, it goes to conclude that “If cadets have not understood the meaning of the paradox, they have no business aspiring to be officers in the British Army”.

There we have it, Sandhurst doesn’t necessarily teach, or prescribe officer cadets with the true meaning of leadership, but rather it places them into an environment with the tools for officer cadets to develop their own understanding of leadership, one of which they may employ  in their future careers in the Army. Understandings which operate under the individual understandings of an encyclopaedia of definitions.


Need for change

Certainly one of the key pillars supporting the idea of leadership revolves around developing an officer cadet individually in order to ensure clear thought to what is required as a leader. That was indeed in deficit before the change in training and educational doctrine for British Army officers.

In David French’s book: ‘Raising Churchills Army’, he eloquently put that the British military academies were falling behind the progressive demands of war and indeed what a future war would require of the Army’s  senior and junior officers. French suggests that building the officer cadets in a tough environment allowed them to work “satisfactorily under pressure”, however what the colleges did “imperfectly was to encourage cadets to use their initiative and think for themselves”.

French follows to quote an officer cadet at RMC Sandhurst that seemingly progressive military educational teachings in initiative and leadership were considered  ‘heresy’, and that officer cadets were not allowed to think. Leadership was only really developed once officer cadets moved to their chosen regiments and were embedded into their platoons.

He suggests that “ill-fitted officers to deal with the unexpected calls which were going to be made on them on the battlefield”.

The Wellington Room – Photo via [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Behavioural science behind Serve to Lead

It must be maintained in this section that there are two sides to the argument of the significance to this paradoxical motto. On discussing this issue with three friends, one of which is a commissioned officer, one of which is currently in his intermediate term at RMAS and one of which is entering in May 2020, it became apparent that the teachings of the motto has a mixed response. On the one hand it was argued that the motto is perceived by many for its face value. You serve to lead. Not that complicated is it? However on the other hand for many it was perceived equally beneficial to look into a deeper meaning, even if there isn’t really a deeper meaning to find, or indeed even if it is a complete waste of time. To that extent both ends of the stick do no such damage and I would argue that, assuming you come to a conclusion as to the significance of the motto, both ends of the stick are equally beneficial.

I will look into the deeper meaning of the motto as I perceive a deeper, underlying definition to warrant more personal success when unraveling what is meant by Serve to Lead.

Sandhurst maintains a tradition of leadership , which is ambiguously summed up by the academies motto: Serve to Lead, one of which has survived through time and change because of the basic principle that an officer is a leader. The Leadership that is taught in the  anthology is tailor fitted to changing leadership demands in the Army. Its definitions of leadership are more personal, and tend to remove itself almost entirely from any notions that a leader retains some form of managerial responsibility.

What Sandhurst’s curriculum prides itself on is the ability to work on potential. The inherent understanding that , as Jennifer Chapman and Jessica Kennedy explain in their ‘Psychological Perspectives on Leadership’ paper, leadership is about what people do, not who they are, and as such leadership is inherently developmental’. Chapman and Kennedy certainly corroborate with the  Serve to Lead anthology, that those who are considered successful leaders are those who understand the leadership paradox, and that paradox is open for interpretation, so long as the conclusions are done so on an individual basis.

If one was to take an outside perspective of the contributions the Serve to Lead anthology has offered, one could peg it almost entirely to an outsiders tailored interpretation of universal leadership teachings. Such teaching as the seminal theoretical articles produced by Salovey and Mayer , which interpret all forms of leaders (including in this context military leadership) subconsciously maintaining Emotional Intelligence in their given actions.

Emotional Intelligence , the integration of intelligence: ,the ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, and to overcome obstacles by taking thought” (Wechler, 1958), and emotion: “an organised set of responses that optimise how individuals address the challenges and exploit the opportunities that arise in the events that they encounter” (Lazarus, 1991).

By combining these two definitions one could almost summarise  the Serve to Lead anthology as promoting   Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy, and social skills. One can almost immediately see the prioritisation of these such leadership teachings to officer cadets for the development in their awareness in their own Emotional Intelligence.

An example of the awareness to constantly challenge officer cadets to question and develop their own understanding of leadership can be seen with the academies Centre of Army Leadership (CAL) , which sees guest speakers from all walks of life attending to lecture officer cadets on their personal experiences and personal understandings of leadership.

In reading through an few articles I came across Maj Jennifer O’Connor’s article containing various forms of key leadership principles which to a large degree collaborate in an almost unparalleled level with Salovey and Mayers Emotional Intelligence. O’Connor suggests that there is an integral emotional understanding that one wants to serve, and to that end Serve to Lead has put the old fashioned conservative supremacy of officer leadership to rest. Instead, what O’Connor suggests is that Leaders abiding by the Serve to Lead mantra abide by the principle that their interest come last. “Servant Leaders shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible (Sendjaya et al, 2002).

New College Buildings – Photo via [CC BY 3.0 (]

In Conclusion

Ultimately, what could be said about Sandhurst and its teachings today is, in the 44 week course, an education on employing theoretical leadership, using a whole host of definitions and teachings , and putting it to practise to ensure that RMAS does not just fulfil the objective of ensuring that officer cadets can perform “satisfactorily under pressure”, as suggested by French, but moreover allows them to be well-fitted (rather than ill-fitted) “to deal with the unexpected calls which” are “going to be made on them on the battlefield”. And ensure that officer cadets have an enhanced understanding of leadership before they even have their desired regiments confirmed.

Today the Army Leadership Code maintains a more over-arching position over the Serve to Lead anthology of what the Army wishes to see specifically in its future leaders. Characteristics such as transformational (Inspirational) and transactional (directive) leadership, which considering the once again changing climate in what leadership demands, offers a more directed and straightforward representation of what the Army specifically wishes to see in its leaders. In other words , the Army Leadership Code is the updated version of the Army’s leadership doctrine. This doesn’t mean that the weight the Serve to Lead anthology carries is not significant. On the  contrary its significance is more vital today than ever before.

There is a lot more to talk about on this topic, however one must consider the limitations of an article. All being said this unmovable idea which could be seen to survive the rigours of time serves as the figurehead of an institution of leadership which has proven itself time and time again to produce the quality of soldier, and moreover , the quality of leader. Serve to Lead is ambiguous, one could certainly say your service is to lead , however those three words, an embodiment of military leadership in Britain, means a lot more and to discover that meaning is for one to study and develop an individual interpretation of the meaning.

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2 years ago

Shame they cut a load of places available at Sandhurst, but I suppose that reflects a smaller British army. I’m pretty sure we train far more at sandhurst in the sand than actual sandhurst lol, but hey Atleast we still train lots of foreign kings and princes and foreign leaders here. Oh And they are very generous and give pretty big and helpful donations to Sandhurst.

2 years ago
Reply to  Cam

Had a few officers from Sandhurst they really added to our highly trained troop of tankies,Sgt why will the men not salut me on the tank park and why is the tank so big?

Jim H
Jim H
2 years ago

Fantastic article! About to embark on Officer Training within the RAF and really interesting to see Leadership articles based around the military, where many of the ideas and fundamental ethics are the same!

Nicolas Taylor
Nicolas Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim H

Many thanks. It was an interesting one to look into. Hope all goes well with your course!

Mike Rennie
Mike Rennie
2 years ago

You mention CAL, but the reality is that the Officer Cadets have very little interaction with the Centre, whose focus tends to be the wider army. In fact the Academics working at the Academy within the recently renamed Faculty for Leadership, Security amd Warfare are the real guardians of the Serve to Lead ethos. For example all the psychological factors that you discuss…and more…are taught by the Department for Communication and Behavioural Science.

Steve Bruen
Steve Bruen
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Rennie

In 29 years service in the army, from Sapper to Major I met just Teo inspirational leaders who both became Maj Gen. That must make you question the ratio of officers that I came across. 25:1!