Ant Middleton Is The UK Special Forces Veteran Who Has Applied The SAS Mindset To Climbing Everest And Being Adrift In The Atlantic

Training with the Paras, Royal Marines and Special Boat Service did more than just teach Ant Middleton to face down his fears as a sniper and point-man – it taught him how to take charge in the most stressful situations. But, as he exclusively reveals to RSNG, you can’t be a leader if you can’t cultivate ‘followship’…

Leadership Starts With You ‘You have to get your own house in order before you can expect to lead. If you can’t take charge of your own life, how can you expect to lead other people? It starts with the individual. When I first left home in France to join the British military, I was taking charge of my own life, wanting to do things by myself – but it still took time before I was ready to really lead other people. Being a team player can be harder than being a leader – it’s about being good at what I call “followship”. It’s not about being dedicated to the mission – you should be dedicated to each other. If you’ve got that, and you’re experienced in what you do, then you can always step up.’

Be Brutally Honest ‘In my first tour of Afghanistan I was 2 IC, the leader of a four-man group that was part of a bigger squad. Unfortunately, my commander’s wife had a serious injury back at home, so I had to step up, which was like putting on dive boots and jumping in at the deep end. I remember sitting down with the whole team and going “Look, this isn’t ideal but it’s happened,” and the moment I opened up, they were honest with me and I was honest with them. The respect was there immediately.’

‘Similarly, I remember the second patrol I went out on in the Helmand Province – I got lost. At one point I got down on one knee and went “gather round lads…listen, I’m lost.” We sorted it out, and I got stick for a couple of days, but if I’d sucked it up and gone “Oh, I have to sort this out myself,” someone might have got killed in a firefight when we’d wandered into the wrong place. Being honest, mistakes and problems get resolved faster.’

You have to be able to psychologically disconnect yourself from the crowd’s at a moment’s notice

Don’t Follow The Crowd ‘One day in Afghanistan, I was on patrol when I saw a flatbed truck with a massive gun on the back of it,’ says Middleton. It was a 120mm anti-aircraft weapon, a hugely valuable asset to the enemy – and Middleton and his senior officer immediately made the decision to secure it. ‘Before we knew it, we were sprinting towards it,’ he says. ‘Soon we were chasing the men in the truck towards a cornfield, where it would be incredibly dangerous, with almost no field of vision. I ended up shouting at my officer to stay with the gun as I ran in. I remember thinking ‘What the fuck am I doing in here?’ but it was an automatic reaction. You have to be able to psychologically disconnect yourself from what the crowd’s doing at a moment’s notice.’

You Don’t Need To Be A Leader To Lead When Middleton’s section commander was finally replaced in Afghanistan, the new troop sergeant was what’s known as a ‘Lympsonite’ – someone who’d spent most of his service training recruits in the UK. Several Marines wanted to fight back against his new initiatives, but Middleton counselled against it. ‘Very often in life, you’ll end up in a situation where the person officially in charge isn’t doing the best job. If you decide to take matters into your own hands, you need to be smart about it – you need to win that leader’s trust and discover what they want. As long as they think they’re getting it, you’re free to steer the ship.’

‘What the new commander wanted, Middleton realised, was respect: and by showing enough of it, the team were able to shift his focus from grooming standards and parades to patrols and more important matters.’

I’ll stand and face myself in the mirror most mornings, and tear into myself

Earn Respect – Don’t Demand It… Since leaving the military, Middleton has climbed Everest and acted as captain during a televised recreation of the Mutiny On The Bounty, taking charge of navigating an undersized boat through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. For each new challenge, he starts from the ground up. ‘It doesn’t matter that I’m ex-Special Forces – you never demand respect, you have to earn it with your actions.’

…And Always Be Able To Look Yourself In The Mirror ‘I’ll stand and face myself in the mirror most mornings, and tear into myself.’ says Middleton. ‘I might be telling myself “You’re being a moody bastard today,” or “You haven’t been giving it enough in the gym.” By facing up to those issues I’m able to focus on them and deal with them, but I’m also ready for those accusations to come from anyone else – I can just go “Yep, I understand that, I’m working on it.” It keeps me together, centred, and ready for the task at hand.”

WHAT NEXT? Get more insights into leadership at the sharp end by reading Ant Middleton’s book First Man In: Leading From The Front