On 23 August 2005, I signed my life away on the dotted line and joined the Australian Defence Force, swearing an oath to serve Queen and Country. I spent the next five and a half years in a ground defence role with the Royal Australian Air Force before discharging from full time service to study psychology.
For me leadership has always been a passion, and my years in the military have provided me the opportunity to acquire a perspective on the subject unique to those who have worn a camouflage uniform. I often joke that I learnt a lot about leadership from my time in the ADF and 90% of it was what not to do.
In truth, the stresses of the battlefield, whether in simulation or on real-time operations, bring out the best and worst in leaders. I had the opportunity to learn much from the leadership I observed from other commanders and from my own experience as a Section Commander. Below are just a few of these insights.
Morale is a fickle beast. The morale of a combat unit is crucial to its performance. High morale drives dedication to training, that maintenance of high standards, the mental resilience of troops and the willingness to follow orders and maintain discipline. While hard won over extended periods, so often it can be lost in a second.
If you dangle a carrot, follow through. One of the biggest, and unfortunately most common, morale killers I experienced was commanders offering an incentive, but failing to follow through. One example was the, “If you work through lunch, we’ll all get an EKO (early knock off).” So often would you work through lunch only to leave base at the usual time, or even later – sans lunch. It actually happened so often, as soon as we heard it, we laughed and turned straight for the mess.
Look after your people. When I was on deployment in Baghdad, I had a commander who ordered two junior NCOs to do a triple shift – all because they lit up a cigarette in the wrong spot. The result was that after 18hrs on duty, I felt more scared of them handling weapons with live rounds than I was of the rockets coming in overhead. Not only was it dangerous but this commander lost all respect from his troops. Thankfully he was reported, sent home and charged for bastardisation.
Listen to the crusty sergeant. One of the best junior officers I had was fresh out of Duntroon, with no experience other than his training. This young commander, while able and willing to take the lead, acknowledged the experience of his sergeant, who had over sixteen years of service. He was willing to listen to why his ideas wouldn’t work, learn how reality differed from military theory and demonstrate an excellent working relationship with his more experienced subordinate. Not only did he go on to be an excellent officer, he also won and maintained the respect of his men.
Do PT with the boys. This was the quickest way to earn the respect of the troops. Most officers were ‘too busy’ to participate in the daily physical training sessions. However there were a few who not only regularly participated, but sought to be amongst the hardest worker and highest performers. By doing so, they demonstrated that they valued the training that was required and that they were willing to live by the same standards they expected of their men. More importantly, they demonstrated that they were part of the team, not just someone separate who called the shots. I look back through the lens of psychology’s social identity theory and realise just how important this was.
Trust is invaluable. In a combat situation trust in your leader is everything. As a young 20 year old, my unit was conducting a live fire exercise where the trace rounds we were using lit a bushfire. At one point, our target area was surrounded on three sides by a thin line of fire and a decision had to be made on whether we continue our training. Maybe it was too much testosterone and the foolishness of youth, but I distinctly remember thinking, “I trust my Section Commander. If he makes the call I’m willing to fight through the fire.” Thankfully common sense prevailed and the practice was called of. Such was the trust in my leader however, at his command I would have literally run head first into the flames.
These are just a few of my reflections on my time in the military, however I believe there are some important lessons applicable for all leaders, regardless of role or industry.
How do each of these lessons apply to your leadership today?