By Brigadier (Retd) Nicholas Jans, OAM, PhD
This article appeared in the January-February 2019 issue of ADBR
Well-honed skills for challenging circumstances
Intelligent, physically superior, adaptable, imaginative and brave, easy to lead but difficult to drive, the Australian soldier was proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build collective discipline.
– General Sir John Monash, Australian commander in WW1.
One of the Australian Army’s greatest advantages is the expectation that soldiers will question their leaders’ decisions and make appropriate suggestions when they think it is warranted.
– Major General (Ret’d)/Senator Jim Molan.
This article, the second of three drawn from my recent book Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army, outlines some of the defining practices of the Army’s distinctive leadership practices.
Military leadership is perceived by many civilians as top-down and directive, ie ‘command and control’, but the reality is very different. Military units are routinely required to deal with risk and uncertainty, in situations where leadership – the process of focusing team energy and lifting performance beyond expectations – is essential to good results. So our military spends a lot of time thinking about leadership and developing the skills of its practitioners at all levels and career stages.
Australian military leaders practise a values-based style that is both authoritative and inclusive.
Authoritative leaders earn trust by their professionalism and problem-solving ability. They are expert in the things that matter to a team: role models for their particular functions. Whatever the challenges, they can consistently deliver. What they say and do invariably makes sense, and others learn to trust their judgement and their motives.
‘Authoritative’ doesn’t mean ‘authoritarian’. Authoritarian leaders – what we might call ‘taskmasters’ – run things by edict and close control. In contrast, authoritative leaders often draw the team into the process, delegating whenever possible. Far from weakening their authority, this invariably strengthens the bonds between them and their followers.
The typical style is to lead by example, consistent with the institutional values of courage, initiative, respect and teamwork. This demands that leaders set high standards that, explicitly and implicitly, tend to draw out similar levels of commitment from others. They can drive others hard because they drive themselves hard, rarely asking others to take on challenges that they themselves are not prepared to face, and frequently getting out and about when conditions are tough, pitching in with routine tasks and sweating it with the troops.
This has been commonplace in the Australian military for more than a century. As Australia geared up for the Boer War and World War I, it found itself recruiting from a population with distinctively different perspectives on social authority than prevailed in the British Isles.
To their credit, the leaders of that era accepted this reality and, by fusing post-colonial cultural values such as egalitarianism and initiative with the imperatives of warfighting, they helped to develop a distinctively ‘Australian’ style of leadership – a style that became a priceless asset in battlefield capability and resilience.
Now, fine-tuned by each successive generation, this is embedded as a way of both practising and thinking about leadership that ticks all the boxes that define contemporary best practice.
This style is embodied in what a recent Australian leadership study dubbed the ‘Captain-Coach’, reflecting an Australian archetype – the ‘first-among-equals’ community expert who routinely contributes beyond normal expectations to help others to lift their individual and team performance. And, not surprisingly, it’s how most Australians prefer to be led.
The Captain-Coach mode of leadership taps into the full set of human needs: the sense of security of being led by someone with competence and confidence; the satisfaction of social connection with that leader and with others in the group and with the larger entity to which that group belongs; the self-confidence and self-esteem that stems from being treated as a respected colleague by a trusted leader; and the self-actualisation and growth that comes from doing good work in good company.
And by doing so, it consistently delivers a ‘1+1+1 = 4’ effect.
Insight into the leader-follower process has recently been enhanced by the application of neuroscience. For example, a number of studies have shown that the kind of leadership described above triggers the release of neurochemicals such as oxytocin (the ‘bonding molecule’), serotonin (‘confidence’) and adrenaline (‘energy’). Their stimulating effects on brain functioning and mood amplify the conscious/rational reactions to being well led, thus making what ‘makes sense’ also what ‘feels good’.
This double reinforcement is often felt by leaders themselves. As they see evidence of improved followership, they will often experience the same kinds of neurological stimuli, thus making it more likely that they will continue on that path.
And this flags an important point. Leaders who are better at analysing their own behaviour and influence are likely to go from strength to strength. Conversely, those who can’t or won’t self-analyse will be less likely and less able to see what’s working and what’s not – to their detriment as well as to that of the team.
A team effort
The second major factor that underpins the strength of our military’s leadership is its approach to teamwork.
Again, the stereotype of military teams is of rigid hierarchy in which every member knows his/her place. But again, the reality is quite different. Military units are organised in ways that get the best from the total team, with supporting networks for virtually every leadership position.
For example, an infantry company comprises three platoons, each commanded by a junior officer supported by a platoon sergeant and the three corporals who head up the component sections. In turn, the company commander is assisted by a 2IC and a company sergeant major. While command is officially exercised by the various officers, their capacity to do so is significantly facilitated by those supporting networks.
This inclusive mode of leadership is reflected in an equivalent approach to organisational leadership. At every level things are run on a ‘teams-of-teams’ basis, with small teams operating as the building blocks of larger configurations. Such arrangements mean the focus for action and decision-making can vary according to circumstances, with the precise configuration determined by the task and situation.
Adaptability at every level is facilitated by a doctrine known as ‘mission command’ which requires leaders at all levels to empower subordinate leaders by providing them with the autonomy and information they need to tackle specific objectives semi-autonomously within an overall plan. Those subordinate leaders are then left to get on with their part of the operation, keeping the central leader informed on progress and issues as necessary.
This ‘teams-of-teams’ form has a host of advantages. As a channel for leadership, it taps the collective resources within the network, provides multiple channels of information for decision-making, and frees up leaders at each level to focus on and manage local relationships and emerging opportunities and threats. As a means of coordination, it keeps the important decision-making points close to where they will be enacted, and helps to readily shift focus when circumstances change. And as a way of building human capital, it helps to develop strong teamwork and followership, and – very much not least – broadens the leadership capabilities of all those within the network.
Good leaders go to a lot of effort to build a strong sense of team identity and esprit de corps. This helps those in their teams to readily go the extra yard for their comrades and to stick to the task when conditions are tough or dangerous.
Developing leadership capability
Good leaders connect with their followers’ hearts as well as with their heads. Working for them is often a deeply satisfying and personally enhancing experience.
There’s still a lot spoken about ‘natural leadership’, but the closer you get to it the more you realise that it is essentially a mirage. Good leadership invariably stems from hard work and ways of thinking that depend on character and values as well as experience and understanding.
The third and final instalment on this topic will describe how our military tackles leadership development.