One reason I joined the Army was that I saw it as an organisation that was committed to developing the leadership of its people. I wanted a piece of that – both to develop as a leader, and to contribute to the leadership development of others. Army is willing and eager to learn and adapt from the best leadership studies and practices in business and other spheres. I observe that in the work of RMC-A’s Centre for Australian Army Leadership (CAAL) and the changing model of leadership of the Australian Army Leadership Programme (AALP). But I have also seen that Army leadership has principles and frameworks that other spheres can learn from.
Brigadier Nicholas Jans (Ret’d) OAM draws on his experience as an Artillery Officer and Reservist, his observations of military leaders and a research project for this book. Many of his stories are of Army team and leaders. For example, one of the operational officers quoted is ‘Major Echo’ who deployed to the Middle East to lead a movement control agency. Her team was busy and dispersed but she asked them to email her the top three issues keeping them up at night. Based on that she developed a blueprint with her operations officer, soon phoned the team to discuss the implications and made frequent visits. Her philosophy of leadership was to: ‘Get in touch with those involved, tap their expertise, show them that their opinions and their actions matter, and keep their focus on the big picture’ (p.84).
The author also examines how ex-Army officers drew on their training for exercising leadership in business, political, legal and other spheres. For example, Jeff Kennett, former ex-national serviceman and ex-Premier, describes what he learned from Army service including communication principles and the importance of outstanding leadership and management. He said a manager ‘keeps things ticking along’ while a leader takes teams in new directions (p.33). Military leaders have to function at their best with limited resources in an often ‘VUCA’ environment – a context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In other words they ‘must perform at their best on their very worst day’ (p.136). This is why they then have much to offer in other contexts too.
The leadership ethos at the core of Army culture, Jans argues, can be explained by the ’3 Rs of leadership’:
- Representing – being a role model who earns trust with character the team can believe in
- Relating – being a supportive manager who builds self-belief and team spirit
- Running the team – being an engaging catalyst who is satisfying as well as productive to work with.
Jans identifies some of the distinctive Australian cultural elements of fair-dinkum leadership, egalitarianism, no-BS culture and the independent-mindedness that allows a tendency to question orders and make their own bottom-up suggestions.
He explains and shows how some of Army’s leadership tools or ‘secrets’ work in military and other settings:
- Military appreciation process (MAP), including allowing sufficient time initially to decide the goal
- Mission Command principle of delegation to the lowest possible level with the freedom and resources to tackle objectives toward an overall plan
- Back-briefing where a subordinate communicates back what is expected and what is happening
- Seeking 360-degree performance feedback
- After-Activity Review (AAR) to foster reflective practice
- Communication protocol of SMEAC (outlining the Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Logistics, and Command and Communications).
I also appreciated reading some of the practices that Officers said they use, including:
- Identifying something of basic soldiering to be good at and doing it with your diggers
- Telling Lieutenants that if they don’t make mistakes they aren’t trying enough
- Being on time and dressing well
- Prioritising relationships in networks, including not emailing when you can call, and not calling when you can meet
- Keeping a ‘GOYA’ sign in your office to remind leaders to ‘Get Off Your Arse’ and spend time with soldiers in their workplace, barracks and field activities.
A key model for Army leaders is servant leadership, whereby the focus is more on supporting others than satisfying one’s own needs. This is why an Army practice for officers is that they eat last. The language leaders adopt is to focus on ‘we and us’ over ‘I and you’. The priority becomes ‘Mission-team-me’. One officer explained they focused their first and best energy on the people in their teams, including seeking to do most of their own administrative paperwork after hours because ‘My work time belongs to my people’ (p.49). Leaders also need to model a balanced approach to work and recreation and not suggest that everyone has to ‘overclock’ to perform satisfactorily, but that posture of giving priority to empowering and resourcing team members is commendable.
Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army is a valuable introduction to Army leadership for those who are new to Army, but also for anyone outside interested in learning from Army. It would also be interesting for those with Army experience as they prepare for a career outside in order to reflect on some of the substantial assets they bring from their Army service.
Darren Cronshaw is a Chaplain in the Australian Army (part-time), Pastor of AuburnLife Baptist Church, and Research Coordinator and Professor of Missional Leadership for Australian College of Ministries (Sydney College of Divinity) and Stirling College (University of Divinity).
A version of this review was originally published in Grounded Curiosity, August 12, 2021. The publisher details of the book are: Brigadier Nicholas Jans (Ret’d) OAM, Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018). ISBN 9781760631802, xviii+188pp
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.