Andrew Garnett

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) traditionally values Warrant Officers (WO) as specialists in their tradecraft.  They are expected to wield ‘expert power’ to advise Commanders and ‘influence others because of their competency in a particular field or area’.[1]  As WO progress through the ‘Tier structure’[2] they are enrolled on generalist education courses which are intended to lift personnel out of their specialist modes of thinking to support ‘national objectives in joint, inter-agency, inter-governmental and multinational environments’.[3]  Is there a danger that the provision of generalist education on joint professional military education courses dilutes the specialist skills of the WO workforce?

The generalist-versus-specialist debate is not new in the ADF, with records of the Australian 1st Division in 1918 citing concerns that the ‘growth of specialist advisers was threatening the traditional dominance of the generalist officer’.[4]  The commander of the British General Headquarters at the time, General Haigh, believed that traditional authority and responsibility of tactical level commanders was ‘being undermined, as generalists were forced to delegate authority to specialists’.[5]  General Haigh’s solution was to give further education to the generalists so that they could perform the specialist functions themselves.[6]  More recently though, a 2013 study of ADF strategic leadership, entitled ‘The Chiefs,’ made a key recommendation that Service Chiefs ensure that they are supported by ‘professional generalists and staff specialists, through relevant PME programs’.[7]  Whilst the 2013 study was targeted at officers, it is now recognised across the ADF that WO are important advisers to senior commanders, so it is important to explore what role they fill in the command team.

This paper argues that providing generalist education to augment Warrant Officer specialist skills delivers ‘Generative Specialists’ who improve the effectiveness of decision making in senior ADF command teams.  It will explore how higher levels of Joint PME for ADF WO provide strategic understanding, creating durable mental models and robust information discrimination to ensure accurate and timely information is provided to commanders to better inform their decisions.

Joint Professional Military Education (JPME)        

The Australian JPME Continuum provides a framework to ‘develop mastery in the profession of arms for all Australian Defence personnel’.[8]  Strategic-level postgraduate courses at the Australian Defence College provide students with ‘diverse viewpoints from a broad range of sources’[9] in line with the continuum.  Currently, the ADF restricts strategic education opportunities for WO to the Joint WO Course and offers only extremely limited positions on Australian Strategic Policy Institute courses and the Australian Command and Staff Course.  The second edition of the JPME continuum will clarify requirements for ADF senior WO by specifically including them at the higher learning levels for enterprise and national strategic education alongside senior officers at the O5 to O10 (Service Chief) levels. [10]  This update infers that WO may soon be placed on courses at the national security environment tier, such as the Defence Strategic Studies Course or even the Operations Based on Operational Experience course, to ‘support Australia’s Grand Strategy’.[11]  It is proposed that the purpose of this education is not to turn WO into generalist officers, but to refocus their specialist skills through a strategic lens.

Leadership author Simon Sinek, in his 2019 book The Infinite Game, compares the relationship between a Senior Commander and their Warrant Officer to that of a CEO and the Chief Operating Officer in a major corporation.[12]  The CEO looks ‘Up and Out’ whilst the COO looks ‘Down and In, with due regard to the Up and Out’.  The Commander and their WO have vastly different lived experiences, and neither is capable of, nor wants, the job of the other.  They support each other with complementary skills and knowledge and challenge each other with diversity of thought.

Recently, an Australian Air Force 2-star officer described their WO as a ‘peer and one of the few people they can have a truly robust discussion with’.[13]  An Army 2-star, likewise, described his WO as a ‘peer who has the same emotional and professional investment in the formation as himself’.  This commander also went on to say that he expects his senior WO to be an expert in discipline matters, an expert trainer and an expert in Soldier/Sailor/Airmen management[14].  In this respect, commanders and their WO are complementary leaders who are ‘two sides of the same coin; officers lead force guidance and direction while enlisted lead decision advisement and mission execution’.[15]  Consequently, senior WO are in the unique position where they are expected to span the generalist/specialist divide by performing at the strategic level whilst retaining specialist skills.  David Schmidtchen–in his dissertation on a networked force–proposed that a military member who couples specialisation of function with generalisation of capability is a ‘Generative Specialist’.[16]  Perhaps this is an apt descriptor of what the ADF is seeking to develop in the senior WO cadre through generalist JPME courses.

Generative Specialists

Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term ‘generative’ in 1950 to describe a later stage of psycho-social development where a person develops ‘a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation’[17] and a sense of ‘nurturing things that will outlast ourselves’.[18]  This may very well describe the virtues of senior WO, but it is also proposed that as ‘Generative Specialists’ they use accumulated experience and strategic understanding to help commanders make better decisions in volatile situations.  Generative Specialists have an aptitude for seeing connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information and a desire to connect the ‘information dots’ to increase capability.[19]  Many years of experience and exposure allow WO to have mental models of how ‘tasks are supposed to be performed, teams are supposed to coordinate, and equipment is supposed to function’.[20]

Studies into decision making have shown that experts use pattern matching to notice violations of expectancies (anomalies) and use situational awareness to look for opportunities and improvisations.[21]  They also innately recognise their own limitations and use metacognition (thinking about thinking) to appreciate when they start to lose the big picture and include more robust strategies to overcome their shortcomings.[22]  An experienced WO intuitively uses pattern matching to understand when a situation doesn’t meet their mental models and they can inform their commander when a situation ‘doesn’t feel right’ even if they cannot immediately verbalise why they feel this is the case.

Senior commanders look at the overall strategic situation and may be called upon to make critical, time-sensitive decisions which rely on multiple sources of information from all their staff.  A senior WO who appreciates the strategic situation–through higher level JPME–can run mental simulations to assess the current situation against the patterns and relationships of past events to detect leverage points and suggest adjustments, to seize opportunities as they arise.[23]  Expertise gained through broad experience over a long period of time allows for ‘information discrimination’ where not all data is taken on face value and predictions that are inconsistent with current data can be generated to test for alternate futures.[24]  When pressing problems are broad, complex and rapidly changing, combining different kinds of expertise often forces individual decision-makers to think and move across specialisations.[25]  WO use their specialist knowledge and leverage broad networks of deep specialists to provide additional information to the commander when required.  It is vitally important at this stage for a WO to use their generalist education to be discriminatory in the information that is supplied to the commander to ensure they are not inundated with superfluous information during time-sensitive situations.

Even during non-time-critical situations, WO are a key information conduit between officers and enlisted.  It has been suggested that a key role for WO is to ‘push the why down and feed the how upwards’[26] (emphasis added).  Once a commander has set the direction, then the WO must make sure that everyone has full ownership of that directive by ‘making the complex simple and the simple compelling’ (the why).  Best results will be achieved if members are given freedom of action, using diversity of thought and unity of direction (mission command).  It is also recognised that mission command needs a feedback loop, so it is important for the WO to be honest with commanders about how the directive is being received, how the workforce is affected and how the directive may need to evolve.  Sometimes, feeding the how upwards requires ‘robust discussion’ between the commander and their WO, but the commander is the decision maker, and as ‘two sides of the leadership coin’, they must always have a united front in public even with diverse opinions in private.


This essay set out to explore whether increased access to JPME will change the roles and effectiveness of ADF WO; and whether they will evolve from Specialist to Generalist.  It argued that including WO in JPME, alongside senior officers, builds on their extensive experience to develop them into ‘Generative Specialists’ who bring an additional positive dimension to command teams.  Experts and studies assess that generative specialists have well-developed mental models that allow them to connect disparate pieces of information and use pattern matching to identify anomalies and look for opportunities to improvise.  Senior WO who participate in higher JPME levels will refocus their specialist skills through a strategic lens so that they can better discriminate information flows up to the commander and down to the workforce, through a common understanding of the overall intent.  It is only through JPME that a WO can fully appreciate what information is important to the commander, and it is crucial to recognise that the commander relies on the WO to use specialist expertise that can only be gained through many years of exposure and experience across the organisation.  Senior WO are in the position where they are expected to interpret and contribute to the strategic conversation whilst retaining specialist skills.  This places them a unique position for informed decision advisement for their commander to assist them in their strategic decision making.

Author Biography

Andrew Garnett is a Warrant Officer with 34 years’ experience in the Royal Australian Air Force.  He currently works in the Joint PME directorate at the Australian Defence College, facilitating the ADF Joint WO Course and mapping education pathways for enlisted members in alignment with the ADF JPME continuum..


Australian Defence Doctrine Publication - 0.06; Leadership. Ed. 2, (2018). Joint Doctrine Directorate.

The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum. (2019). Australian Defence College, Commonwealth of Australia.

Jans. N. (2013). The Chiefs: A Study of Strategic Leadership. Australian Defence College; Commonwealth of Australia.

Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology press.

McClary, R, T. (2019). Aligning Air Force Leadership Roles: The limitations of enlisted empowerment. Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2019.

McLeod, S. (2018). Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development. Simply Psychology, accessed 24 Nov 20.

Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private – Technology, control and change in a network-enabled military. Commonwealth of Australia.

Sinek, S. (2019). The Infinite Game. Penguin Books, New York.

Slater, C. L. (2003). Generativity Versus Stagnation: An Elaboration of Erikson's Adult Stage of Human Development. Journal of Adult Development, 10(1), 53-65.

[1] Australian Defence Doctrine Publication - 0.06; Leadership. Ed. 2, 2018. Joint Doctrine Directorate. p 1-4.

[2] Most WO are employed as Tier E9/A, but selected WO progress into senior command roles and are employed at E9/B (Wing/Company/Ship HQ); E9/C (Force Element HQ) or E10 (Service WO) positions.

[3] The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum. Australian Defence College, Commonwealth of Australia. p.23.

[4] LTCOL Robert Stevenson (2006) as cited in Schmidtchen, D. (2006).

[5] Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private – Technology, control and change in a network-enabled military. Commonwealth of Australia. p.123.

[6] Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private.

[7]  Jans. N. (2013). The Chiefs: A Study of Strategic Leadership. Australian Defence College; Commonwealth of Australia. p. 113.

[8] The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum. p.1.

[9] Australian Command and Staff Course, course outline. ADC War College intranet site.

[10] Due for release in early 2021.

[11] Operations Based on Operational Experience Course, Australian War College intranet page.

[12] Sinek, S. (2019). The Infinite Game. Penguin Books, New York

[13] Air Commander Australia, presenting on the 2020 Australian Joint Warrant Officers course.

[14] Special Operations Commander, presenting on the 2020 Australian Joint Warrant Officers course.

[15]  McClary, R, T. (2019). Aligning Air Force Leadership Roles: The limitations of enlisted empowerment. Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2019. p.28.

[16] Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private. p. 127

[17] Slater, C. L. (2003). Generativity Versus Stagnation: An Elaboration of Erikson's Adult Stage of Human Development. Journal of Adult Development, 10(1), 53-65.

[18] McLeod, S. (2018). Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development. Simply Psychology, accessed 24 Nov 20.

[19] Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private. p.127.  

[20] Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology press. p.152.

[21] Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power. p.148-149.

[22] Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power. p.158.

[23] Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power. p.152.

[24] Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power. p.156.

[25] Schmidtchen, D. (2006). The Rise of the Strategic Private. p.130.

[26] Suggested by a senior ADF officer addressing the 2020 Joint WO Course.