This week, we will graduate over 230 new military officers from our Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. These magnificent young people, from Australia and seven other nations, will now head off into the next stage of their lives and their military careers. For some, this is a time of great excitement and anticipation. For others, it will be a period of some trepidation.
Regardless, they are all moving into a military profession at a time of significant geopolitical, societal and technological disruption. The ground is literally moving under our feet. Although this is not the first time we have seen such large changes in the environment, those charged with leading our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women face a more demanding future strategic and operational environment than we have seen in recent decades. Against this context, I thought it prudent to offer these new leaders some final advice as they contemplate their graduation this week:
On 13 December, you will march off the Academy parade ground for the final time. It has been a long and demanding journey to get to this point. You were recruited at the beginning because we believed you possessed the character and intellect to lead our military people. Over the last three years, you have overcome the many intellectual and physical challenges to prove yourself worthy of this responsibility. So, as you move off to your many and disparate duty stations, I would offer some final words of counsel.
First, as a leader you must provide meaning and ‘the why’ for every situation. Providing the "why" is a central responsibility for leaders; purpose or rationale is more important than the "what." Leaders inspire through giving their people this meaning. As a leader, continually ask yourself: Why we trying to achieve this? And you need to be able to articulate the answer clearly and concisely. If you can’t answer it, how can you explain it to your subordinates? This requires personal understanding and effort.
This also requires a deep understanding of the military profession and culture of the nation and organisation that you serve. It is about knowing, understanding and living the values that go hand in hand with service in the profession of arms. Understanding the ethics of our profession as well as the nuts and bolts of day to day leadership is an integral part of providing meaning. It is important at home and during exercises, but vital when under pressure on operations and has tactical as well as strategic ramifications.
Second, embrace variety of views and be a listener. Key to leaders embracing variety is the capacity to listen. My observation is that military officers—especially men—are really bad at this. My generation, graduates of the late 1980s, were not well prepared for this in our officer training continuum. But it is fundamental to good leadership and a non-discretionary skill when dealing with the great young Generation Y (and soon Generation Z) service personnel that are the majority in the military. As a guide, use your ears to mouth at a ratio of ten to one. You cannot do your job as a leader and add value to your team without listening to the expertise of others.
Third, be curious. You need to find time to reflect and think. Steal time to read every day and every night. It will assist to build your knowledge and help you keep pace with changes in the world around you. Read broadly and critically, and not just books and journal articles; embrace social media and blogs. Doing so will underpin your continuous learning and demonstrate just how much our world and our profession is changing (and how rapidly). It will also expose you to a broad variety of ideas that will be essential to your ongoing development as a leader.
Learn also to write critically, using plain English. Learn to write without acronyms or pointless military jargon – acronyms and jargon are tools for the lazy, and they exclude and unnecessarily confuse those outside our organisation. Writing will also help to hone your ability to research, undertake critical thinking, and to improve your communication skills. Excellence in these areas are the hallmarks of good leaders. Finally, writing will also contribute to developing your capacity to explain purpose to subordinates in a clear and succinct fashion—this is not a common skill!
Fourth, lead education and change. We are members of a profession. It is an institutional imperative to build and nurture what Richard Meinhart recently called a committed learning environment. Leaders must play their part in this and lead ongoing education about the military profession. It demands a climate where good ideas are nurtured, embraced and acted upon—and where leaders are not afraid to be interrogated by their subordinates on ideas. This leadership includes encouraging professional debate and contribution to journals and online blogs. It leads to intellectual discipline; building intellectual discipline underpins battle discipline.
Fifth, be a mentor, and be mentored. Leading education and change also implies the responsibility to mentor your subordinates. Your mentoring of junior leaders not only builds organizational cohesion, it ensures your subordinates can step into your shoes when required. It is also the best way to pay back a military institution that has invested so much in you – and will continue to do so over the next few years or decades. On the other hand, seek out good mentors for yourself. Command can be lonely, but it does not have to be. None of us can navigate the various obstacles and challenges of our profession alone. Find seniors and peers who you can trust and ask for advice. You will find they have probably faced similar problems to you in the past.
Finally, be humble. General Dwight Eisenhower once wrote that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for subordinates and likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs. Humility requires careful balancing however. Too much, and you will lack the self-confidence necessary for military leadership. Too little, and you will fail to learn the key lessons of leadership and the military profession. You must find your own pathway here. But let me assure you, humility ensures that your mind remains open to new ideas and to continuous learning throughout your career. It will allow you to build more enduring relationships with your subordinates, peers and superiors. And, it is a good way to live.
Williamson Murray has written that the military is not only the most physically demanding of all the professions, but also the most demanding intellectually and morally. The cost of slovenly thinking at every level of war can translate into the deaths of innumerable men and women, most of whom deserve better from their leaders. I urge you to contemplate this statement regularly. You must exercise and hone your mind as much, if not more, than your body. I can assure you that at some point in the future, your life or that of your subordinates will depend on how much you have invested in your personal intellectual edge.
So, you will face many perils in the future that will test your intellect, character and values. That is normal and part of how we learn as military leaders and human beings. Your time here at the Academy has provided an excellent foundation for you to overcome these perils.
You now join a long and very distinguished line of Australian Defence Force Academy graduates. You are now a full, paid up member of the great profession of arms. It is a profession with deep traditions, great costs, amazing opportunities and very high expectations of its members.
So good luck. And congratulations on your graduation. Enjoy the next week. And then turn with equal dedication and energy to the next stage of your career. It starts the moment you step off the parade ground.
Mick Ryan, AM
Commander, Australian Defence College