SQNLDR Jenna Higgins

Summer of 2019-20 was marked by unprecedented bushfires; the likes of which changed the Australian national psyche. California-based psychotherapist Diane Ross-Glazer, herself a bushfire survivor, attests that regardless of personal impact, the whole nation would grieve.[1] Not a couple of months later, the nation would again face an unprecedented threat. The impact of coronavirus has changed the way ordinary citizens exist forever more. It was, and indeed still is, the enemy that knows no bounds of nationality, ethnicity or gender.

As we approach the end of 2020, the nation will again prepare for ‘high-risk weather season’ and for the chance that another unprecedented event will occur. The Bureau of Meteorology has declared a ‘La Niña is officially underway’ - the last major La Niña events were in the summers of 2010-11 and 2011-12 and marked Australia's wettest two-year period on record.[2] Looking forward to 2021, as the region continues to grapple with the impact of coronavirus, tensions within the Indo-Pacific will also continue to be of concern. The Lowy Power Index provides quantitative data to support the notion that coronavirus has accelerated a rebalance of global power stating that ‘divergent national responses to COVID-19 have sharpened the contrasts — and narrowed the power differential — between the United States and China. Great power politics, as well as the virus itself, now threaten to undo the promise of a benign Asian century.[3] With the above events occurring in just one brief year, it is safe to suggest there will be no shortage of unprecedented events into the future.

The waves and ripples of these unprecedented events affect everyone, both military and civilian, to varying degrees and for a multitude of reasons. From the Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel who assisted in Operation Bushfire Assist or the COVID Task Force, to the the ADF personnel continuing to conduct multiple overseas operations and who resultantly undertake multiple quarantine stays. Or consider the ADF personnel whose family members are first line responders, whose family have been affected personally by fires, or who have been locked down for months on end in Victoria. All of these scenarios independently bring unique stressors, let alone in unison.

Suffice to say, when an ADF member leaves work for the day, or returns home from a deployment, the invasive nature of the past or future unprecedented events will remain at the forefront of their mind. Unprecedented events such as COVID 19 impact on personal wellbeing in a wealth of ways. Melbourne University suggests it is normal for people to ‘experience a wide range of thoughts, feelings or reactions’ including anxiety, worry, fear, helplessness, disconnection and trouble relaxing – just to name a few.[4]

The immensity of the impact from these events require ADF personnel - at all levels - to demonstrate leadership and compassion both within the workforce and their wider community. Anecdotally, leadership within a military context is marked by strength, presence and a commitment to achieve an objective. It has been defined as ‘a necessary process to ensure commitment to purpose and bolstering the will of others to continually pursue military objectives, even when unobserved. Without leadership, the will to fight is neither seeded nor nourished and therefore quickly wilts.[5] Implicit in military leadership, but rarely explicitly stated is the requirement to exhibit emotional intelligence (EI or EQ). In times of unprecedented upheaval, anxiety, stress, uncertainty and isolation, it is important that the benefits of emotional intelligence are impressed upon everyone.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined by author Daniel Goleman as ‘the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.[6] Leaders that can embrace EQ do not rely on a relationship of power, but rather put people at the centre of their decision calculus. Further, unlike traditional measures of IQ which reach a plateau early in life, EQ continues to build and ‘can be intentionally developed as you grow, making the skills beneficial to all people, regardless of age, knowledge or experience.[7]

The benefits of high EQ

The benefits of emotionally intelligent leadership are significant, and are amplified during unprecedented and continuous high stress environments. Lisa Lai, a Harvard Business Review author, advises that in uncertain times leaders must cultivate emotional steadiness.[8] To do this she suggests being proactive and ‘learning more’. ‘Learning more’ ensures leaders can feel in control within a situation, while also not focusing on raw emotion which can lead to unpredictable or system 1 thinking.[9] She goes on to recommend that leaders must also ‘acknowledge and navigate emotions’ so that they can be ‘intentional about the way [they] show up in the workplace’ suggesting that they should talk to a boss or peer if required. When a leader embraces emotionally steady behaviour, it supports team members who are then able to take positive cues. Remaining emotionally steady is not about putting up a façade to suggest immunity from internal and external stressors, but rather demonstrates how EQ can be of benefit to a stable and harmonious workplace. This reinforces her final point which is to communicate more. In order to demonstrate emotional steadiness, leaders should share their emotions and ‘acknowledge [the emotions] of [their] team in productive ways’. Emotionally intelligent leaders reinforce to team members that what they feel is okay.[10]

Assessing EQ for further development

Prior to enlisting, ADF Personnel are assessed on their technical aptitude and leadership style however, unlike the Australian Federal Police,[11] ADF personnel are not tested specifically for their EQ. Accordingly, it is imperative that Commanders and supervisors make a conscious effort to individually assess and develop personnel within their workplace to build this quality. Shaping the Professional Military Education continuum to include the academics of EQ is only part of the solution.[12] As a learnt skill, EQ needs to be regularly practised and requires constant feedback to be improved over time.

Developing EQ in the ADF

To establish a baseline, and further develop EQ within all members of the workforce, the ADF must create a culture of emotional intelligence. This starts with understanding the core components of EQ; self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness and social skills.[13] It is acknowledged that the first step of self-awareness is often the most difficult. A self-aware individual generally has the ability to understand and recognise their moods, emotions and what is driving those feelings. In practice, this also means they can recognise what effect their mood and behaviour has on other people. Margaret Andrews, a Harvard lecturer, stresses that ‘taking a moment to name your feelings and temper your reactivity is an integral step toward EI.[14] One of the most comprehensive methods of identifying self-awareness, especially for those that struggle in this area, is personality testing and 360 degree feedback. This type of support and testing should be encouraged for anyone taking on a leadership role, or for personnel required to interact with large cross-sections of the community, for example in ADF support to pandemic or natural disaster responses.

Once a strong baseline of self-awareness is set, coaching and mentoring within the unit to develop social awareness and social skills is desirable. Andrews suggests that the best way to develop EQ is to ‘ask for feedback’ and ‘read literature’. Reading widely can assist in understanding other people’s perspectives, and can help provide insights in ‘thoughts, motivations, and actions and may help enhance … social awareness.[15]

As ADF personnel continue to deal with the fall out of the barrage of unprecedented events, frustration and stress will endure across all facets of life. Personnel may have to deal with continual skills fade, being kept separated from family members, or deal with members of the public who are themselves stressed or isolated. In all cases, emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion will be prized. Emotionally intelligent leadership fosters teams of high EQ individuals with self-awareness resulting in more confident and creative decision makers, and individuals who can build strong relationships and communicate more effectively.[16] While having a high EQ has clear value for dealing with unprecedented events, the benefits are far reaching. In building an understanding of other perspectives’, high EQ can also provide untold value to the ADF’s quest to build greater strategic acumen, as well as understanding the drivers which underscore recruitment and retention. While assessing EQ prior to enlistment may not be on the cards immediately, there are a number of mechanisms which can support Commanders and supervisors to develop a culture of emotional intelligence.


1 Ducharme, J., 2020, As Bushfires Rage, Australia Faces Another Challenge: Protecting National Mental Health, Time ONLINE,

2 Doyle, K., 2020, BOM declares a La Niña, signalling wet spring and summer likely for northern, eastern Australia, ABC ONLINE,…

3 The Lowy Institute, 2020, Lowy Institute 2020 Asia Power Index Key Findings Report,…

4 University of Melbourne, 2020, Coronavirus (COVID-19): managing stress and anxiety,…

5 Department of Defence, 2007, Executive series - ADDP 00.6: Leadership, Page 2-5

6 Goleman, D., 2006, Emotional Intelligence, Random House USA Inc, US.

7 Mainiero, C., 2016, Your technical skills are good, but how's your emotional intelligence?, Picatinny Arsenal Public Affairs, available at:…

8 Lai, L. 2019, Strategic thinking: Managing when the future is unclear, Harvard Business Review, dated 09 Jan 2019.

9 A reference to book: Kahneman d. (2011), Thinking fast and slow, which asserts that System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control, while the alternative, System 2, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

10 Lai, L. 2019, Strategic thinking: Managing when the future is unclear, Harvard Business Review, dated 09 Jan 2019.

11 Institute of Psychometric Coaching, unk, Preparing for Australian Federal Police (AFP) Reasoning & Emotional Intelligence Tests,…

12 Daley, L.,2020, Kill them with kindness - Emotional intelligence as a leadership enabler…

13 Andrews, M., 2019, How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence, Harvard Professional Development,…

14 ibid

15 ibid

16 ibid