Scharnhorst and Professional Mastery

SQNLDR Agam Sheldon

To me, being 'professional' has meant striving for excellence at my everyday job. Until I attended Command and Staff Course at the Australian War College last year, I did not appreciate that being good at my job was not the same as being a military professional. The course broadened my understanding; being a professional requires one to embrace continual learning in all aspects of the profession. I became conscious that through professional mastery, individuals, even those in junior roles, can influence organisational outcomes beyond their job.

Professional mastery relies on an individual’s continual commitment to challenge the status quo. Going into the course, I was expecting to be given transactional skills to enhance my job performance. Initially, it was frustrating not seeing how writing academic essays about philosophical topics was going to help me do that. Gradually, I enjoyed being challenged to think critically and strategically such that it enhanced my ability to look beyond the obvious. This experience gave me a fresh perspective that the course was not an end in itself but instead a means to instil a desire to invest in continuous professional education.

As a continuation of professional education from the War College, I was given a book: The Enlightened Soldier by Charles Edward White. The book is about a prominent military reformer from the 1700s, Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst. Known as the architect of the Prussian German general staff system, he led a reorganisation of the Prussian military higher command and military education system. He amalgamated individual intellect, or enlightenment, with structural reforms that resulted in the Prussian army's remarkable recovery from its catastrophic defeat just six years earlier. The book reinforced my views on professional mastery and helped me see its application in achieving practical outcomes.

A quote from Immanuel Kant in the first chapter of the book particularly captured me. Kant describes enlightenment as 'man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage'. While harsh, Kant rightly asserts that the majority of us suffer from self-imposed constraints on developing professional mastery by refusing to use our own mind 'without guidance from another'. In other words, a genuine desire to be enlightened is required to achieve professional mastery. The laziness and cowardice that Kant refers to as 'nonage' explains how blind obedience to the status quo restricts our progression to advancement.

Scharnhorst demonstrated that individual intellect through professional mastery is essential to a military’s success. Professional mastery stimulates innovation when investing in high-cost military technology is not viable. Through innovation in areas such as operational concepts, organisational structure and astute acquisition decisions, our military can still maintain its edge. Conversely, without professional mastery, we are at the risk of frittering away precious national resources and ultimately losing the influence we have long enjoyed in the region.

Scharnhorst points out the various external factors such as political, social, moral and economic considerations that influence military operations. While the military may not control these external factors, professional mastery will prepare us to best contribute to the bounds of these factors. Technology alone does not guarantee military success; it is the professional ability of our military members that will exploit our current capability platforms to their fullest.

Scharnhorst, owing to his professional mastery, sensed a new way of war through analysis of the French use of combined arms. Scharnhorst adopted the concept and revolutionised the Prussian military through the application of this innovative approach. He could foresee that the development of a professionally educated general staff corps would give the commander superior decision-making capability through a co-ordinated and unified approach. Reading through Scharnhorst’s experience, it is evident that we need to prioritise strategic alignment across services and domains through co-ordination and broader consultation.

Importantly, benefits from military change initiatives take a long time to take effect. Scharnhorst has shown us the repercussions when militaries are caught off-guard and consequently ill-prepared to meet the evolving strategic context. Recent reforms to our joint professional military education, including revamp of the Australian War College curriculum, provide us with a head start to meet tomorrow’s challenges. However, a genuine commitment to the profession of arms is required from each one of us for reforms to be effective in time.

Scharnhorst was a strong proponent of a continuous inquiry-based study of war that embraced debate and open exchange of ideas. We are fortunate to be part of an organisation that encourages discussion and debate of new concepts and innovations in warfare. Our inquiry-based joint professional military education, supported by initiatives such as online learning hubs and discussion forums, provides individuals from across Defence, irrespective of experience or rank, opportunities to challenge the status quo and contribute to the collective mastery of war.

Through professional mastery, individuals can influence organisational outcomes so that we are best prepared to anticipate and respond to future conflicts. However, professional mastery requires a career-long commitment to joint professional military education that cannot be gained through training courses alone. Professional mastery involves an attitude of introspection, inquisitiveness and a desire to make a difference.