Lifelong professional education and development is a core undertaking for military professionals. Central to this is the theory and practice of leadership. My thoughts on leadership in this article are based on my service as an officer in the Australian Army. I have been fortunate to have served alongside people from other military services and academia, as well as different government departments from Australia and other nations. So I would offer these thoughts and hope they provide readers with some insights into the contemporary and future needs of our leaders at all levels.
Provide the Why
Providing the "why" is a central responsibility for leaders; purpose or rationale is more important than the "what." Leaders inspire through giving their people 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 something that staff can help with, but not do for you.
It also requires a deep understanding of the military profession and culture of the nation and organisation that the leader serves. All military professionals share a contract with the nation they serve. There are many forms of this, and an example from the Australian Army is its Contract with Australia. This 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 leading of soldiers is an integral part of providing meaning; it is important in barracks and during exercises, but vital when under pressure on operations and has tactical as well as strategic ramifications.
Embrace Variety and Listen
The higher you get, the more the keys to success lay outside your organisation. Leaders need to network, meet different people, and expose themselves to different ideas. The only way to solve complex problems (what we do as military professionals) is to generate a variety of options. Destroy silos and single issue zealots—these are an anathema to variety, our profession and operational success. Gillian Tett’s recent book The Silo Effect is a great examination of the pernicious impact of exclusive approaches and institutional silos.
Key to leaders embracing variety is the capacity to listen. My observation is that military officers—especially men—are really bad at this, and (my generation at least) 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 of our respective workforces. If it doesn’t come naturally, leaders must train themselves to be a good listener. 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.
As noted above, many of the paths to successful leadership lay outside your immediate organisation. Command authority has limits. Therefore, leading through influencing is crucial. Clear intent statements assist. But it requires leaders to personally invest in developing the logical and emotional appeal of tasks and missions, and then communicate using various mediums with those they are trying to influence.
The art of influence includes the capacity to lead up, or influence one’s boss. This means that leaders should be lifting some burden off their superior’s shoulders, being prepared for every engagement and providing frank, honest advice on options for action.
Read, Think, Write
Williamson Murray has written (and I paraphrase a bit) 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. You need to find time to reflect and think. I steal time to read every day and every night. It helps build my knowledge; I read military history, current events, a little philosophy, as well as thrillers and science fiction. Read broadly and critically, and not just books and journal articles; embrace social media and blogs. Doing so will show just how much our world and our profession is changing (and how rapidly) and expose one to a broad variety of ideas.
Learn also to write critically, using plain English without acronyms or jargon. Writing helps to hone a leader’s research, critical thinking, and communication skills. Excellence in these areas are the hallmarks of good leaders. It also assists in developing the capacity to explain purpose to subordinates in a clear and succinct fashion—this is not a common skill! Finally, writing gives leaders a professional voice to contribute to the development of their profession.
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.
Leading education and change also infers an obligation on leaders to mentor those that will eventually assume leadership of their organisation. A leader’s 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 over years or decades.
Leaders who nurture a business-as-usual professional education and development program underpin informed change in an institution. Leaders lead change and push the boundaries of the status quo to continually improve the institution and keep it competitive. It is not about coping with change; change must be anticipated and it needs good people to lead it.
Understand Failure and Take Risk
Risk should not be written off in planning. I believe the best way to manage risk in your command is to educate and train subordinate leaders to think through problems, understand risks, and develop the capacity for bold decision making. To do this, we need to be able to fail as part of learning. Leaders must oversee education and training that creates a culture that accepts a level of failure in training. This builds understanding about the reasons for organizational and individual failure and how to prevent, mitigate, assess, and learn from it.
This should be underpinned by a command environment where risk is maximized safely, not minimized. Training with risk builds resilience in our people and enhances a leader’s self-confidence. This will enhance a leader’s capacity to embrace chaos and ambiguity.
Understand Surprise and Chaos
Finally, we must accept that we almost always get the next war wrong. Leaders must develop and sustain a culture where surprise is accepted as a natural part of our environment; no matter how clever or enabled we are, we will continue to be tactically, operationally and strategically surprised. To embrace this is to build a culture of adaptation. In essence, the side that overcomes shock, understands the changed situation, and adapts quickest wins.
This is underpinned by an integrated approach to developing mental resilience in commanders and soldiers. This resilience is what helps overcome the shock that is generated by surprise. Additionally, training cannot always emphasize that we always win. History demonstrates this is not the case. Train your leaders and soldiers to respond to surprise, shock, and tactical failure, but to also exploit the resulting chaos.
Good leadership is learned through experience, observation, study, reflection, and embracing variety in all of its forms. And throughout this journey, leaders also learn that cooperation and collaboration are integral parts of good leadership. Constantly honing the capacity to lead is an ongoing journey and if done right, it is a journey of immense personal satisfaction.
Brigadier Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.
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