It takes considerable knowledge just to recognise the extent of your own ignorance.
The leadership, readiness, resilience, mental toughness and moral courage of Army’s junior leaders are topics that entice passionate debate. The result of these robust discussions often concludes with a clear outline of the faults of junior officers: ‘they didn’t rehearse,’ ‘they walked past poor standards,’ ‘they are overly familiar with their soldiers,’ and ‘they lack moral courage’. In writing this post, I offer no excuse for poor leadership and decision making. Rather, I offer a small collection of thoughts gathered during a year of awakened perspective as a Platoon Commander. It was a year in which my once strongly held view of military leadership was challenged and overturned.
I have had to come to terms with being responsible for or associated with very poor examples of leadership. Truly accepting this realisation has been a difficult process, but one that has been important. Important because as I look back at my time in command of soldiers, I ask:
- What could I have done better?
- How do I help educate others on the mistakes I made?
Junior leaders can create their own adversity so psychological preparedness from the beginning of training is important. Ultimately, it was my lack of mental preparedness that led to me being, what I would consider ‘below worn rank’ as a leader in my first attempt at command. This post offers some thoughts on ways to enhance the experience of junior leaders by discussing:
- Leadership and readiness
- Reality based
- 360 degree reporting
It is clear that my thoughts on these topics, with such little personal experience, are by no means original or complete but there are benefits in adding to the continuing passionate debate.
Leadership and Readiness
This post does not presume to have the answer. Select pieces of text can be cited and shining examples of leadership and courage can be placed onto paper in colloquial rhetoric, but for words to take effect we must be honest. Honest with ourselves, our peers, our subordinates and our superiors. If we consider the true implication of air-land operations in a digital age pitted against a peer enemy in a foreign and austere environment, everyone of us must answer the questions:
- Are we ready?
- Have we ensured that our soldiers are ready?
Excellence in leadership is never more necessary or crucial than in the military. In Jim Fredrick’s Black Hearts, there is a clearly identifiable story line of a difficult situation made worse by the lack of attention to detail and the lack of moral courage in the junior leaders of Bravo Company, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. It was “life and death stuff…and if we don’t change how we lead soldiers, and we don’t honestly look at what caused this to happen; it’s going to happen again.”
In reading this open and honest account of battlefield leadership, I assessed and interrogated the numerous instances in my own past where I had ‘let things slip’ or ‘walked past a poor standard’ not willing to do the right thing. It is only through honest self reflection that we can start to understand where we went wrong. Leadership influences the group’s outlook – if the leader does not care about robust training, the soldiers do not care, and if the soldiers do not care then training benefit and a readiness mindset are lost.
One merely has to open the first page of Julian Thompson’s No Picnic: 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands to understand the importance of ensuring that you personally, and your organisation, are as prepared as possible to achieve the mission.
“At midday on Friday 2 April, 45 Commando was due to go on Easter Leave. At 5 o’clock that morning I was informed by telephone that the Commando had been recalled….It was a pretty peculiar feeling being called to war by telephone from one’s bed. Time has not dimmed the memory of the sensation.”
Put simply, if that last exercise you trained on was the last exercise you had before deploying to a mid to high intensity conflict, would you be satisfied that you had done everything in your power to achieve the mission and then bring your troops home? And, let’s not forget to be honest about our response.
Change usually occurs as a result of a detrimental experience. As Jim Stor discusses in The Human Face of War, rather than ‘waiting to observe before deciding to act’, we must ensure that we exist in a process of continuous action whereby decisions are made continuously. This includes the preparation of soldiers for war through disciplined training, robust feedback and setting expectations for junior leaders.
But what is the true meaning of discipline in training? For junior leaders it includes understanding when mistakes are made and conducting honest assessments when poor drills are conducted. Junior leaders must also recognise that merely surviving a difficult exercise does not equate to being ready. This generation, including myself, has been geared to expect positive reinforcement whether it is credited or not. It is such that ego will often influence the response to constructive criticism when being mentored. Thus a cycle develops, and it is unfortunate that by the time you are experienced enough to appreciate the responsibility that was bestowed upon you, it is too late, a point often made but very rarely acknowledged or accepted among those of junior command.
Ron Milam’s book, Not a Gentlemen’s War, describes the experiences of US Infantry Platoon Commanders in the Vietnam War. It is an experience far removed from my own time as a Platoon Commander. These US Platoon Commanders had less than six-months training before being ‘dropped into his platoon in the field; from there he spent six months as a platoon commander before being re-rolled for a staff headquarters position.’ The premise of Milam’s study is that the junior leaders of Vietnam ‘took pride in embracing the higher expectations that (their) country had of their character and conduct,’ and that they met the challenge ‘even if there were occasional and perhaps inevitable failures to meet those expectations.’ The experiences of junior leaders in Vietnam highlights the need to mentor and educate junior leaders on expectations including standards of discipline, preparation and readiness.
Disciplined training also includes junior leaders keeping sight of what we are training for. This area has many leadership challenges – while we train for high-intensity conventional war, a proportion of soldiers (and some junior officers), simply do not conceive that we will ever be involved in conventional conflict. Contributing to this perception is a lack of historical knowledge and genuine academic interest from junior leaders beyond the latest book published with a winged dagger on the binding. It is clear that some contemporary soldiers (and officers) have a ‘distorted and fanciful perception of wartime soldiering.' This can impact disciplined training and a junior leader’s natural acceptance of ‘what we must be trained and ready for’.
Another driver working against disciplined training is the susceptibility of junior leaders to default to the opinion of combat experienced soldiers. This also raises the leadership versus likership debate and the fine line that junior leaders often tread between the two. It has been observed that the necessary separateness of being a commander seems to terrify junior leaders. This current theme of ‘we didn’t do it like that in Afghanistan,’ is a painful process of re-education. This issue is by no means an excuse for poor performance but rather highlights the importance for junior leader’s honest reflection in order to maintain standards of disciplined training for the future fight.
It is only evident since having moved on from commanding a platoon how simple it is to train that organisation. Strikingly enough, Army has been implementing a sound training system for generations so why do junior leaders fight it?
As H.J. Poole perfectly outlines in The Last One Hundred Yards: An NCOs Contribution to Warfare, a small team starts by ensuring the ‘simple’ techniques and procedures are perfected and continues to perfect these until the team cannot get it wrong. Important for junior officers is understanding that we should not need to be told to train or rehearse. Pick the simple drills that the platoon needs to be perfect at and get them right. Everything in training in barracks can be broken into simple drills and rehearsed relentlessly. As Rugby League coach Jack Gibson said,
“Winning starts on Monday, not ten minutes before the game. It’s confidence all week long, and it’s confidence for the month before that, and the year before that. People can’t get motivated on a five minute speech…(it is in) knowing that your preparation was right. (It is in) having the confidence that whatever comes up you are ready.”
These points are worth stating because for junior leaders – the system is new, the drills are new, and small teams have been observed that clearly do not know how to rehearse. It is only when a small team correctly rehearses the simple drills that the science can become art. My advice for junior leaders – do the simple stuff right – do not be the one that lets the standard of rehearsal and training slip, do not be one that makes the decision to have a single piquet instead of double stagger, do not be the one to take the plates out of your armour, do not wait to be told to train, because before you know it your time with a platoon is over.
Resilience starts with the ability to self-reflect. This is where junior leadership can be seen through a cause and effect analysis. If a person has a trait of being ‘at cause’, this leads to taking responsibility for your actions and seeking out organisational and personal goals. The ‘at cause’ character trait fits into a good junior leadership model. The concept of being ‘at effect’ relates to blaming the actions of others for your own short comings. Leaders are often found to be in both categories. As described in the Warrior Mindset the goals of ‘man management are, to keep (soldiers) mentally and physically fit for battle, to keep (soldiers) mentally and physically fit in battle and restore (soldiers) mentally and physically after battle’. The same is true of junior leadership, although this process does not come naturally to most without training or the ability to self-reflect.
An example of resilience training was the 2015 Duke of Gloucester Cup. One scenario involved the relatively easy task to cross a dam (mil flotation) after an extended period of physical hardship and sleep deprivation. However, this simple activity reduced some very experienced soldiers to a level of inability. The AAR pointed out that we have come to rely too heavily on theoretical and power point driven methodologies for training resilience, thus reducing our understanding of resilience to a survey. We cannot afford to lose sight of robust physical and mental training or as Jim Stor highlights, the impact of enemy action on a procedure undertaken in war. This includes methods that truly expose junior leaders to extremes of hardship. Granted it is historical fiction but the story told by Steven Pressfield in Gates of Fire leaves one with no illusion as to the resilience required to lead a body of soldiers to victory.
Reality Based Training
Reality based training is not a new concept, arguably it is only the introduction of ‘simulated’ or ‘man-marking munitions’ that is relatively new. It is well documented that reality based training is part of the success of western military special forces and law enforcement agencies. Reality based training is required, by nature, to be as close to the real situations that the soldier may encounter. It is apparent that the emphasis of the use of man marking munitions in reality based training is heavily geared toward the development of individual soldiers; however, the benefits of these scenarios also benefit junior leaders to evaluate their decision making under pressure. A pitfall to this type of training is the need for those that implement the methodology to be well versed in its principles. Ken Murray’s Training at the Speed of Life offers valuable beginner insight into the principles of reality based training.
Reality based training comes back to disciplined training. The principles associated with reality based training reinforces discipline, the key is ensuring junior leaders know and understand what discipline really is. Individuals have to yearn to understand the concept of discipline as described by the ubiquitous S.L.A. Marshall in Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. Marshall describes that the kind of regimental discipline that ensures the correct presentation of uniform is but a by-product of true discipline. Discipline is reinforced through the relentless pursuit of excellence. If reality based training, as adopted by special forces helps to achieve that end state then I say bring it on; however, for it to work, training to this kind of true discipline begins with the intrinsic motivation of individual junior leaders to self educate and understand it.
Junior leaders must take the lead and not wait for someone else to initiate this form of training. Reality based training need not be expensive and it does not necessarily need man-marking munitions to make it appealing. Preparation is key and needs clearly defined learning outcomes. Self educate and train yourself, back brief your plan, then execute.
360 Degree Reporting
The concept of 360 degree reporting brings fervent debate when discussed against military leadership but this type of reporting can help a junior leaders with self reflection. To be judged by not only superiors, but peers and subordinates is often personally difficult to absorb. That the 360 degree reporting can be used in the process of selections and promotions is also a daunting thought. This type of reporting has been conducted once during my very short career, and I still carry the paper that it was written on. It was an effective tool for self reflection. If used correctly it is a method by which we can better ourselves. Like the issuing of a Performance Appraisal Report to a subordinate it should be evidence based and logical.
A Platoon Commander need only concern themselves with one thing, training a platoon. Being relentless in the pursuit of disciplined, simple, resilience and reality based training can only improve a junior officer’s leadership skills and ensure that soldiers are ready for the future fight. The enemy sets the standard that we must achieve and rise above; it is only through open and honest reflection of our actions that we can hope to better ourselves to the point that we become better than the enemy. It is vital that resilience training be harder than it needs to be, drills be well rehearsed and training be smarter than the enemy can conceive. It is clear that junior leaders are by no means perfect and what is lacked in experience should be made up for in humility, enthusiasm and motivation so that when the time comes, we can be honest in saying we did not waste time in preparation and we can meet any adversity, for ‘to win, one only has to be better than the other guy.’
About the author
Courtesy of 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.
 Thomas Sowell, American Economist and Philosopher.
 This piece of writing is dedicated to superiors, subordinates, and importantly peers who have listened to my endless rambling in what I believe to be a relentless pursuit of excellence. I genuinely hope that this essay will form the basis of what will eventually constitute a much larger analysis of leadership.
 Asken, ‘Warrior Mindset: Mental Toughness skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers’
 Sergeant John Diem from Fredrick, ‘Black Hearts’ p. 348-349
 Captain Gardiner from Thompson, Julian, ‘No Picnic: 3 Command Brigade in the Falklands’ p. 4
 Stor, ‘The Human Face of War’ p. 187
 Ibid, p. 12-14
 Milam is referring, as he often does in this text, to LT Caley who was responsible for the My Lai massacre.
 In my humble opinion it begins with expectations of what being a junior officer means during the recruiting process.
 As described in Chapter 1 of Stor, ‘The Human Face of War’
 Smith, C. ‘Commanding Officer’s Observations: Mentoring Task Force 3’
 Smith, C. ‘Commanding Officer’s Observations: Mentoring Task Force 3’
 Gibson, J. “Winning Starts on Monday” p. 6. The point that Gibson makes is strikingly similar to the point that SLA Marshall makes. ‘Rehearsed drills breed confidence.’
 Asken, ‘Warrior Mindset: Mental Toughness skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers’ p. 8
 Stor, ‘The Human Face of War’ p. 34-36
 W. Weeks, ‘Reality Based Training for the War Fighter’ p. 1
 Ibid. p. 2
 Ibid, 205
Asken, Michael. 2010 ‘Warrior Mindset: Mental Toughness skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers’ Human Factor Research.
Fredrick, Jim. 2010 ‘Black Hearts’ Random House, New York.
Gibson, J. 1989 ‘Winning Starts on Monday’ Lester Townsend Publishing, Sydney.
Marshall, S.L.A. 1947 ‘Men Against Fire, The Problem of Battle Command’ Good Reads – University of Oklahoma Press.
McCoy, Col B.P. 2012 ‘The Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership’ Marine Corps Association.
Milam, Ron. 2009 ‘Not A Gentlemen’s War – An inside view of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War’ The University of North Carolina Press.
Murray, Kenneth. 2006 ‘Training at the speed of life’ Armiger Publication (ebook version).
Pressfield, Steven. 2011 ‘The Warrior Ethos’ Black Irish Entertainment, New York.
Pressfield, Steven. 1998 ‘Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae’ Bantam Dell, New York.
Stor, Jim. 2009 ‘The Human Face of War’ Continuum, London.
Thompson, Julian. 2008 ‘No Picnic: 3 Command Brigade in the Falklands’ Leo Cooper, South Yorkshire.
Weeks, Wayne WO2. Date unknown ‘Reality Based Training for the Warfighter’ (electronic version – unsigned).