“Australian Soldiers identify with their Battalion. It’s indeed their family: it leads, feeds, clothes, directs and exhausts them. Its veins are its Sections and Platoons, its limbs the companies. It has the capacity to inspire their actions, to drive them beyond exhaustion, at times to subordinate their loved ones and to provide a depth of male comradeship rarely achieved elsewhere. This exclusive club has demanding rules of entry and offers few amenities. It seems to revel in adversity and prosper in challenge. It has fickle moods: a sense of purpose may be cemented by a mascot or nickname while, in contrast, wide dissatisfaction can be spread by a single remark from the Commanding Officer. It has a formidable capability that is derived from the action of 800 men with shared aims and esprit de corps.” Michael O’Brien in Conscripts and Regulars: With the Seventh Battalion in Vietnam
Command and leadership form the backbone of Army’s mission to prepare land forces for war. Command is the authority exercised lawfully over subordinates by virtue of rank, seniority and appointment while leadership brings moral insight and ‘the art of mission and people’ to the authority of command. Like tactics, we must constantly take time to remember and refine our command and leadership ‘basics’ so that our soldiers continue to ‘revel in adversity and prosper in challenge’ as described by Michael O’Brien. This post reflects on some of the basics of command and leadership through the lens of Battalion command including on operations. It focuses on my raw observations about command culture, individual responsibility, and being ruthlessly uncompromisingly to ensure your unit is trained for war and fit to fight.
“There are no bad regiments; there are only bad colonels.” Napoleon (1769-1821)
Culture is everything – you can stay in your office and write as many directives and orders you want but if the culture of the unit isn’t working, what you write will be irrelevant. If you need to look at the importance of culture read about Nelson (Seize the Fire or Rules of the Game) and the Battle of Trafalgar:
“The Battle would be won in its beginnings, which is why Nelson had to be at the front. He conceived Trafalgar, at its heart, not as a corporate action, of the fleet acting as a single disciplined body; but as an action in his image. That was it primitivism. Where he and Collingwood led, others must follow, not by attending to the orders which he would issue- for he would issue none- but by doing what he had shown them to do. It was the most elemental form of command: leadership by example.” Adam Nicolson, Seize the Fire, p.240
Or read about the Israelis (Lions Gate or Heights of Courage) in the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, or take the time to read about the company Zappos, a company where employees are rewarded with greater levels of individual responsibility as opposed to other forms of remuneration:
“Everyone that’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position–you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer–goes through the exact same training as our call center reps. It’s a four-week training program and then they’re actually on the phone for two weeks taking calls from customers. At the end of that first week of training we make an offer to the entire class that we’ll pay you for the time you’ve already spent training plus a bonus of $2,000 to quit and leave the company right now. Paying new hires to leave may seem counter-intuitive, but for Tony, it makes simple sense. “Really, the goal of that originally was to weed out the people that are just there for a paycheck. In the end, the culture is about more than money. It’s not me saying to our employees, this is where our culture is. It’s more about giving employees permission and encouraging them to just be themselves.” Tony Hsieh – Founder of Zappos
Know your people
“Command must be direct and personal.” Montgomery 1958
While Command requires your unwavering attention, the responsibility of command always remains with you. It is made easier as you are surrounded by some of the most dedicated and loyal leaders Army has. If you set high standards for your leaders, they will almost always exceed your expectations. Our people excel when given the opportunity, but you have to set the right conditions.
You have to always remember that everybody wants to succeed. Getting through Kapooka and Duntroon is a significant commitment. When dealing with people for poor performance you have to start with the premise that they wanted to be here in the first place and consider what has changed that outlook.
Focus on the top 5-10% – Army’s systems force you to focus on the bottom 5-10% of the workforce with tools such as Army Incident Management System. In order to be a better Army we must focus on the top 5-10%. Develop and train them. Making the top 5-10% better will make our Army better in the future. Not only know all the soldiers on the incident management system but also know the soldiers who topped the recon and promotion courses. Know the team and those who fulfil their mission with inspirational and authentic leadership, with humility and without fanfare.
Pick and build your teams well. Spend time in unit manning conferences pairing strengths and weaknesses. This is one of the most important activities you will do all year. Placing your best near your greatest risk, ensuring those who need development have worthy mentors that are nearby. It is not a perfect science and you will often get it wrong, if you do, don’t wait too long to move people. The longer you do, the more difficult it becomes.
Be seen often around your unit, turn up where you are least expected. Work out who the key influences are in your workforce (special forces, sportsman) use their positive examples to reinforce opportunities to improve your own standards.
Make sure you have your own mentors. Find people you can seek advice from and ensure they are varied in their experience. Make sure people feel confident to close the door and tell you are wrong or the approach is wrong. If your OPSO/XO/COY COMD/ADJT/RSM hasn’t done this, then either your culture is wrong, or you aren’t pushing the boat out far enough.
Know your weaknesses, mine is attention to detail. I have no problem with detail when it is important, such as training and war fighting, but I lose concentration easily with Army policy and administrative processes. Therefore, I ensured both my XO/ADJT were absolutely thorough in this space, allowing me to make informed decisions. In writing this statement I don’t intend it to infer that I am dismissive of the importance of Army policy, rather I highlight we are stronger when we identify our weaknesses and ensure we generate safety nets to ensure we cover our weaknesses. I used my staff to assist in covering my blind spots.
“You have got many great hazards, and one of them is in this White House, I have been watching this thing a long time. I have seen people in the White House try to build a fence around the White House and keep the very people away from that he should see. That is one of your hazards. The special interest and the sycophants will stand in the rain a week to see you and will treat you like a king. They’ll come sliding in and tell you you’re the greatest man alive- but you know and I know you ain’t.” Sam Rayburn’s advice to Truman in the hours after the death of FDR.
Communication is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Offer opportunities frequently for everybody to speak to you and allow time to dispel myths.
Have people at every rank whose opinion you value and speak to them regularly. Actively seek out the key influences – diggers, junior leaders and warrant officers. I spoke with them weekly at our Battalion training on Friday. It would confirm whether the message was getting out and whether the direction was right.
I think in hindsight one of the hardest things in life is getting people to be honest with you (this is made even worse in the military because of rank). If someone is honest in their appraisal or disagrees with you, you should see that as a sign of a healthy workforce. I still feel people weren’t as honest with me as I wanted them to be. It is hard to get the mix right because you get people being honest with you and then they are surprised when you disagree with their comments. If you don’t coach your response well, people tend to think ‘I just spent a lot of personal capital in telling the boss he was wrong and he wasn’t interested.’ In hindsight I wish I had taken more time explaining to people I appreciated their views.
Do you want to be remembered for berets? Pick your fights – determine what is important and what is not important. If people that work for you tell you they think you are walking down the wrong road, review your decision. Remember it takes a lot of moral courage to tell the boss he is wrong. If you review it and believe it is important then drive on. Remember to thank them for their counsel. Being right is often not enough, you must bring people along with you and ensure your decisions are understood.
“If officers desire to have control over their commands, they must remain habitually with them, industriously attend to their instruction and comfort and in battle lead them well.” Stonewall – Letter of instruction to commanding Officers – 1861
“You will be confronted by the urgent but you must dig for the important.”
Everybody can find excuses or highlight how busy they are. All too often in Army people will tell you they are the first to have to complete multiple tasks in a year or first to deploy and therefore have to do something else. Get over yourself. Army is always busy and always competing for resources. You don’t have the hardest command in Army or the hardest job so stop finding excuses and enjoy it. Leaders have been making difficult decisions since Pontius Pilate. I got sick and tired of people in Army starting their conversations with me by telling me how they are busier than everybody else or using it as an excuse as to why they couldn’t support activities.
It’s not a two year outlook. If all your goals for your unit reside within the two years of your command you will fail Army. You need to take a longer view, identify what will be needed by your unit and Army in years to come. Train people early, take risks, release people for courses, and build redundancy. It is unacceptable to run the well dry during your command because you have been ‘too busy’. Focus on building our most important resource – our people. Remember where you are in the ‘sausage factory’ and don’t take a short term greedy view. Someone once told me if you are honest in the support you give others, it has to hurt to give. If you provide support to another unit ensure you send your very best.
“On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability. It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end of responsibility and finally as the cruel scene has taught, an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do. And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts.” The above paragraph come from a 1952 Wall Street Journal editorial that appeared after the tragic collision of the USS Hobson with the USS Wasp, as the country mourned the loss of many American sailors.
Individual responsibility is important in our business. Encourage people to take on responsibility whenever possible. Army will often offer opportunities for people to find excuses why it should be someone else’s responsibility. Expect people to take responsibility. I was disappointed on a CTC WARFIGHTER that the OTs wanted to counsel the Officer Commanding that he should be more inclusive of the Company when conducting the IMAP, to his credit he stood his ground and said planning and leading his Company was his responsibility alone. Decision making is mistakenly often seen as a group problem which means people then never get held responsible.
“If you want a decision go to the point of danger” General James Gavin
There are some common traps leaders fall into:
- Delegation – time is your most important personal asset. Ensure you delegate wisely to use your time to maximum effect. The one thing I refused to delegate was the responsibility of training and leading.
- Time management – we often don’t value people’s time, one of the hardest cultures to break is the 0730-1600 culture. Focussing on output and training as opposed to time spent at work is important. All too often people are waiting to knock off.
- Sub Unit level – your Sub Unit Commanders need to be heavily focussed on mentoring, training and leading. I had a Platoon Commander explain to me that his Platoon performed poorly on exercise because they had not been given enough time to train as a Platoon prior. We did a count back of time spent and his Platoon had spent two months on Battalion/Company activities and it was August. My response was I needed to take more time off him because he had wasted five months.
- Micro management – is often a myth or an opportunity to complain about being held to account. When I reviewed discipline stats in the unit over three years not a single Lieutenant/Corporal had issued a discipline infringement. Encourage your subordinates to act with moral courage at all ranks, and enforce standards.
- Double standards – the only real double standards that exists in our Army is the varying expectations we have of people. Don’t treat everybody equally but treat everybody equally fair, dependant on their circumstances.
FIT TO FIGHT – TRAINING FOR WAR
“To teach moral courage is another matter – and it has to be taught because so few, if any, have it naturally. The young can learn it from their parents, in their homes, from school and university, from religion, from other early influences, but to inculcate it in a grown-up who lacks it requires not so much teaching as some striking emotional experience- something that suddenly bursts upon him, something in the nature of a vision. That happens rarely, and that is why you will find that most men with moral courage learnt it by precept and example in their youth.” Slim, courage and other broadcasts, 1957
Set your standards and be uncompromising. Allow some slippage/compromise in other areas but know where it is important to stick to standards. 7RAR was fortunate enough to have General Jim Mattis speak to the Battalion prior to our deployment to Iraq. He made the point that the standards we maintained in terms of not looking like a security detail, but rather hardened soldiers, sent a message that we were here to train and if we had to return to fight we were ready. He highlighted that in everything you do you send a message to our foes.
You can achieve incredibly complex things in training, but only if you have set the conditions correctly through simple robust training of the basics. If you think you should check something you should trust your instinct, empower your experts, but don’t leave them to their own devices, ultimately you own the risk and are responsible so ensure you check.
Work out the common operating picture including your team’s level of understanding and standards. If you don’t baseline and build from there you will lose opportunities to develop. I had a junior officer decide to pay off his platoon sentries during an exercise because his team were tired and he didn’t have the moral courage to enforce the correct standards. As a result I had him read Black Hearts, a book about how the lack of standards within a Platoon in Iraq led to catastrophic consequences. Believing the lessons were self explanatory, I was quite surprised when his interpretation of the book was not that the Platoon Commander had failed in his principle task of leadership but rather the fault lay at the Battalion and Company for over-tasking the Platoon. His comprehension of war fighting was based on our recent operational experience inculcated by junior officers at RMC (if you are not fully resourced you don’t attempt the task). Our view of what war looks like was different. I was training him for the Battle of Kapyong, he was preparing for a Security Detachment task like SECDET.
Training to fight
“I contend that fortitude in war has its roots in morality; that selection is a search for character and that war itself is but one more test— the supreme and final test if you will—of character. Courage can be judged apart from danger only if the social significance and meaning of courage is known to us; namely that a man of character in peace becomes a man of courage in war. He cannot be selfish in peace and yet be unselfish in war. Character, as Aristotle taught, is a habit, the daily choice of right and wrong; it is a moral quality which grows to maturity in peace and is not suddenly developed on the outbreak of war. For war, in spite of what we have heard to the contrary, has no power to transform, it merely exaggerates the good and evil that are in us, till it is plain for all to read; it cannot change; it exposes.” Lord Moran, in The Anatomy of Courage (1945)
Make sure you are training your organisation to fight. Our junior officers are there to lead in war. Make sure you are preparing them to do that, their job is not administration, that is a by-product. Their job is to lead and fight. You must take time to teach them tactics and how to lead.
There should be resilience training in your normal training, because it doesn’t get turned on and off during war. Physical conditioning and resilience go hand in hand. While circuits, cross fit and functional fitness are great (7RAR also ran Yoga), long distance runs and pack marching build a level of resilience that can’t be found in the cardio room. If you need advice refer to Lord Moran’s Anatomy of Courage.
Remember your Officers/NCO’s have a responsibility to you to assist in the functioning of your unit to run smoothly. You also have a responsibility to them and the Army to continue their professional development. You should be developing Lieutenants to become future Company Commanders. Just because your unit is not in a Brigade you still have a responsibility to train people in our principle function – war fighting. Use your professional development time well, and ensure the focus is right. We used business leaders, politicians to present to the Battalion, we spoke about strategic policy, but our focus always remained tactics and our future fight.
“If you read enough biography and history, you learn how people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar situations or patterns in the past. It doesn’t give you a template of answers, but it does help you refine the questions you have to ask yourself. Further, you recognize there is nothing so unique that you’ve got to go to extraordinary lengths to deal with it.” Jim Mattis
We seem to be very comfortable as an Army in accepting further tertiary education as established professional development, but individual study of history and warfare should be held with equal importance. We should encourage our people to worry less about the formal qualifications that come with degrees applicable to civilian employment and look to their self development in our field of expertise. This includes a study of our previous campaigns, our leaders their flaws, their success. Encourage your people to focus their professional development on our profession.
Kissinger in The White House Years highlights:
“the intellectual capital you form along the way to power is what you will consume in office; you may learn to weave and duck but you do not learn more on the job – you simply expend what you already have.”
Major General Gus McLachlan, the Australian Army’s Forces Commander, recently reflected on modern military leadership outlining that he seeks inspirational and authentic leaders ‘whose authority is based on ethical behaviour and professional mastery, not simply the badges of rank they wear’. Setting command culture, being uncompromising with personal responsibility, and keeping focus on training for our mission underpins our ability to be fit to fight. Ultimately, this in turn captures Michael O’Brien’s essence of the Battalion’s ‘formidable capability that is derived from the action of 800 men with shared aims and esprit de corps’.
About the author
Lieutenant Colonel David McCammon is an officer in the Australian Army.