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Junior Leadership in the Australian Army

Photo courtesy 1st Brigade, Australian Army
Photo courtesy 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Do we know why it works or are we doing what we’ve always done?

The current Australian Army leadership model is an effective means of developing officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) for operational service. Despite ongoing success, it is worth asking the question: is the system as effective as it could be?

To answer the question, it’s important to understand what the system is and how it operates. The system is different for officer training and NCO training. Both systems rely on the transfer of tacit and explicit knowledge but they place different emphasis on how that knowledge is acquired. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is not written down or qualified. It is knowledge one gains through experience. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is written and codified. It’s knowledge that the Army normally transfers as a qualification or training course and can be quantified.

How do we train leaders in the Australian Army?

The Officer training system relies on explicit knowledge transfer over an 18 month first appointment course (FAC) to provide dedicated leadership training for tactical command. This is supported by further explicit knowledge transfer at corps or trade training during regimental or logistic officer basic courses (ROBC and LOBC). The system relies on an intense period of explicit knowledge transfer reinforced by tacit learning gained in an officers first command of a platoon or troop, traditionally in a regimental environment. From this point onwards, experience of command (tacit knowledge transfer) is the primary mechanism of leadership development up until unit command.

The NCO training system places a reverse emphasis on tacit and explicit knowledge transfer. The NCO system is derived from tacit knowledge gained through practical experience and exposure to leaders within the context of a soldier’s trade employment. A standard package of explicit leadership training is provided through the Army’s Junior Leader Course (JLC), normally conducted in a soldiers second year of service. Each Corps reinforces the explicit training of the JLC with additional promotion courses though the level of leadership vice trade skills practiced and taught on these course varies markedly.

Neither system is reliant on only tacit or explicit knowledge transfer and both operate simultaneously in most cases. The FAC explicitly teaches leadership but this is reinforced through routine application and testing of practical leadership in administrative and tactical leader roles. Likewise, soldiers experience leadership as followers prior to attending the JLC. The tacit knowledge they possess of leadership through follower experience is reinforced by explicit leadership training during the JLC. Unit training, professional military education and mentorship of junior leaders are nascent elements of the leadership training system that the Army relies upon. Combined, these elements form the basis of leadership training and development for junior officers and NCOs.

The Army’s system of leadership development has remained relatively constant throughout the Army’s history. The degree to which the training has focussed on leadership or technical skills has ebbed and flowed but the underlying basis of explicit Officer training through Duntroon was established in 1911. The system to train NCO’s, sometimes with and sometimes without formal leadership training, has been based on tacit knowledge and practical demonstration of leadership qualities. The system has been successful and continues to be today. Is it efficient though?

Courtesy: 1st Brigade, Australian Army
Courtesy: 1st Brigade, Australian Army

Investing in Junior Leadership – Improving the Human Dimension

My review of the current leadership model suggests two aims: First, to confirm if the currently successful model is the most efficient and effective mechanism to create and retain junior leaders; second, to confirm if changes in the army training model and Beersheba restructure have impacted leader development. I’ll focus upon two areas for why I believe a review of the leadership model is necessary. The first is improvements in knowledge of neuro science and biological performance have created potentially more efficient mechanisms to select, train and educate military leaders. Secondly, the dependence on tacit knowledge transfer for NCO development requires repetition, experience and leadership examples that reinforce Army’s desired or exemplar leadership form. Recent changes in the raise, train sustain (RTS) model moving to a three-year cycle (R3) and force structure changes under Plan Beersheba have impacted the volume of repetition and experience soldiers access in any single year. This has consequences for a tacit development leadership model.

Improvements in our understanding of neurological and psychological aspects of human performance are worth evaluating for their usefulness in Army’s leadership development model. Advancements in our understanding of decision making, information retention and cognitive capacity illustrate that techniques for improving speed of thought, memory capacity and more quickly achieving ‘expert’ levels of knowledge exist. Many of these improvements are likely to validate the current model by I suspect some will challenge historical thinking and identify areas of deficiency that could be readily addressed.

Changes in the R3 model for RTS of collective capabilities and the impacts of creating common or ‘like’ combat Brigade structures have impacted the opportunities for gaining experience through exposure and repetition of military activities. Military leadership requires the combination of military competence and leadership qualities. The NCO development system, which relies predominantly on tacit knowledge transfer, is impacted by change that reduces the frequency of exposure and opportunity to perform military tasks. The R3 model reduces repetition by a third and the Beersheba structure has expanded the roles of infantry and armoured units away from specified light, mechanised or motorised roles; increasing the diversity of training undertaken at the expense of repetition. This is not a criticism of change – many positives have been gained – but it is recognition that we should at least review the impact of the change and where necessary, compensate any weakness incidentally created in the NCO development model.

To close I want to leave some thought bubbles for discussion;

  1. Do discrete Officer and other ranks (OR) leadership models produce the best results? Would we be better served by direct entry recruiting junior leaders at the NCO level and developing them through an explicit training model (as we do with officers)?
  2. Do we manage leadership talent at the OR level effectively? Would we be better served by identifying leaders during recruit and IET training and siphoning targeted members into accelerated leadership development programs?
  3. Are we doing enough to evaluate our evolving awareness of cognitive performance against our leadership development practices to ensure we invest appropriately in human advantage?

About the Author

MAJ Scott Holmes is an Infantry Officer, serving predominantly in The Royal Australian Regiment. Scott is passionate that the key to military effectiveness remains human excellence. Scott is currently studying at the Australian Command and Staff College and is a member of the DEF Australia Executive.

15 thoughts on “Junior Leadership in the Australian Army

  1. It is interesting that many militaries are reviewing their leadership doctrine in this period after the’long war’ phases of Iraq and Afghanistan. The British Army, as an example, recently published a new ‘Leadership Code’ designed to focus leader development (://www.army.mod.uk/…/rmas_AC72021-TheArmyLeadershipCode…).

    Perhaps of even more interest, there has been a focussed effort on re-developing ‘Generalship’ as a profession. The General Staff has adopted a much more ‘Regimental’ form, the ‘Late Regt’ honourific has been removed, standardised uniform has been applied and an ‘Induction Course’ has been developed. This seems to seek to enhance operational and strategic leadership, either due to percieved flaw or due to a perceived need for improvements for the future.

    How does the Australian Army need to change for the future? Do we need to amend / enhance at the junior level (a perennial ‘improve’ in Combat Training Centre AARs), or are we fit for purpose? Do we need to rebuild a brand of ‘strategic leader’, like that proposed by Andrew Maher (http://www.army.gov.au/…/AAJVol131MaherStrategic…). What do you think?

  2. The initial training for all leaders is based on the all corps space. The Soldier has a minimum of 12 months in trade prior to attending a Subject 1 Corporal Course (the Junior Leader Course was removed last year). The experience he/she has attained prior to this course has a significant impact on their abilities. This experience is shared amongst the team and commences the establishment of their new network, a network that will remain over many years and future promotion courses. To attempt to identify the junior leader at point of entry will impact the on ability of the officer. The officer is reliant upon the experience of the junior leader to accept the task/mission and enact the plan. The officer needs to have that level of trust as they have so many things to deal with, to introduce another level of concern will be a distraction to the task.

  3. Great read. I have been a proponent of a similar themed course to the US Army Ranger course. In addition to the ACOTC and All Corps Soldier Training Continuum, a ranger course can be conducted by any rank to develop leadership and common soldier skills in addition to spreading the experience level across Army.

    Emphasis must be made by the chain of command to educate and inculcate officers and soldiers. A conducive learning environment ensures troops go past the mandatory training thinking into an area where they’re challenged. I know that’s a statement of the obvious but seldom undertaken.

    We also set bars very low in the ACSTC so as to ensure “everyone gets a prize” mentality. Lowest common denominator training is the new norm. Actively taking everyone outside of their comfort zone is almost seen like adventure training as opposed to just training.

    Resilience is the flashy new catchword but a divergence from what we have done for years (hard training) has created issues in the leadership models. Everything old is new again I suppose.

    As I have said earlier, I believe a course similar to a Ranger Course where there is a leadership expectation on completion ( even if not a commander) to bring the force element along further, to never give up and be the example.

  4. G’day Derek. I agree with many of your points. Any change to a functional system must identify what is critical to keep and what can be improved. It amounts to knowing which is the baby and which is the bath water. If we can identify what is best in the current system and what can be improved we arrive at a defined ‘need’. The need is the start point for making changes that create a net benefit and improvement to the system. I think we can achieve improvement whilst building a peer network and developing the skills & knowledge that support the leadership team. I note Mick Carroll’s comments include additional explicit training and experience. In theory this should enhance the networking and knowledge accrual aspects of the current leadership development system.

  5. The British have taken an interesting route. They’ve not tried to change the training continuum. Instead they have tried to use a normative ‘Code’ to focus leadership capacity to a set of virtues or behaviours.

    They also chosen to focus on ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ styles of leadership … again seeking to drive coherence in leadership outputs.

    Is this a persuasive approach for the Australian Army? Is the ‘doctrine’ fit for purpose, and it is the training that might need attention? Or vice versa?

    Final though is the Pers inflow. Are we able to access those with the right potential as leaders, or are they going to work elsewhere?

  6. I have to admit that I had not considered the impact of the Force Generation Cycle on the experiences (and opportunities) of both soldiers and officers and I find the concept fascinating, and potentially this has been an unintended consequence of Army restructure. I do wonder how Army should evaluate our leadership development practices, and which metrics should be used to measure this.

    I like the term ‘human advantage’ but my concern is that in order to unlock the potential of our people there are numerous branches and areas across Army which have a part to play HQ FORCOMD (DGT, RMC-A) AHQ (Pers Policy, Career Mgt, DOCM) How do we coordinate the approach to achieve best effect?

  7. G’day Jules,

    I don’t know if there is a simple answer. The first and most important thing is that the present system does a good job of producing great leaders. The system certainly isn’t broken from my observation and continues to attract great instructors and produce great leaders be they ORs or Officers. The start seems to be a conversation and an open mindedness to explore options. Just because we are doing it well doesn’t mean we can’t do it better. I am interested in any options that identify talented young soldiers and accelerate their positive impact on the organisation. If we ask the right type of questions we start the process of finding the right answers; How do we retain our most talented young people? How do we build military capacity through people? How do changes to the collective training model impact junior leadership? If we do ask these questions we will likely develop answers ‘one mouthful of the elephant at a time!’

  8. I relation to the term “OR – Other Ranks” I think that we as an Army are in a position to remove this from our vocabulary and use the term Soldier. This will create a more inclusive environment, which in turn will create a better team. This is just a remnant from our British heritage.

    Under some new guidance from DSCM-A we are able to “talent manage” those soldiers which are identified as displaying significant potential. This allows for those individuals to be placed on promotion courses earlier. This will generally mean our best JNCO’s will be guided towards Kapooka, the SGT factory for Army. The return we get from former recruit instructors is outstanding.

    Resilience, a term that is discussed a great deal, thrown around everywhere. Well what we are not good at is training and sustaining resilience knowledge. It needs to be and can be included in both the ACSTC and the ACOTC. We have the basis now through the BattleSmart suite of course. This can commence at RMC and Kapooka and be developed through our current training continuum. We need our training to be relevant and meet the needs of the new enlistees into Army. The difficult part will be developing emotional resilience in the dealing with relationships. The current generation are not robust enough to deal with loss of a relationship, this is a product of society that we must fix. But as you have stated, lets do this one mouthful of elephant at a time.

  9. Scott, great article.

    Interesting link to the force gen cycle, whilst I agree in the decrease in experiential opportunities resulting from the change to Raise Train Sustain, I don’t look upon it negatively. What we need to do is effectively fill the gap with non-military specific leadership content. I find it interesting that even within this blog, a snapshot of Army leadership, nobody spoke about non-military leadership development, yet I assume many of you have completed some form of university study with leadership subjects, majors or Masters. I propose that the current force gen cycle is more accepting of facilitating relevant non-military leadership exchanges and education (experience) in our community. We rarely look outward in order to look back in. Leadership dilemmas occurring in the civilian sector are very relevant to Army’s future. Often we use combat and war as justification for our uniqueness in leadership training, but I feel this also limits our potential. More opportunities to observe leadership through partnerships, small courses, workshops and forums should be sought out, encouraged, funded and feedback into unit level training.

    My real issue with the current leadership continuum is not where and when it is delivered but WHAT is delivered. I hypothesis that our content is too basic, even at the introductory level. I accept (for now) that the experiential component of the model is sound. Although being a good leader is not directly related to time in service. I propose that our content needs quarterly review (feedback from diverse leadership programs as above). We speak of cognitive developments, we need to be teaching our leaders about Self Deception, Antifragility, Emotional Intelligence, Cognitive Bias, and Conflict Resolution (self and others). These concepts, and several others have a place in both combat decision making and barracks decision making. These concepts shape perception, culture and action. They are both foreign and challenging to comprehend, making them great! Tom McDermott strikes right at the heart of what I’m suggesting here, ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ are about people and values. As a leader who you are, how you think and WHY this is the case is imperative to development and success.

    Reflecting on leadership in war, comes naturally to us, as a leader it is that which does not come naturally to me that I’m most interested. We need to embrace the areas we are not teaching first. We need to see greater involvement from Army’s ‘best’ leaders through passing down of knowledge and experience (forums, leadership camps etc) supported by challenging leadership research.

    I’ll get back to Scott with more tangible ‘stuff’ on ‘crowd sourcing leadership’ and ‘a central pool for leadership lessons’.

  10. Tom, good reply and glad you’ve introduced the need for diversity in our approach to leadership. At the most basic level of leadership in the section and small team environment I see the need for any loss of military knowledge to be carefully managed. As Derek indicated in an earlier post, the leadership of junior NCO’s is a two way exchange with military competence at the core of a junior leaders legitimacy. Officer’s rely on the professional military competence of junior leaders. It is this competence that sets the foundation for junior leader’s to influence up the chain of command as well as down to their subordinates. While I don’t disagree with providing greater diversity of leadership models and experience, I am cognisant of the time and effort likely required in this investment that might not fulfill both leadership and military competency aspects of an NCO’s development simultaneously. So what? If you can find solutions that do both or trade off less important skills for time to master more important skills than you’re probably on the way to a good solution. As you mentioned, leadership is not necessarily a product of time and experience but military competence is. Perhaps a more explicit leadership model would work for NCO development so long as it didn’t compromise on the underlying military skills of junior leaders. Your observation of leadership qualities not being a product of time in service are also important. It indicates the opportunity to explore identification, development and retention of gifted leaders differently to a system of ‘mass production’. This seems to follow on from Mick Carroll’s comments regarding the frailty of training to the lowest acceptable standard and not striving to meet the needs of our most talented people.

  11. A Dangerous Idea: Complex Adaptive Leadership
    1. I contend that we must evolve to reject the notion of JUNIOR and SENIOR leadership models in the military, full-stop – hierarchical protectionism is regressive, and I see no such division; leadership is far too universal to be arbitrarily broken into such simple constructs. The principles of good leadership do not shift with age, gender or ethnicity. This rejection will ameliorate a pathway for freer thinkers and creative decision makers, and along the way counter the curse of plagiaristic impunity that mires military thinking and morale in the 21st century.

    2. This, in turn, will encourage and support a ‘pure’ challenging of the modern military paradigm; for example, removing archaic rank structures and adopting Mr and Mrs as all of our pre-ambles. We used to yell at our so-called ‘subordinates’. Who would be seen doing so now? It is also in our discriminatory and aged language – littered through the articles above.

    3. This model would best allow us to promote true talent (what I call the ‘good blokes’ and ‘top chicks’ if I can be crude), and not the mediocrity that the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College refers the “Officer Corps’ future have been darkened by … plummeting company-grade officer retention rates. Significantly, this leakage includes a large share of high-performing officers.” This indicates the real issue, before we develop systems, we need (to retain) the ‘right people’ to teach in them.

    4. Our military must evolve to identify, mine, refine and elevate those ‘born’ good leaders into a meritocracy pipeline void of such discrimination that keeps good leaders ‘in their place’; and, concurrently select those ‘made’ good leaders and offer them creativity fostering and self-directed models of experiential learning – see Templestow College here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-14/the-drum-tuesday-june-14/7510740; and, Robinson here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-14/the-drum-tuesday-june-14/7510740. Both highly relevant to andragogical approaches.

    5. Good leadership is about good character (and resilience for that matter); and like good character not everyone is born with it, but most have great potential to develop it. Lets not be precious about the haves and potentials, our job is too serious and too important. And we run the risk of not only leaking good talent, but also repulsing it.

    6. In the future, we will be able to see good leaders, but for now we need to ‘see’ the bad ones, ask them to step aside and elevate the good ones – and I say “fast”.

    7. The greatest challenge the military faces in the 221st century is a lack of agility. We move too slow, particularly in the Australian military. I suggest that conversations like this were had a decade ago most else where. It is high time we accelerated those discussions beyond conventional thinking such as transformational and transactional leadership models. The world is too complex and unstructured (un hierarchical) for these constructs, and people are too smart for that matter. I contend we must evolve our notions of leadership, to a situationally-aware and self-aware (2SA) leadership – complex adaptive leadership, that is persistent, habitual and exclusively experiential. Is that a too dangerous idea?

  12. The responsibility for forming junior leaders lies primarily with commanders in the regimental environment. Our soldiers and young officers spend too little time in formal training to depend on this as a medium for knowledge transfer (particularly tacit knowledge as noted by Scott). The scope of formal training courses is limited by the abilities and experience of individual students – it would be great to be able to push all students outside of their comfort zone, but you then run the risk of leaving the majority behind. The fix from my perspective is to continue to impart the basics – focused on foundation warfighting – in the ACSTC and ACOTC, reinforced with more challenging experiential learning at every opportunity in the regimental environment. That said, I particularly like the earlier comments from Tom – any leadership experience is valuable, and doesn’t need to be gained in a uniformed setting.

  13. Perhaps of interest is an essay written recently on the junior officer continuum by LT Nicholas Waugh. Apologies for not having the link, but it is freely available at the Land Power Forum.

    In his discourse on the junior officer training continuum, specifically the ACOTC, Nicholas identified the gap between FAC, the ACCC and the ACMC. Similarly, from reading this article and my experience tells me there is a potential, both at soldier and officer level, where for various reasons the “tacit” training model does not necessarily fill the gap between “explicit training”.

    Nicholas’ essay proposes a potential of using formalized remote training, perhaps through E-Campus, to address this gap. A model he proposes is a semester based system whereby officers need to complete a set number of modules of mandated studies. While this will certainly need some development to ensure sufficient flexibility to accommodate operational tempo, I am especially intrigued by the potential of using a codified system of continuous training, such that the Australian profession of arms, has a more regimented methodology for continuous development.

    Professional development is a concept that is much hyped within Army, but one which often goes by the wayside as a secondary priority in the face of everyone’s busy schedule. The shortfall unfortunately is often only recognized during attendance at ACOTC courses. When those gaps in professional knowledge are identified, unfortunately it stovepipes the individual to learn course contents by rote, and this, I argue is what gives rise to learning “what to think” as opposed to “how to think”. Only through a system that accommodates more regular “explicit” training throughout an individuals career, can we instigate a culture of continuous professional improvement through which we cultivate intellectual development.

    The profession of arm is one of the oldest in civilization. A system of professional codification, similar to those institutes in other professional associations, e.g. the medical and legal professions, will serve to ensure a greater level of continuous development and currency within the knowledge domain, and further instigate rigorous intellectual discourse on the issues that affect our profession.

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