Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

The Postern Association – The Vehicles for Intellectual Mastery (Part 2 of 4)

October 31st, 2016 by Clare O'Neill


“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”― Winston S. Churchill

We are constantly being told to seek professional mastery in preparation for our ‘finest hour’ but what is professional mastery and where exactly do we start? Being told to seek professional mastery, particularly for the intellectual realm, can be a daunting prospect so let’s break it down by looking at: the journey, the road ahead and the vehicles that help get us to our destination. This post also seeks to describe the current gap in the ‘vehicles’ available for intellectual professional mastery, and in doing so outline one of the reasons for the development of the Australian Army’s Postern Association.

The journey

Many people will start their professional mastery journey by trying to find a definition. While the definition of professional mastery still conjures up avid debate, a good starting point is LWD 1:

“Professional mastery binds the intellectual and moral components of fighting power and is critical to generating fighting power and thus war fighting capability. The focus of professional mastery is on people: every soldier must adapt given the changing character of war. Professional mastery is the mechanism by which Army can produce soldiers and teams that respond positively to change, especially when confronted with problems, challenges and ambiguous contexts. Professional mastery assists soldiers to exert themselves physically, morally and intellectually to overcome fear, confusion, fatigue and uncertainty.”[1]

Next is to try to find the standards to meet this definition. This is where things get tricky for ‘intellectual mastery’. While the minimum standards for physical mastery are readily available (PES, BFA and unit tests), the standards for the achievement of intellectual mastery are less tangible. Standards give us an aiming mark, so when intellectual mastery standards are somewhat elusive, many of us feel a sense of frustration.[2]

But the journey for intellectual development is not just a linear process to meet a steadfast standard. Intellectual mastery is an endless journey against the enduring nature of war and evolving character of war. If you can’t see the end-point on your professional mastery journey then you are at the right starting point for the road ahead.  It’s a journey where, just when you think you mastered something, the road ahead and standards required to navigate the road will change …

The road ahead

Our Chief of Army recently outlined his desire to ensure our people are masters of their profession, describing the minimum acceptable level of professional mastery as being “better than we are today, because it’s a competitive business and resting on your laurels can be fatal.”[3] This succinct passage outlines few things about professional mastery and the road ahead.

Firstly, if we ever think we are masters, then we probably missed the point of our profession. If you do think you are a master then ask yourself – against what enemy, at what time, at what place, in what context and for what objectives is your professional mastery relevant? Most of us grapple with the future instead of having clearly defined answers so preparing our ‘professional mastery’ is therefore an evolving process. It is not one where you can ‘rest on your laurels’.

Next is where ‘it’s a competitive business’ comes into play or as General Mattis puts it ‘the enemy gets a vote’. For example:

  • You became an expert at precision targeting …. but now you can’t find the enemy.
  • You became an amphibious expert …. but your enemy is fighting in a land-locked desert.
  • You see yourself as a combat warfighter … but your biggest problem is logistics.
  • You champion your team’s momentum in a fight …. but now IEDs negate your strength.

The road you started your professional journey on may not be the road you fight on. This does not negate your previous efforts for professional mastery but it will mean your perceived level of mastery needs constant reassessment. You won’t necessarily get to choose the war you fight. The changing character of war also means that professional mastery is an endless journey on an unmapped road, and in war, the enemy may rip up the road before your eyes.

Lastly, to be ‘better than we are today’ also means that despite the difficulties, we still need to choose a road to travel on. The profession of arms is a profession of action, not navel-gazing. It may be obvious, but the chosen road is mapped out – from the latest White Paper down to the direction your CO provides for professional mastery within your unit. So it’s not all bad news – you have a unified road to travel on, and if the road changes, you’ll be in good company in order to switch course. What next – what vehicles can help us with road ahead?

The vehicles

There are many vehicles for professional mastery in our army. It is a multi-layered approach from self-initiated individual endeavours through to directed collective training. The Ryan Review also outlines the plan of action to strive to achieve professional mastery through Army education, training and doctrine but do we have every vehicle available for the intellectual component of professional mastery?

If we take ‘physical mastery’ as an example of a multi-layered approach with multiple vehicles at hand, then we see activities both within the chain-of-command and outside the chain-of-command as well as individual and collective endeavours. Think of your morning Platoon PT sessions, Brigade sports, individual training in the gym, and Army Sporting Associations as just some of these complementary efforts that together help you strive for physical mastery. For a new recruit, there are clear paths they can take for physical mastery that are both inside and outside of their direct chain-of-command. These physical pathways are an excellent example of a multi-layered approach.

Another great thing about physical mastery in our profession of arms is that it also caters for individual interests. For example, if you are interested in triathlons, then you can seek to combine your love of running, swimming and cycling by joining the ADF’s Triathlon Association. Your individual passion helps strengthen your physical mastery which in turn helps strengthen our collective mastery.

The Chief of Army recently stated: “We need to provide the resources that will enable the self-initiating and self-studying officer, soldier and non-commissioned officer (NCO) to prosper.”  The initiatives being implemented through the Ryan Review go a long way to achieve this but do we have all the vehicles ready for informal, self-initiated ‘intellectual mastery’? For example, where is the equivalent of Army’s Rugby Association for intellectual mastery?

Postern Association

It is here that a group of Army personnel have been busily building the framework for an Australian Army Association to help complement Army’s existing efforts for intellectual mastery. The Postern Association will be formally launched at DEF[X] in December 2016 and we’d love to see you there to help plan the Association’s future.

The Association is currently a blank canvas for you to inject your professional development ideas into. It is a vehicle for the ‘self-initiating and self-studying officer, soldier and non-commissioned officer (NCO) to prosper’. And just like physical mastery, intellectual mastery is best done as a team, even in the ‘self-initiating’ space. The Postern Association is not a panacea for intellectual mastery but we do know that asking and debating questions as a team will help sharpen our focus for the road ahead.  We hope you will join us – registration for the DEF[X] can be found here.

About the author

Clare O’Neill is a Royal Australian Engineer and in 2013 was the Fulbright Professional Scholar in Australia-U.S. Alliance Studies. Clare is the Executive Director of DEF Australia and runs Grounded Curiosity.


[1]  Australian Army, Land Warfare Doctrine 1: The Fundamentals of Land Power, 2014, p. 52.

[2] Described in the Ryan Review: “While various definitions have been provided it is not clear that Army has adequately defined what it means by professional mastery and importantly, what this necessitates in our performance needs and professional education continuum.” Australian Army, The Ryan Review, 2016.

[3] Lieutenant General Angus Campbell DSC, AM, Address on The Ryan Review to the United Services Institute of the ACT, Canberra, 04 August 2016.

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Hi, from a field rank perspective I am completely comfortable with PME. I strongly support the intellectual component of professional mastery, to the point of advocating that we need more of it and it needs to be measured. Although I am not so sure we have yet figured out what the soldier wants. Sure there will be the few that find academic study rewarding and will gleefully review blogs and websites that discuss the nature of war; however, from many discussions I am having with enlisted leaders there appears to be a disconnect along the way. Put simply, the soldier… Read more »