What is Modern Military Leadership? A Primer

The Australian Army senior leadership team has been articulating the need for our Army leadership style to evolve to take on a more modern form. On the other hand our Army prides itself on its high level of performance in a number of recent conflicts so our leadership must be effective.  It is reasonable to ask what Modern Military Leadership is and why change to our leadership approach is necessary.  I am one senior leader who believes that, like our equipment and force structure, the Army leadership approach must evolve if we are to remain relevant to the needs of our people, be able to respond to rapidly changing operational conditions and meet the expectations of our community.

What has changed?

I am wary of making generalisations about people but there is a growing body of evidence that the members of the generation from which we draw our new soldiers have different personal motivations and have different expectations of their leaders than their older colleagues. These new soldiers are better educated and more confident with technology than any previous generation but they are also willing to challenge authority and withdraw their efforts if they are not satisfied. Work places in both the private and public sector are adjusting to this new work force. Within the unique discipline needs of a military force we too must make adjustments to communicate with and motivate our newest members.

Australian people are more diverse than at any time in our history but we have more to do to access the complete potential of our recruiting base. To do so we need to provide a transparent and supportive work environment for a diverse range of Australians in which everybody feels welcome and safe to contribute. We must also do more to preserve our existing team mates. There is a growing awareness of mental health issues and the risk of suicide in our community and we are committed to caring for our wounded, injured and ill but stigmas continue to surround soldiers who identify with mental health concerns. So while being careful not to overstate the extent of these changed community expectations we need a leadership approach that is inclusive and taps into the tremendous capacity of a more diverse workforce.

Finally the nature of military operations has changed. Our operations are now executed by a joint force comprising all three services, and often civilian agencies, working together. The operating environment is complex and ambiguous, making centralised directive leadership less effective than well informed, decentralised decision making. Traditional Army directive leadership styles alienate many members of the joint and inter-agency team and too many Army leaders simply regard this as the fault of the other team members. There is a time and a place for simple, unambiguous direction but these times are rare in a complex and nuanced environment so we must have more than one leadership tool in our tool box.

What are the modern leadership styles we seek?

The labels I choose to describe a more modern leadership approach in the Army are ”inspirational” and “authentic”.  Neither of these terms represents a revolutionary change in leadership doctrine.  Authentic Leadership has been codified in a growing body of leadership material, perhaps taking its modern form from a book called True North by Bill George but in reality it has been practiced by great leaders for many years. One of my favourite quotes from Field Marshal Bill Slim is “Leadership is just plain you.” This is a great quote to encapsulate a man who was comfortable in his skin, who had no airs of grandeur and who was most comfortable speaking in blunt, honest terms to his soldiers.  Slim was an authentic leader.

Inspirational leaders are not new either but they tend to be regarded as natural leaders who are born with the ability to inspire. The “born not made” school of leadership theory suggested there was little to be gained trying to teach this inspirational style. Less naturally talented leaders needed to learn a more basic, directive style. I do not agree with the premise that we can’t teach an inspiring leadership approach. I expect that an Army as proud and capable as ours can train leaders who can inspire their subordinates by their ethical behaviour, their willingness to share risks and hardship, to lead from the front and to demonstrate mastery of the job. These officers, WO and SNCO will tap into a discretionary effort our newest generation of soldiers retain within themselves, offering it only to those that inspire and challenge them.

Summary – Modern Leadership

To summarise where I seek to have leadership develop in Forces Command in order to meet the Chief and my expectations I offer the following:

I seek to develop leaders whose authority is based on ethical behaviour and professional mastery, not simply the badges of rank they wear. Ethical behaviour is the basis of our authority because without it we forfeit the right to give orders to our fellow citizens. Professional mastery is the product of a career long commitment to learning that means when the time comes we will be able to do all in our power to keep our soldiers safe and achieve our mission.

Inspirational leaders lead from the front by demonstrating the behaviours and values we seek in our subordinates. This means they must be physically and mentally fit, they must work hard to understand modern technology, and they must be able to explain the “why” of what they are asking their subordinates to do.

Authentic leaders are those that expose more of themselves to their subordinates to achieve a level of empathy and understanding with their team members. They do not role-play leadership traits but rather develop their own approaches to leadership based on their temperament and ability, and they are willing to admit they make mistakes. For example there should be no need to role play a hyper masculine, aggressive style to achieve an outcome in the Army when authentic behaviours based on ethical foundations and clear professional knowledge can achieve the same or better outcomes.

Don’t mistake this for political correctness. A good example of the leadership climate I seek is embodied in the changes to our combat shooting training. This change is in part based on some improved techniques and targets but the main change is the transfer of a calm, mature, adult training environment we had observed in Australian Special Forces units. Soldiers exposed to the new leadership in combat shooting describe a much faster rate of learning and greater confidence in their ability to handle their weapon. Instructors inspire through their clear professional knowledge, their passion for the training and their determination to make their soldiers better. This is an example of a modern leadership approach that achieves a direct war fighting gain but can applied in any work environment in the Army.

About the author 

Major General F.A. McLachlan is the Forces Commander of the .

One thought on “What is Modern Military Leadership? A Primer

  1. We’ve been talking the talk of a Mission Command philosophy for a long while perhaps it’s time to really embrace it from the top down instead of just the bottom up.
    After all we’re ahead of the curve it’s already in our doctrine!

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