2021 Cove Competition - Winner
At half-time of the 1975 VFL Grand Final, the favoured Hawks trailed North Melbourne by 20 points. The Hawks’ acerbic coach John Kennedy was furious. As he told Mike Sheahan years later, 'we had a few academics in the side, and they were telling me what we should do and ‘I think this’ and ‘I think that’'. Kennedy told his team exactly what to do when they entered the change room. 'Don’t think, do something!', boomed Kennedy as he implored his side to act rather than hope. 'Take the risk; if you make the mistake, if you do it and it doesn’t come off, do it again. Do it again. And keep doing it. Keep doing it!'
I wish I had Kennedy feeding me advice when I was an LT. Graduating from RMC, I had grand plans to better the Platoon. I would organise rewarding training. I would develop governance processes that would save time whilst still delivering safety and accountability. Yet, I failed. Whilst external and internal factors contributed to my failure, the main reason I failed was overthinking. Whilst critical thinking is a must for any junior leader, failing to follow thinking with action is redundant. I would draft detailed command statements at the expense of actually commanding. I wanted the perfect Order for a Platoon training activity. Yet I never realised I was wasting time planning when I should have been delivering.
But why did I do this? Laziness played a part. I would start planning – usually detailed – but would sometimes fail to follow through. I also fell into the PAR trap. I believed the only way to a good PAR was to organise the perfect training activity and implement a revolutionary governance structure. Receiving a good PAR would result in a sought-after posting or a deployment. I now know that creating training activities that aren’t linked to my commander’s intent can waste time. Superior commanders value more in their subordinates than just what training activities they have organised.
The main reason I failed to 'Do' is more complicated. The junior commander’s need for perfection can be overwhelming. I thought that my soldiers would only accept the best training. This forced me to plan more and more complex activities. These complex activities were resource-intense, rigid and time-consuming. Competing priorities meant that personnel were diverted to other activities. Unforeseen changes meant that the detailed 5-day exercise was scaled back to a 2-day exercise. I would decide to scrap that exercise and begin planning the next exercise. Repeat ad infinitum. Repeat ad infinitum. In reality, while soldiers want engaging training, they don’t expect the world. Don’t let 'perfection' be the enemy of 'good'. This simple realisation imbues a pragmatic nature in junior commanders. Rather than lamenting what resources you don't have, use what you have.
I was also scared to take risks. I thought that failing to provide the best training opportunities would mean that I was a failure. I had to create the grandest training exercise to ensure it wouldn’t be deemed a 'failure' and thus making me a failure. But this thought process is incorrect. Taking calculated risks will result in mistakes. Yet junior commanders are expected to make mistakes. Trying and failing is better than not trying at all. So, understand your (and your commander’s) risk thresholds and expect to make mistakes.
Kennedy’s famous creed proves prescient for junior commanders. A 'bias for action' should be at the forefront of any junior commander’s leadership values. If I had heeded this call, I’m sure my soldiers would have been better for it. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s fiery half time speech could not inspire Hawthorn – they lost the 1975 VFL Grand Final by 10 goals. But it may have had a lasting effect. Hawthorn would go on to win the 1976 VFL Grand Final and win 10 more premierships after that.