This Professional Military Education (PME) exercise uses the article ‘Fifty Shades of Grey: Officer Culture in The Australian Army’ by James Brown. An ex-army Captain, Brown is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Space Industry Association of Australia which is Australia’s peak body for the space economy. At the time of its release, the article didn’t receive much engagement from other officers, but Brown invites his article to be “vigorously interrogated”. Let’s do so.
Please note – this PME exercise requires the reader to reflect on their experience within the Army officer cohort and therefore it is more suited to senior Lieutenants and Captains.
- What kind of culture do you think exists in the officer corps? Do you agree that Australian officer culture is “bland” and “grey”? Think about leadership outside of Defence. Would a CEO want to be ‘grey’?
- Think about officers you know who allow themselves to be called ‘boss’ by their soldiers. What reasons are there for eschewing being called ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’? Should a junior officer measure their success on whether they are called ‘boss’? Brown writes: “the cultural cringe at setting boundaries between the ranks may be undermining military discipline. Soldiers might be excessively indulged by officers who are reluctant to criticise or discipline because of their need to be accepted by the [team] – and to be called ‘boss’ rather than ‘sir’. Egalitarianism works two ways in the officer-soldier relationship. While junior officers in particular may be earnestly trying to shape their role and appear as non-elite and unofficer-like as possible, soldiers may be conditioned not to respect junior officers. The cultural cringe against elitism in the military might in fact be undermining the value of being an officer”. Assuming Brown’s assertions are correct, how can we counter this?
- Do you see being called ‘boss’ a good or bad thing?
- What do you think of “the myth of the ‘natural Australian soldier’” and the idea that “Australian soldiers require little training or leadership and officers are a bumbling nuisance who are tolerated rather than required”? Brown writes: “the annals of Australian military history are stacked high with tales of personal acts of tactical heroism, and the majority of Australia’s military heroes are soldiers. Strategy, logistical excellence, and the professional leadership of Army officers do not appear to be highly respected commodities…. It makes sense that in an army in which the officer is not respected, higher end professional warfighting skills such as strategy are not respected either”.
- Brown writes: “performance reporting throughout the officer corps is inflated and masks both mediocrity and excellence”. Review your performance critically, have you ever received over-inflated performance reporting? Did it help? Do you agree or disagree with Brown’s assertion?
- Think about All-Corps promotion courses which place infantry officers alongside dentists, lawyers, and chaplains to learn battalion tactics. Does this generalist approach to training help? Do you agree with Brown when he writes: “promotion courses are set to the lowest common denominator and failures are rare”? Assuming Brown’s assertions are correct, is there any advantage to such an approach?
- Do you see any advantages to the generalist officer posting approach in our Army? Or does Brown expose all its flaws? Brown writes: “cultural bias requires the career officer to move ‘through a succession of increasingly senior staff appointments … like a sportsman whose primary sport is rugby, but who is then required to captain a soccer team, followed by coaching in hockey’… Increasing bureaucracy in Army is deadening the skills of many of our officers, pushing them into postings where they perform largely menial and clerical tasks and forget their core professional skills of risk assessment and action.”
This topic is discussed further in an article on The Cove called What’s in a Name – To What Title Are You Entitled?.
Brown wrote a short book called Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession which is available through Defence Library Services. As summarised by the Lowy Institute, Brown argues that Australia is expending too much time, money and emotion on the ANZAC legend, and that today’s soldiers are suffering for it. He looks closely at the companies and clubs that trade on the ANZAC story and argues that Australians spend a lot more time looking after dead warriors than those who are alive. He also proposes that the ANZAC legend makes it difficult to criticise the Australian Defence Force, even when it makes the same mistakes over and over. None of this is good for our soldiers or our ability to deal with a changing world. Find a review here.
Have a look at The Cove's Gallipoli Campaign animated historical video. Can you detect where legend separates from facts?
If you enjoyed this activity, why not try the other PMEs available on The Cove?
Want more material for your junior officers? Find it here. This article collates articles from across The Cove designed for junior officers and Troop/Platoon Commanders.
If you have suggestions for improvements – additional readings or reference material, alternative discussion points, new delivery methods – or just wish to provide feedback, please contact The Cove Team via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the Facilitator's Notes (PDF) for this PME.