#ICYMI: Leading at the Tactical Level

By Jake Ellwood October 7, 2021


There are many outstanding books that describe what makes a great leader.  The ADF also has some great reference material regarding leadership that I strongly commend to all of those who are aspiring to improve their leadership at the tactical level.  However, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide a personal view of the key ingredients to successful leadership at the tactical level.  This is not to suggest that I was a successful leader.  Rather this synopsis seeks to summarise what I now perceive to be the keys to success in the wake of personal experience along with a breadth of outstanding education and training that spans a career of over 30 years.  A career which has in large part revolved around command, operations and training at the tactical and operational level.  In essence, I assess the three keys to successful leadership at the tactical level are competence, communication and character. If I had to prioritise, they would be in reverse order, although without one of these three elements, I would suggest that success will be absent, or at best fleeting.    


The term competence should not imply, competent in all fields.  That would be impossible even at the tactical level.  The key to being competent at the tactical level is understanding the situation, your specific role, where your strengths lay and where to get support to address areas where you are lacking.  Understanding the situation is harder than it sounds.  Clearly, being present and making your own assessment on the ground is important at critical junctures, but just as important is the ability to quickly seek out, assimilate and synthesise large amounts of information quickly, distilling it into ‘key issues.’ A leader must inherently understand their own capabilities, but also understand where they can gain greater levels of expertise in a particular area. If you don’t personally bring something to the fight that has a significant and positive impact on the outcome, you are probably not leading.            


The ability to communicate intent both by the written and spoken word are absolutely essential ingredients to leadership.  You also need the personal drive to get out and personally communicate with those you lead, those that you are supporting and those that are supporting you.  You will often have competing demands that conspire to make this difficult (but never impossible).  Even more important is the need to listen.  It allows those you are communicating with to gain a sense of comfort knowing that you understand their issues, perspectives and insights.  It will also allow you to communicate with more focus by understanding those whom you are communicating with.  Finally, it also helps to optimise your understanding and action which enhances your competence.  If you are not constantly communicating, you are probably not leading.   


There are two key parts of character that are essential to the leader. Firstly, they must be resilient.  Those being led require a leader they trust will never buckle under pressure. When things get difficult, externally a leader must be present, coherent and consistent regardless of their own internal doubts and misgivings.  This provides a comfort to those being led in uncertain times, knowing that regardless of their circumstance, they trust that their situation is both understood and being actively managed by someone who has their best interests at heart. Key to this confidence though, is the second and most essential ingredient, that of ethics.  Those being led, those being supported, and those providing support will only do so if they are confident that the leader in question is, by their very nature, ethical.  In my view, ethics is the most critical component of a good leader.  It can’t be taught, it must be something that comes naturally and something that is applied to every action and every decision. Strong ethics is the absolute foundation of leadership.   


Leadership at the tactical level is comprised of many micro-components. So many that, if detailed by line item, would probably make for a fairly dry and somewhat incomprehensible check list.  Reduced to its fundamentals, if one can achieve competence, to varying degrees, can communicate, to varying degrees and has good character (not to varying degrees!) there is a good chance they will succeed as leaders.  Some would suggest there is also a fourth component that certainly helps when leading: Luck.  However, it is not an element that can be counted on, nor is it an essential ingredient for success.  There is no doubt that the road travelled without luck is more painful, but it is never insurmountable, provided one has sufficient character to prevail!!




Jake Ellwood

MAJGEN Jake Ellwood currently serves as the Commander of 1st Division/Deployable Joint Force Headquarters. Throughout his career, MAJGEN Ellwood has served in a wide range of command, staff and operational appointments, most recently as Commander Op BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 and as Commander Joint Task Force 637 responsible for the ADF’s contribution to Enhanced Regional Engagement in the South West Pacific.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


A REPLY TO MAJGEN ELLWOOD In his article, ‘Leading at the Tactical Level,’ Major General Ellwood provided his personal view on the key ingredients to successful leadership. These included, competence, communication and character, whilst emphasising ethics and he states that: “In my view, ethics is the most critical component of a good leader. It can’t be taught, it must be something that comes naturally and something that is applied to every action and every decision.” This is a critical point, because if I am reading the article correctly there are two key takeaways. First, education and training on ethics alone will not produce the desired results required by the Army. It will not reduce the Army’s incident reporting, or members failing to adhere to Army’s values or the principles of Just War Theory (JWT). Second, ethical conduct is a personal thing. It must come naturally and instinctively to a person, especially in combat. This is what we might refer to as a person’s individual ethical framework. In developing our people, we will fail unless we help them to identify their individual ethical framework. Because some frameworks have critical faults and are incompatible with military service. In fact, their very existence and application to “every action and every decision,” generates significant reputational risk for us and could undermine Army’s status as a trusted national institution. The argument being made here is that any JWT and military ethics training requires “firm ethical foundations .” And there needs to be a means by which the individual is able to determine what ‘ethical’ is or what ‘Just’ is. But this isn’t about assigning a specific ethical framework to an individual nor saying that there is one which is superior to another. That’s impossible. In educating and teaching our people about ethics, the organisation is beholden to press and challenge an individual’s natural ethical framework. For example, anecdotally when our people are quizzed on what they personally believe, the results are disturbing. They predominately state that value judgements are ultimately relative or subjective; that nothing is intrinsically ethically good or bad. Value judgments are an essential and undeniable feature of human life. If our members are to be entirely consistent in their assessment of what is just, or what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’, then what they cognitively assent to must also match their ethical framework. None more so than in their application of lethal force. To do otherwise would require them to be functionally bipolar. Therefore, ethics training must extend beyond simply defining what is and is not ethically acceptable to the organisation because it cannot be taught. Our people must be challenged about the reality of their illogical framework and to ponder the undeniable, especially prior to operations. We must get them to ask the difficult questions. Do they really believe what they say they believe? Do they match organisational values? Will it pass the rule of law that actually does define what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. By challenging our peoples’ ethical framework, they will; first, be able to know and articulate what their personal framework is, and second, bring into clear focus the logical inconsistencies of their ethical framework - exposing those that are incompatible with military service. For some it will expose all the shallow assumptions, all the naïve generalisations. Conversely, it can also strengthen an individual’s ethical courage and conviction. Enabling them to live out their ethical framework in a way that is entirely consistent and matching with reality making them more resilient and robust.

"... ethical conduct is a personal thing. It must come naturally and instinctively to a person, especially in combat." While researching a unit history from Vietnam I tried to read widely. One book provided a detailed account of an ambush in which an enemy soldier was wounded. The ambush commander radioed his HQ and was told not to bring back any prisoners. The ambush party stood up and emptied their magazines into the body of the enemy soldier. Moreover, the Foreword of this book was written by a serving Brigadier (later Maj Gen), saying what a sterling account it was of Australian soldiers on operations. What do I do? There is a no Statute of Limitations on murder. I reported the incident to Defence … I was told that this was a police matter. I wrote to the Minister. An investigation was conducted. I believe it to have been very superficial. I asked the Minister if he could assure the Australian people that nothing like this would happen again. I was assured that appropriate training would guarantee this. So, is it a Rules of Engagement (ie. Military Law) matter or a personal ethics matter? I believe it is both. One without the other won't work. (The book had been on sale at the AWM, but was subsequently withdrawn.)

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