Leadership - Developing the Emotionally Intelligent Soldier

By Jai Lawther March 19, 2020

Throughout history, the Army has many examples of its leaders achieving extraordinary things while in high stress situations. Take, for example, General Sir John Monash, whose leadership resulted in significant strategic victories throughout World War 1, or Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, who commanded D Coy, 6 RAR, during the Battle of Long Tan, or more recently Corporal Benjamin Robert-Smith VC's heroics in drawing enemy fire, enabling his patrol to successfully engage and destroy the enemy. Each of these individuals displayed an ability to lead in high pressure situations, which came as a result of training, job competence and a high Emotional Intelligence (EQ). As leaders we are encouraged to use these examples to reflect and develop our own leadership style.

Current development of Emotional Intelligence in the Army

In reviewing the Subject One CPL and Subject One SGT Learning Management Packages, it is evident in the way leadership is taught that there is not a substantial focus on actively Developing Emotional Intelligence. Only Subject One SGT touches on it and that is through the delivery of a single 40 minutes lesson on Emotional Intelligence within a four week course.

When such high importance is placed on developing a leader's Emotional Intelligence, is a 40 minute lesson enough? Is focusing in on Emotional Intelligence on a Subject Course for Sergeant too late in a soldier’s career?  Should more time be spent teaching aspects of Emotional Intelligence? Should it be more heavily incorporated into the Junior Leadership Courses?

The Army is considered to have first-class Training and Development for its soldiers. In striving to have outstanding Training and Development, we have somehow managed to blur the lines between them and they are often treated as one in the same.

According to the Oxford dictionary, Training and Development are vastly different.

Training is defined as “The process of learning the skills needed to do a job”.  This focuses more on hard skills, such as trade knowledge or technical skills. Examples include teaching a Section Commander how to write patrol orders or lead a section attack, or teaching a Transport NCO how to write convoy orders or understand and comply with the Chain of Responsibility. It often relies on doctrine or policy as the basis for knowledge.

Development is defined as “The gradual growth of something so that it becomes more advanced, stronger, etc”. This focuses more on the development of soft skills, such as Emotional Intelligence (empathy, self-motivation, wisdom etc). Development of these skills go a long way in enabling a leader to better understand and care about their people.

The importance of soft skills

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.”
- John C Maxwell

The Army has been getting better at developing its leaders’ soft skills. The Australian Army Leadership Program has provided a way for young emerging leaders to gain valuable insight from experts. Senior Leadership is also placing more focus on developing the junior leader’s soft skills, often through Leadership Seminars, or Professional Military Education. The select few that have been identified as showing leadership potential get the chance to participate in these events. However, this has created a level of exclusivity, where these opportunities are only aimed at the best emerging leaders.

In my opinion, to raise the standard of leadership across the organisation we should be developing from the bottom up, providing the same opportunities to those that are yet to show leadership potential. This will create a strong foundation in which junior soldiers can build potential leadership qualities. I believe that leaders are not born, they are made. 

Throughout my career, I have noticed that as JNCO’s, we attend PME or leadership seminars to absorb as much knowledge and experience as we can. Upon return to our units, we appear eager to put what we have learnt into practice, displaying the leadership qualities we wish to see in others. This is short lived. Too often we return to our workplaces full of motivation to make changes, and end up discouraged when changes don’t take effect.

From what I have seen across my career, when Emerging Leaders return from a PME or Leadership seminars, not enough emphasis is placed in cross-levelling the lessons learnt to the rest of the organisation. As JNCO’s, do we need to be more proactive in providing these development opportunities to our people? Does it require more of an organisational approach?

Having observed the way we pass on lessons learnt, mid-way through 2019 I changed my approach to leading a section. I placed a higher value in understanding and genuinely caring about each person in my section and how to best motivate them and develop them to be better individuals, section and platoon members.

By using this approach with my section, I found a significant jump in the development of my own leadership while also achieving more positive outcomes from the team. While these minor changes have been successful, I know that there is still more I can do to provide better value to my people.   

Be the change you want to see in the workplace

If you find any of this relates to you, then ask yourself:

  • As part of an organisation, am I providing enough opportunities for young leaders to pass on lessons learnt?
  • Am I taking every opportunity to develop the most junior person on my team?
  • Am I passing on all the lessons I have learnt when there are opportunities?
  • Am I doing enough to develop my people?

If the answer is to any of these questions is no, then I believe there is so much more we can do individually, and collectively, to develop our future leaders.

How do we make these changes in our workplace?

Intentional in our actions or not, we lead by example. We can show our people a genuine care for their wellbeing. We need to understand who they are and what drives them to succeed. Whether the motivating factors are financial, academic or team success, it requires leaders to spend quality time getting to know their people to understand how they can most effectviely engage them.

A review of the Learning Management Package for the Subject Courses may be required. Replicating and expanding on the Emotional Intelligence component from the Subject One Sergeant Course, as well as introducing it to the Subject One Corporal Course, would be a good start. Development of counselling techniques for junior leaders, with a focus on wellbeing and mental health, would also help. The Army needs its leaders to develop an understanding that each individual situation is as unique as the one before it and may require a different approach.

If, as an organisation, we can get the development aspect of soft skills and Emotional Intelligence in our Training and Development right, then I am convinced we will begin to see a steady increase in the quality of our leaders.



Jai Lawther

Jai Lawther is currently posted to the 7th Combat Service Support Battalion as a Squadron Operations NCO. He has been a Troop Operations NCO and a Section Commander in 7CSSB, 8/9 RAR and 9FSB. In 2014 he deployed to UAE as part of Force Support Element One as a Driver to Commander JTF633.

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.


The newly raised Centre for Australian Army Leadership, HQ RMC-A, is addressing these exact issues, throughout the entire Soldier and Officer training continuum, ab initio through to RSM/Pre Command cse. Watch this space!

G'day Jai, A well written article that reflects the frustrations that I also hear when talking to NCOs. I applaud you for taking personal ownership to change the way to approach leadership. It is this point that I see needs to be taken up by all of us. Learning (training and development) occurs in three pillars: institutionally (in the school house), operationally (in the units) and self development. Time is limited for institutional learning, so often there is only time to introduce an new element. This leaves the greater responsibility on each of us to explore the new information in our units and in our personal professional development. There is not a course that teaches a person everything they need to know. Knowledge can be taught but experience and judgement are developed over time both of which are opportunities provided for or sought by individuals. The military is referred to as a Profession of Arms but to be an active, engaged member of the Profession requires us to seek more than what is offered on courses. Courses don't develop people, they teach people. I agree with you that a curriculum should always be reviewed for improvement and each of us have a role to play in that process

Great article mate. Leadership is defined as a process and is often seen as an action as you have described, no body is born with it holistically though they may be born with some traits which enable the perception of leadership. Leadership as a process requires significant ongoing growth at the individual level. This increases a persons self-awareness and understanding of the inputs to leadership and subsequently how to utilise those inputs to achieve better, high performing outputs. I agree that organisationally we should be reviewing how we implement leadership training into our promotion continuum (continuous improvement is a key factor to high performance) but we also need to identify that as leaders we need to identify our own individual journeys towards leadership. This includes identifying what type of leader we want to become (servant, charismatic, transformational to name a few) and what traits we identify with leadership; very much an individual journey which can be enabled organisationally. I would suggest we also need to be careful about defining leadership capability by rank as this does not take into consideration the balance between positional power and personal power. For example, a SGT has limited positional power but can utilise influence tactics, charisma and conceptual understanding of system processes to build effective relationships across multiple hierarchies and Unit entities which increases the personal power that the SGT can influence beyond team or direct leadership. Leaders that demonstrate highly effective personal power, regardless of rank, should be identified by commanders and enabled as part of their journey within the organisation as they often can become quite potent leaders; typecasting leadership by rank negates this and also enables a civilian view that your rank defines your capability on transition to civilian life, which is not necessarily true. I think Army and Defence has demonstrated an understanding of the continuous improvement in leadership in recent times so it will be interesting to see where we are in a few years time across both institutional learning, operational learnings and self-development (and the enablers to this).

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