Good Soldiering – A Perspective

The oath to serve your country as a soldier did not include a contract for the normal luxuries and comforts enjoyed within our society. On the contrary it implied hardship, loyalty and devotion to duty regardless of rank.

Brig George Mansford

In the Australian Army, we have an expectation or aspiration that every soldier is a leader, but more than that, we demand that once a soldier or officer has accepted rank then they must be a leader above all else. What a leader is expected to do is dignify our past (customs, traditions and history), shape today (being prepared and ready now) and secure and influence what we will do tomorrow (future ready). Up front, we must acknowledge that our Army exists to fight, and we must have soldiers prepared for the realities of what fighting a war means. Death, blood and sacrifice are the currencies of waging war and, therefore, we must have leaders who are equal to the task and who can lead our soldiers in combat. This article contends that leadership underpins the success of Good Soldiering[1] and requires us to know and develop our people. The article goes further and proffers a solution to overcome careerist behaviour by emphasising genuine and authentic leadership. Finally, the article aims to promote professional military discussion about our people, how we can best develop them and the importance of strong leadership at all levels. 

Are we that different from those of the past?

We are an Army of the people, for the people, and therefore, what society produces in terms of values, societal norms, behaviour and education is reflected in our organisation. We must understand and accept that to keep pace with the changes in society we will need to be agile in how we train, motivate and lead our people.  John Monash summarises the strength of the Australian soldier in the AIF, ‘Taking him in all, the Australian soldier was, when once understood, not difficult to handle. But he required sympathetic handling, which appealed to his intelligence and satisfied his instinct for a “square deal”.’[2] One could argue nothing much has changed—it is still important for the Army’s leaders to inculcate Army’s values and character through example, to understand who they lead and how to get the best from them. Additionally, Australian historian William Westerman contends that, ‘No commander at any level was perfect, but one of the strengths of Australian battalion commanders in the First World War was that their individual weaknesses were compensated for by institutional strengths’.[3] Whilst today we anecdotally speak of the new generation of officers and soldiers being individuals and self-absorbed, Monash noted the same of the 1914–1918 soldier; however, his view was that individuality was a strength which enhanced their use of initiative, made them inquisitive and easy to teach. Perhaps we are not as different as we think.

Mentally, the Australian soldier, was well endowed. In him there was a curious blend of a capacity for independent judgement with a readiness to submit to self-effacement in a common cause.

Gen Sir John Monash

In essence, the challenge is the same; society changes as does its people. We are far more multicultural than in 1918; however, the answer is still institutional strength through strong authentic leadership and developing a strong sense of service, self-sacrifice and mateship, which is delivered by strong influence at all levels. Multiculturalism has given the Army more diversity. Australians, regardless of their heritage, are still somewhat individualistic and still believe in a ‘square deal’. Therefore, it really does come down to how we lead our people. 

Society now seems faster paced, certainly more connected, and arguably, it is a little more self-centred with perhaps a greater emphasis on entitlement. These all have an effect on how we train and prepare our force, which further emphasises the need to know and understand our people. However, those who do enlist into the Army are motivated and understand they have made a commitment to service. Thus, we largely have the same people as before, but we just need to adapt new ways of getting our culture, values and character inculcated within their psyche consistent with the spirit of this age. A leader must still know their people, know what makes them tick, understand how to motivate them, and then, through example and encouragement, motivate them to provide the service we require.

But leaders do not need to accept attitudes and behaviours that are inconsistent with service. Soldiers will do what we inspire them to do, but equally, they will do the things that we let them get away with or tolerate. Coaching, mentorship and discipline are still essential to developing the type of character and leadership that history has shown are critical to success on the battlefield. This speaks to the essence of Good Soldiering. 

We only need to look at recent events to see that our people, once given purpose and leadership, provide selfless service. The commitment of officers and soldiers during the Townsville floods is a good example. Soldiers and officers put community before themselves without seeking any personal recognition, but rather they were satisfied that they helped and made a difference when called on. This example, along with other domestic and international emergencies that the Army has been involved with, has demonstrated commitment, selfless service, a sense of community and strong leadership. What this shows is we still need to know our people and give officers and soldiers purpose and an understanding that they must give all for the benefit of the many over personal accolades and comfort.

Do we understand the principle of leadership?

A competent leader can get effective service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralise the best of troops.

Gen John J Pershing

In a speech on leadership at the US Army War College in 1971, Omar Bradley notes that ‘Leadership is an intangible. No weapon, no impersonal piece of machinery ever designed can take its place’.[4] Technology has seen great advances in capability and today we have computers that can be programmed to give us a technological advantage over our adversary, or at least make us more efficient. How do we program leadership and morale into these learning machines?[5] An over-reliance in technology can lead us to forget the importance of the human and the great importance of leadership that cannot be found as an app on a phone. As Bradley reminds us, ‘let us not try to fight a whole war or even a single battle without giving proper consideration to the element of leadership’.[6]

Military organisations are judged by their leadership. Anyone who leads, be that an officer, warrant officer or soldier, ‘must project power, an energising power which marshals and integrates the best efforts of [their] followers by supplying that certain something for which they look to [them for] guidance, support and encouragement’.[7] A good leader is one who inspires others to do their job through example and inculcates a culture which supports innovation, new ideas and the courage and freedom to try. A good leader must make their influence felt by example and instill confidence in their followers. The true worth as a leader is measured by the achievements of those they have led and not by their own. Further, they must have a notion of servant leadership whereby they are committed to organisational success.

Leading an Army in Motion

If we are truly an Army in Motion, ready now and future ready, inculcated with a combat mindset and combat behaviours, then service and selflessness must be demanded of everyone. Our leadership and policy must support the values and traits we desire, and leaders at all levels must develop these values and characteristics in those we lead and provide the example for them to follow. Leaders who develop a greater understanding of self (emotional intelligence) and an understanding of the people they lead will be recognised as authentic and possessing integrity: two essential qualities for Good Soldiering.

Leaders might need to accept that soldiers and young officers will challenge the status quo. Rather than see it as a threat, they ought to encourage them to try, allow them to fail and encourage them to try again. They ought to emphasise organisational success over individual accolades. This will help give us organisational strength and overcome any societal flaws. The Australian Army Leadership Programme being currently introduced is an example of providing institutional strength through enhanced learning and understanding of self and the people we lead.

Modern warfare and technology are nothing new—every generation has faced the same problems or have asked how this affects those who serve. Military service requires commitment, self-sacrifice, loyalty and devotion to duty which has never changed in how we have waged war and the associated technologies that have always played a factor. Paul Harris argues that ‘1914–1918 witnessed the fastest rate of development in military technology, tactics and operational methods ever known up to that time, a rate arguably never subsequently exceeded’.[8]  Just as people and society change, so too does technology and warfare, and these are factors that are not necessarily problems. Keeping pace with changing technologies that affect how we fight (warfare) is difficult and requires smart people and even smarter leaders. Another factor is that people are far more connected than ever before, and the proliferation of social media plays a big part of who people are now. Our officers and soldiers are committed to their service and understand our contract to the nation—technology has just made them more informed than ever although they still look for leadership and guidance to explain the why. This speaks to knowing yourself and knowing your people and how to get the best from them. 

Do we always select the right people to lead?

In Smart Soldier 57, Naomi Shephard poses the question of what effect the careerist had on the organisation and leadership.[9] A careerist is a professional who is intent on furthering their career by any means possible and often at the expense of their own integrity. They place their personal success over their job and over others and will go to great lengths to be successful. You could argue that this type of person is at direct odds with Army’s values and culture and, that in placing self as their first priority, they can create a toxic environment of distrust, lack of confidence and disloyalty amongst their subordinates. The careerist is self-focused, ambitious to a fault and is well versed at masking character flaws. Whilst they will accept full responsibility for success, they readily delegate or deflect failure, and the projection of a perfect image is foremost in their thoughts and actions. The effect is that the section, platoon or company that they are responsible to lead loses momentum. They stifle initiative and do not develop those under them, and they usually display a very authoritarian style of leadership in order to maintain strict control over their own destiny. The toxic leadership culture they produce is often not noticed until they have moved on and the culture is contrasted by a genuine leader who restores positive culture and trust through energised command, leadership and presence.

Minimising the negative effect a careerist can have on the organisation becomes somewhat difficult when we consider the nature of military service. Striving for promotion, taking on greater leadership and responsibility, along with a reporting and selection system that would appear to reward the safe conformist or careerist over the more dynamic inspirational leader, exacerbates this negative organisational behaviour. John Kotter observes that ‘well-led businesses tend to recognise and reward people who successfully develop leaders’.[10] Organisations, such as the Australian Army, need a culture where leaders who educate, encourage and develop the leaders under them are recognised and rewarded. What if the Army stated that future promotions will depend to some degree on the ability to nurture and develop the leadership of those you lead? Leaders would have to demonstrate that they develop leaders by encouraging those under them to use initiative, by being able to inspire and by developing a failure tolerant culture that promotes junior leaders to try something different without fear of rebuke. This would place greater emphasis on leaders who lead and make a tangible difference, and it will further emphasise the rewarding of those who are self-aware and interested in the successes of the team over their own—this will give us organisational strength. Ultimately, if we can create a culture within Army that is failure tolerant, that all are comfortable with trying and failing without facing the repercussion of ending our career, and that is premised on the ability to develop those we lead, then it would change some attitudes by recognising and rewarding the right example and reducing the number of self-serving careerists.


Some officers and soldiers work with careerists who produce a negative effect on an organisation by creating a culture of distrust and low confidence, while others are lucky to have commanders and leaders who develop leadership abilities in them. They give them freedom of action, pick them up when they fall short, encourage them to try again and are invested in their development and success. These are the leaders we should emphasise in Army as it provides the example for others to follow and truly underpins the principles of Good Soldiering. The more people we have who are committed to developing the cultures that will create authentic leadership, the more we can encourage Good Soldiering. Greater emphasis on desired leadership traits, our values, character development and resilience is required from day one of service. We cannot leave it to fate, rather we must ensure we have institutional strengths to counter individual weaknesses. Our people are essentially the same as they have always been; however, the requirement is to know them, understand what motivates them and ultimately develop their potential. This needs to be nurtured, developed, supported and encouraged throughout an officer’s or soldier’s entire career. It demands organisational commitment, ensures everyone understands what service means and speaks to the essence of Good Soldiering with a capital L.