Leading at the Tactical LevelBy Jake Ellwood June 3, 2020
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!!