Leadership

Learning and Leading through Collaboration

By Chris Thorburn February 8, 2021


In the beginning I was a poor leader. Aloof and distant, I mistook stoicism, desire, and unwavering self-belief for leadership. Unfortunately for those under my command, I learned to lead through trial and error and more than a little help from some very patient and forgiving soldiers. Without them I never would have learned to lead.

Whilst I will be forever thankful that the soldiers under my command stuck with me, I would have much preferred to be a good boss right off the bat. Not only can that, but the lessons I learned can readily be experienced within our training system. If we want our Army to be a truly agile and collaborative force, then the culture in our schools and units can better reflect that ambition.

If we can teach our people from the beginning to learn and lead in a collaborative manner, then we are preparing them to think, fight, and win in a decisive action environment.

One of the reasons I love my job is because it’s so stimulating; a commander is expected to solve problems and improve performance. But the main reason I love my job is because of the people I get to work with. Only through teamwork can problems be solved and performance improved.

Unfortunately, for a long time I struggled to join the dots between these two distinct but interrelated concepts: teamwork and problem solving. I didn’t understand how teamwork could be leveraged to help the problem solving process. This is because I viewed problem solving as an individual rather than a collective effort. 

On one level, my lack of understanding was on me: cadets at the Royal Military College-Duntroon (‘the College’) are taught the theory of leading teams. I knew, at least in theory, that the mission could only be achieved through the team. 

But on the other hand, in many ways the College’s culture was defined by competition and individualism. The College compelled me to plan in isolation and to compete with my peers for the corps of my choice; it also built barriers between peers through the awarding of rank. We learned collaboration in theory, but in practice we were conditioned by our environment to compete.

Is it really surprising then some junior officers believe if they devote enough time and effort to thinking about their platoons they will be able to come up with all the answers, all by themselves? 

I don’t think leadership works like that. Leaders who plan in isolation end up leading in isolation. Good leaders plan, teach, coach, mentor, and lead through collaboration. Good leaders achieve buy-in through mutual understanding and collective ownership of the team’s mission. Good teams care about the mission just as much as their leader, understand their collective purpose, and know what each member brings to the fight. Good teams want to work together to get the job done.

In the beginning I didn’t treat my soldiers like this. Not because I didn’t like them, but because that’s what I thought the Army’s culture was and that’s what I thought Army expected me to do. Why? Because my only exposure to Army’s culture had been through the College. I thought leadership was about resilience and personal example, stoicism and emotional detachment. I knew that as an aspiring leader I had to subordinate myself to the team—Serve to Lead—but most of the training I had completed felt like it was focused on me as an individual, not the team as a whole.

Whilst a leader needs to understand themselves, my focus had become so inward-looking that I forgot what leadership was all about: the team. Leadership is about human connection, collaboration, and sometimes even vulnerability—it's certainly not about being aloof, distant and emotionally detached. This was the first lesson I learned during my time in command.

The second lesson was about ownership: the more the team owned the problem, the better the outcome would be. Yes, the commander is responsible for the success or failure of the mission, but that doesn’t mean that the commander alone ‘owns’ the problem: the team does. All soldiers are self-motivated individuals who want to be part of the solution and own the problem. They cared about the result as much as I did, because ultimately it would be them who would be seeking out, closing with, and killing the enemy.

Unfortunately, in my experience Army rarely treats enlisted soldiers like invested participants. Soldiers are often seen as recipients of a superior’s will, feedback, and counsel, rather than active participants who care about their own, and the team’s, development, survival, and success.

So one piece of advice for newly commissioned officers is this: achieve buy-in through shared ownership of the problem. Resist the temptation to decide yourself what the problem is and what needs to be done. Good leaders facilitate this diagnostic process, lesser leaders do it for themselves. After all, whilst you may be responsible for the outcome, it’s the team who will be responsible for its execution. 

An 80% solution that’s owned 100% by your subordinates is better than a 100% solution that they no longer own because of your intervention. 

Once the team has agreed on what the problem is, they will care much more about the solution and its execution. This means planning will be easier, more enjoyable, and probably more dynamic too, because your team has already started to buy into the plan.

Again, whilst you are ultimately responsible for the outcome, resist as much as you can the temptation to impose your will on the team. If the team does stray from your higher commander’s intent, reign them in not through your authority or rank, but by giving them more or better context.

Once the team agrees on a plan, agree on who is responsible for what, and then hold the team to account. Inspect, reassess, learn, iterate, and improve. 

The team will also feel prouder when they succeed, because you don’t own the success anymore: they do. It’s always the team’s success, because they’re the ones who got it done. You played a part, but so did everyone else.

Most importantly, because you have demonstrated that you trust them, the team will be more likely to trust you. There are few better feelings in life than to be trusted and valued by your team, especially as one of its leaders.

The more times you go through the process of problem solving as a team, the better you will get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the group comes together to get the job done.

You will have achieved buy-in, trust, mutual understanding, common purpose, and shared ownership. Your team will, most of the time, be able to work through and solve problems for itself. They will know one another so well, and have worked through so many problems together, that they will intuitively understand what is occurring and what needs to be done.

A great instructor once told me that control, properly understood, is the right person, in the right place, at the right time, having the right information to make the right decision. For me, the essence of good leadership is about collaboration and facilitation; the team having enough context to diagnose the problem, and enough freedom to own the solution.


Portrait

Biography

Chris Thorburn

Captain

Chris Thorburn is an Army officer, posted to Headquarters Joint Operations Command.

 

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.



Comments

Thank you for the great article. It is nice to see such an honest and humble account of your personal and professional development. Your comments comparing culture at the College to the wider army provide some excellent points and give perspective for those that are yet to commission.

Hi Chris, you may make some really good points in your article. What I take from it is the need for self-reflection and how important it is for leaders to understand where their own strengths lie, but also where their blind spots are; no-one is infallible. Your experiences and observations of leadership as a junior officer are I think common to many - they certainly resonate with me, also an RMC Duntroon graduate and later Leadership Team instructor and, much later, Battlegroup Commander in Afghanistan. Collaboration is great and for many occasions it is obviously the preferred, or often, the only way to solve complex problems. However, this is not always the case. We train officers (and soldiers and teams) to fight and win in combat. I would contend that when you and your soldiers are at "hell's gate" it is not the time to secure "buy in for a shared problem". Securing consensus on the problem and agreeing the plan, roles and responsibilities etc is a slippery slope.......what is the solution when there is not consensus eg "I don't want to be the lead scout on this one?" or "Why are we patrolling when there are IEDs out there?" . I am absolutely sure that no western Army teaches leadership by consensus as a foundation it cultivating its future leaders. You only have to look to Vietnam to see how this approach, along with a combination of factors rapidly eroded morale within US Army fighting units. It led to the decay of the organisation that took a decade to recover from. Back to "hell's gate"....as officers this is our time, this is what we train for and we must be prepared to fully shoulder the responsibility of command. A line that has stuck with me from staff college from a Divisional Commander, "Don't take counsel of your fears......a problem shared is not a problem halved - it is doubled!!" He is right of course. I said the same to the subbies in my own battalion before our deployment to Helmand. In my experience when faced with the most extreme of situations even the most grizzled infantry platoon sergeant will turn to the officer for direction, "What's the plan boss?" To expect him/her to form a collective planning team to agree solutions is wrong. They all have their own jobs to do to keep their soldiers alive, the enemy under pressure, or maybe organising a casevac, coord fire support, resupply or maybe all these at once. Don't burden them further in order to secure "buy-in". Armies spend most of their time at peace. However, we must train as we fight......because armies fight as they train. There is a time and place for collective problem solving, for junior officers who are at the tip of the spear, it is not on the battlefield.

Of course, there are some situations where leaders need to give quick and decisive orders. However, we should not exaggerate how often this is needed. Whether we call is ‘collaboration’ or something else, I see the article as dovetailing with the Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik. The developed the concept to respond to the phenomenon of Napoleon. If the Prussians couldn’t rely on having a genius general, they would rely on the genius of the whole army. Hence a commander’s clear and concise statement of intent with the short tasks and minimal coordinating instructions. Commanders down to individual soldiers were under a duty to act immediately on their own initiative where opportunities to achieve the commander’s intent arose, or disobey orders that no longer made sense. Western armies, including Australia, have adopted this approach under various titles, including ‘directive control’, ‘trust tactics’ and ‘mission tactics’. But usually they have have struggled with it because it conflicts with military cultures that developed when drill was the method for battlefield manoeuvre, and also with bureaucratic culture imposed by governments. The stunning Blitzkrieg and Israeli victories were facilitated by Auftragstaktik (call it collaborative leadership) against opponents using traditional authoritarian leadership. It works, and it’s a pity that it’s not well understood, taught and practised in our Army.

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