“It is the responsibility of leadership to work intelligently with what is given, and not waste time fantasizing about a world of flawless people and perfect choices.”
– Marcus Aurelius


Until recently, leadership and management have often been considered synonyms, used interchangeably in discussions as though they were one and the same. With an increase in offerings by tertiary institutions on the topic and a growing popularity of accepting military leaders as experts, the separate definitions are becoming more widely accepted.

The simplest way to separate the two is by stating that leadership is the ability to influence others to go somewhere or do something, whereas management provides the administrative tools and supervision used to get there or do the task.

In every sphere of business and the military, a relentless pursuit of excellence in both leadership and management is paramount. Part of that is the individual needing to understand when each situation calls for a leader, a manager, or both. As the Technical Integrity Supervisor within an organisation like Special Operations Command (SOCOMD), it is crucial for me to excel in both realms for mission success.


In an organisation as large as the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and in a corps as large as the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME), it is inevitable that leaders will encounter workplaces throughout their career where the number of poor performers are disproportionately high. What is consistently observed however, is the reluctance by leaders and mangers alike to hold people accountable for that lack of performance. Whether this reluctance is in an effort to coddle the underperformers, safeguard personal reputations, or because of an absence of the critical leadership skill of accountability; not holding people to an established standard can have detrimental effects on the morale of a workplace and the productivity of a team.

Within SOCOMD, the current selection process that is required of soldiers hoping to become members of the Special Forces Support Staff community does help to mitigate against the likelihood of leaders having to devote significant resources into dealing with underperformers; however, it does not eliminate it altogether and does not mean that leaders can ‘data dump’ the skill.

Regardless of the number of underperformers within a team, addressing the challenge of maintaining focus and quality is crucial for organisational success.

This could involve several key tasks, including:

  • Clarify the standards for performance. Particularly in larger organisations where underperformers might hide amongst high achievers, it is essential to articulate clear performance expectations. It is possible, when viewed from senior leaders looking at data, that high performers can actually provide the output required to keep a data set such as an Equipment Health Report ‘in the green’; however, this should not be interpreted as a true measure of success.

    Neglecting to address scenarios where low performers are supported by high performers compromises the combat readiness of the organisation by failing to ensure a fully staffed, highly competent force. The additional strain this imposes on high performers can generate team frustration and potentially lead to what is commonly described as performance punishment.

    There is a risk that those relentlessly striving for their goals may consciously mistreat colleagues who do not align with or aspire to the expected outcomes and standards. Paradoxically, we quite often see discontent in the underperformers when they view the high performers as ‘going it alone’ or ‘hoarding skill sets’. In such scenarios, it is incumbent upon the leader to ensure that the entire team understands the standards and shares a collective commitment to achieving these benchmarks.

    The Army's use of the Performance Appraisal Report (PAR) fails in its attempt to be both the clarifier of standards and a method to address poor performance. The general consensus among Assessing Officers (AO) suggests that the reporting system is overly intricate and is unable to provide an accurate representation of the member being assessed, particularly when evaluated from a Career Management Agency (CMA) viewpoint.

    There's a tendency for AOs to imbue PARs with a degree of personal bias, an outcome that's challenging to circumvent given the mateship inherent within teams. Nonetheless, it is up to the AO in each situation to remove the potential for bias for the benefit of the team and the professional growth of the member being assessed.

  • Address why people are underperforming. This requires a thorough investigation in order to find the root cause of failure. Does the member have the Skills, Knowledge and Attitude to achieve success? Are they committed to the team? Are personal circumstances hampering their full potential? What role does the supervisor have in the failure of the member?

    Quite often military leaders are too quick to conclude that a subordinate is failing because they simply do not have what it takes. When people are underperforming and a proper diagnosis into the cause of that failure is not conducted, the member is destined to continue a spiral of poor performance even when intervention by a good supervisor could have set them on a different path.

  • Develop an action plan. What Course of Action (COA) will convince the senior leaders to commit resources to your team and will those resources such as time, money, or training result in mission success? Those resources need to be capable of addressing issues such as poor performers and also create an environment for the high performers to thrive. Any COA developed in a workplace, like it is in combat, is situationally dependent and no COA designed to maintain focus and quality will suit all situations. As per the previous paragraph, a leader must conduct a thorough diagnosis at that time and ensure the COA is developed to suit the situation, then an analysis made as to whether or not the COA was successful.

    A significant challenge is the enduring presence and, at times, flourishing of toxic leadership. 'Bad apples' across all ranks have been endorsed by others either to gain rank/position, or due to a lack of accountability from their endorsers, leading to a flawed system.

    There is a case to be made that even if they exhibit poor leadership skills, they can still provide valuable service to the nation and achieve success if properly guided. However, it is crucial for individuals in both leadership and management roles to influence the behaviour of these 'bad apples'.

    In order to achieve this, a more effective system for reporting these individuals would greatly aid in managing their careers across Defence. This would ensure a more conducive environment for personal growth and professional development, reducing the impact of toxic elements and improving overall team dynamics.


Retired US 4 Star General and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has written extensively on successful leadership hinging on the ability to delegate responsibility to the lowest competent level. He is quoted as saying, "My young folks got out of every jam I got them into because they had the authority to do it, so delegate, delegate to the point it’s almost uncomfortable". He believed that delegation, providing it is to the lowest competent level, allows the leadership to distribute work to people who will then have a vested interest in the success of whatever that mission may be.

As a result of the delegation of responsibility, in the context of a RAEME workshop, it allows the Artificer Sergeant Major to focus more on the ‘up and out’ while remaining cognisant of what is required of the workshop and its members, or the ‘down and in’ in order to provide the commanding officer with the capability to deploy with the resources required to achieve mission success. This focus needs to be shared by everyone in the team so that everyone is aware of the goals and what authority they possess for making decisions on how those goals are achieved. This method of ‘shared consciousness’ should be used at all levels of leadership but is quite often not.


Demonstrating leadership in support of decisions over which one has no control is an essential part of functioning within any organisational context. This can be a significant challenge, especially when operating within a government department such as the military where policy decisions made by the government are largely beyond our control. The public airing of these disagreements, increasingly prevalent with the advent of social media, is a phenomenon that's virtually impossible to counteract.

At lower echelons, the same necessity to display leadership in support of decisions made from superiors is just as important. We quite often hear both junior and senior leaders alike saying, ‘it just needs to be done’, when questioned as to why a team might be carrying out a certain task; however, that is not supporting the decision and only serves to amplify ambiguity, implying that the leader does not have an answer.

In line with my earlier comment on ‘shared consciousness’, leaders should consistently strive to understand why decisions are being made and ensure their subordinates are aware of what role they play in supporting that decision or task. This approach also helps to prevent the ‘siloing’ of information and creates efficiencies in places where there would otherwise be confusion.

We are fortunate enough in SOCOMD, for the most part, to have senior non-commissioned officers and junior officers who are willing to question the ‘why’ behind the decisions made above them. Equally, senior leaders, for the most part, are willing to be questioned on theirs. There is also an implicit understanding that you can look to your team for the answers and the close community within unit workshops typically provide solutions that have been collaboratively deliberated upon for the best outcome.


No one 'paddles the boat' by themselves. Successful workplaces are generally that way because the members share an interest in achieving a common goal, and that common goal is purely steered by multiple good leaders. Given its unique environment, SOCOMD through its rigorous initial screening and selection processes, fosters such a workplace. It encourages initiative and sustains morale through meaningful work. Leaders can confidently delegate tasks to fulfill the commander's intent, knowing that these tasks will be executed with the professionalism and support expected of a soldier within SOCOMD.

Every member, and especially the leaders, should maintain an unwavering pursuit of excellence in whatever endeavour they undertake. Striving for excellence in all aspects of life will result in higher-performing soldiers and officers equipped with critical thinking skills, thereby better serving the people of the nation.