Having recently completed two years in command, like most in my position, I needed to take some time to decompress. While this incorporated some rest and indulging in the usual Christmas cheer, I also spent the two months immediately after handing over command deliberately reflecting on my experiences. This involved some time each week thinking, scribbling notes, and debating (with myself) in an effort to best define my most valuable lessons; in effect, conducting my own personal after-action review. I commanded a combat support unit spread across ten different locations across Australia, one of just a few that are integrated with a reserve sub-unit, that has multiple operational and exercise commitments at any one time, and that managed to fit the transition of the unit into to a new Brigade during my tenure. As such, I felt I owed the organisation an opportunity to learn from my unique experience. This paper offers a few ideas to those about to undertake command, how to manage change, and how keep your team as agile and flexible as possible in our rapidly evolving Army.
Like many others about to undertake battalion command, I spent time prior researching and reading about the experiences of others. I took a lot away from a number of articles provided by websites and podcasts (from The Military Leader through to Harvard Business Review), discussions with my peers about their experiences, and a diverse array of books on leadership, history, failure, and overcoming adversity. As an amateur anthropologist, I came to believe that the success or failure of a team rested on a few key recuring themes:
I started to use these three themes to define my command philosophy and how I approached command and management of the unit on a daily basis. Importantly, what I learnt through sticking to these relatively simple themes was that it allowed me to be consistent in my messaging. This ensured that my messages were easily understood, relatable and easily adaptable to suit many situations. Most of all, it went a long way to help unify a diverse unit.
Unifying a unit divided by distance, priority of effort, and service obligations was something I was keen to achieve during my tenure. As I had previously been a part of this unit for some years, I was also conscious of the rivalry based on historical unit structures, their relationships to the Combat Brigades, and subsequent attitudes to particular trades. Like my predecessor before me, I sought to focus my attention on a ‘one-team’ mentality, firmly grounded on building teamwork and collaboration – internal to the unit as much as externally to the units we supported.
In this regard I sought to improve the level of communication between our teams, so I emphasised one key question, “If we were all in one location, how would you do business differently?’. To help stimulate communication, we started a series of chat groups on iMessage, which discussed anything from weather in the northern states, how we faired at PT that morning, cross-levelling funds and even what new beer was particularly interesting. Importantly, these were conversations that we might otherwise have had around the office, should we have all been in one location.
Very quickly, I saw that my subordinates were becoming a lot more confident in their communication with me, teams began collaborating a lot more frequently, and an open, healthy dialogue occurred during points of difference where previously it would have likely devolved into a shouting match. This frequent and persistent communication allowed us to become more confident in discussing challenges, less defensive to positive criticism, and made us open to new ideas. Most of all, it provided us with the ability to communicate context, which inevitably made decision making a whole lot easier.
An important lesson early on is that our younger generation of soldiers crave information, and as a consequence relish the ability to communicate (with social media playing an obvious part in this change). So the more I gave them access to this information, and explained what that information meant (context), the better appreciation they had of a given situation, therefore providing a better sense of their responsibilities, and thereby delivering a better output in the long run.
What I also tried to do was provide everyone was a sense of ownership over the direction of the unit. This included a wide variety of things such as managing SOPs, developing concepts, modernisation efforts, and building communication and engagement strategies. I did this because I was very conscious that I only had two years to guide the ship. I had some pre-conceptions about what I wanted the unit to achieve, but reflecting on my time as a company commander, I was often left frustrated when I was not included in the conversation on modernisation efforts myself, knowing that it would influence me directly should I return as CO. I was also very conscious of the fact that I did not have, nor did I need to have, all the ideas or be the smartest person in the room.
I sought to give my junior officers and NCO’s ownership of the future direction of the unit, and harness the shared intellectual capacity of the unit. We started a simple spreadsheet to manage and record everyone’s extra-curricular qualifications, civilian trades, university degrees and the like. I was surprised to see how many of our people had (sometimes exceptional) qualifications in very specific and niche trades, civilian experience, and degrees. I wanted to harness these individual qualities to improve the collective capacity of our own unit. We asked these members to provide short articles, presentations and PME exercises in an effort to grow the intellectual capacity of the unit in the hope that it would drive innovation. This helped to generate new concepts, improve SOP’s, and keep pace with best practice in our civilian counterparts. In my efforts to mentor the Majors, I set them the task of defining what they wanted to unit to look like should they come back as the CO. Most importantly, I wanted to ensure that there was both cohesion and alignment in their thinking, so that our modernisation efforts outlasted our respective tenures, and were unified in vision and purpose.
Learning from Failure
An important aspect of this ownership was ensuring we had a robust framework around sharing lessons learned. Whilst most understand how to run and collate an after action review, being open to criticism and being open to failure is not something that comes naturally to those in command. Prior to assuming command I read a great book about the Logic of Failure, and how it is an essential aspect to learning. Hence I felt it necessary to establish a forum where people felt comfortable in providing, and accepting, criticism. This eventually pathed the way to commanders being more willing to take chances, and be more ‘manoeuverist’ in their desire to solve problems during training and assessments.
Whilst there were some great successes, there were also a number of failures. For me, I did not mind about the failures in training so long as we learnt the right lessons from our mistakes. The biggest challenge was knowing something was likely to go wrong in a training exercise, and allowing the commander the freedom to experience that failure: hence, setting the conditions where junior commanders could fail safely during training became of paramount importance. Through failures came active conversations and solutions during after action reviews, and a willingness to take responsibility for adjusting SOPs, TTP’s or aspects of doctrine or capability.
One of the other great articles I learnt a lot from was one about leadership speed. This article discusses the challenge of understanding your work ‘pace’ compared to your subordinates, and how to find a balance between the two. In this regard, I sought to ensure I maintained an awareness of my own aspirations, how fast/slow others could achieve required outputs, but also how to mentor my subordinates in how to ‘shift gears’ when required. I applied a simple methodology based on this article to ensure my subordinates had the right intellectual tools to perform their required duties at the appropriate pace.
Importantly I learnt that I had to ‘let go’ to an extent. Letting go meant ensuring I wasn’t micromanaging how the team resolved a situation, or keeping them to a stringent process to ensure they came to the solution I wanted. Rather it was providing them with the right guidance and mentoring so that they were able to come to an effective solution themselves. While I certainly had pre-conceptions of the outcomes I may have wanted, and often did my own individual planning, I felt that my subordinates deserved the opportunity to plan, bring their own skills to the table, and come to their own conclusions as part of their own professional development. This helped to reinforce a sense of ownership and trust within the unit, knowing that I was confident in their ability to come to effective solutions without undue influence from the CO.
Probably the most important thing I wanted to do was set the right command ‘climate’. For me, how I achieved my command philosophy came from the climate I set and the presence I had as a CO. If I wanted to build trust, communication and teamwork, I needed to set the conditions, and set the right example for this to be realised. Again, I had read a lot about great leaders and the virtues they held in high regard, but one stuck out as most important – Humility. If I wanted to be an approachable, open and inclusive leader I needed to make sure I stayed grounded, respectful and genuine. I learnt a lot from fellow CO’s and how they approached command, and how they dealt with their own challenges. I had great respect for the way they treated their soldiers and officers, and the strong teams they were able to build as a result. What that all filtered down to was simply trying, each day, to be a good bloke. Soldiers are quick to see through the thin veneer of stoicism and self-importance, so you need to just be yourself, be honest about who you are, and be honest about your own faults. Through honesty comes respect, and through respect comes trust. If you have an organisation that trusts you, the world is your oyster.
I hope the points I have raised go some way to help future commanders. I am grateful to have had such a positive experience and a great team behind me, which certainly helped us to achieve some great things. Remember, just like the enemy has a vote in battle, so too do your soldiers and officers in the leadership and development of the unit. The three simple themes of trust, communication and teamwork worked for me, but they may not work for all. So do your own research, understand the environment you are working in, be good to your soldiers, accept that you will make mistakes, and just have a crack!