This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.
Instructing within the ADF is one of the most challenging roles anyone can take on; yet, it can be the most rewarding. Instruction requires you to look at not only your own skillsets in a different light, but also how you can positively influence those you seek to lead. Whilst my reflection is that of my time as an instructor, I use the word lead rather than instruct purposefully throughout. My conviction is that we should look to lead rather than instruct wherever possible. leading implies a means by which you can encourage or willingly steer someone to a particular direction, rather than instruction, which implies showing or forcing them down one. The desired end state is that they think critically and want to make the best decisions rather than doing what you or a textbook alone dictates to be correct.
During my time as an instructor at ADFA, I was fortunate to spend time as both a PTI and a military skills instructor. The valuable skills I learnt were applicable to a number of different contexts; mine primarily being as a human performance metric.
1. “A body in motion wants to stay in motion, a body at rest seeks more rest”
The following is an adaptation of Newton’s first law, and from a performance perspective is built on the premise that the success of both the team and individuals you seek to lead are a reflection of the stimulus provided. Establishing a culture early based on performance and productivity is essential, as increasing tempo and changing the output asked overnight is a difficult task if low performance or standards have become accepted as the norm. Those that are challenged or asked to achieve higher standards early in their career will generally strive to achieve this. Those who are left to achieve the parity will generally only ever achieve average. Pygmalion goes to boot camp, a study in the 80s, confirmed that those instructors who set higher standards for their soldiers naturally had much higher scores.
2. What have your trainees or team taken from you today? How have you worked at making yourself redundant?
There was something I learnt very early on during my time as an instructor, and it was not something I could have learnt in a textbook or even in a military environment. After a chance encounter during a course run by the Australian Institute of Sport, I spent some time with one of the head coaches who shared with me his idea of a successful session.
The lesson learnt was that time is valuable and needs to be planned. The lesson plan needs to be adapted to you as an instructor and not just picked up on the day – which the ADF teaches well. What is not taught is this formula for leadership or instruction. Have they got their dollars’ worth out of you today? The ADF usually talks in terms of time not dollars, so hearing this I was intrigued. I was then asked how many people I instruct in a session, and for how long they have with me per session? If we take a standard military lesson of 40 minutes with an average group size of 40 this works very simply in the formula I was given. 40 trainees divided by 40 minutes: on average they are getting at most 1 minute of quality time. Therefore, in my session, I only have the equivalent of one minute per person. Not a very big window of opportunity; but none-the-less an excellent planning tool to ensure that there is at least one minute of substance in that lesson that resonates with each.
Formula for success of instruction
Number of persons / number of minutes of instruction = the amount of substance that each individual should be taking from the session. “How much of your attention they are actually getting?”
Your time is indeed valuable; but you need to think that it is even more valuable to your team or trainees. They need and crave your time; however, never do something just for the sake of doing something. Always have an outcome and learning metric that is tangible or meaningful. If possible, relevance to combat and the combat mindset should be the priority. The reality is that one day you will not be there or one of the team may be asked to step up and take your place, and you should be making that transition seamless so that the end-state or mission success can always be achieved.
3. People are always going to be different; you need to be able to adapt to them; they should not be forced into always adapting to you.
The power of an instructor is their ability to challenge thought in the group, but also find ways to reach out to the needs of the individual. This means you need to get to know them! An instructor treating their people as a statistic will not inspire or encourage them to succeed. If you treat them as a person, you have the ability to shape them into the future and reach their potential. How do you get the most out of them?
Engaged leadership methodologies work. This means learning who they are and ensuring they are valued, which is proven to increase performance and confidence. This can be as simple as telling the kid who always gives it everything but never quite breaks out of the middle third that their effort is being noticed. Or the member who is struggling in certain areas about what they are doing well. Performance psychology is a complicated field; however, the task of getting the most out of your team starts with you.
4. Everyone needs a mentor; and everyone needs to have a voice.
A mentor is someone to guide, encourage, and simply bring you back down to earth when it is needed. As a leader who do you turn to for support? In reality, leadership is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the greatest lessons I learnt was the power a mentor can have on achieving the best possible outcome for yourself. I assert that any junior leader wishing to be successful should look at finding a way to replicate this in their career. This worked best when working with someone outside of your chain of command; allowing you to be open in sharing ideas, but also helping to reshape these when explored with someone who does not have any personal stake and is free from bias.
Defence has rightly moved down the path in diversifying our workplace; however, many leaders do not provide the culture to enable the value of this diversity. On the backend of this leaders need to empower those within the section or team to speak up and not be afraid of saying something you or the team need to hear, even if you will not like it. Everyone has a stake, and whilst I acknowledge there are times when an ‘executive’ decision is required – especially during combative actions – the reality is that everyone will respond better knowing they have a say in the planning through open dialogue, which allows for the team as a whole to learn and improve.
These four leadership methodologies allowed me, as an instructor, to enhance my capacity to deliver meaningful and quality outcomes and contribute to the future of ADF capability. These simple ideas would only enhance any junior leaders’ ability to lead a team to perform at full potential.