This article was number 10 in The Cove's Top 10 Articles of 2022.

Writing reflections on command is a tricky endeavour. As the saying goes, experiences may differ: each two to three year period is unique. Context is critical, and decisions taken at one time might be totally unsuitable to another. There is also a danger of hubris, a belief that you did something right. In reality, it might be far more effective to get one of the troopers in your unit to write their reflections on your command instead! The soldiers might tell a different story.

But it is important that it is done. The scale and intensity of interactions you have as a CO, engaging with hundreds of people and issues on a daily basis, is understandably full of lessons: good, bad and ugly. These need to be shared, if only to help others avoid the many mistakes we all make. Command, like war, is a human endeavour and there are patterns – and lessons – that stand the test of time.

So, below are mine. Like a parade, a short article is a good article: so I’ve kept it to twelve bite-sized observations that I hope are in some way useful. These are consciously focussed on the role of ‘being the CO’, the things that I tried to use to keep me on the straight and narrow when things got tough. There is nothing new here, but these worked for me over my own time in the seat.

  1. Seek balance and think before you act. It is a truism that the ‘first report is almost always wrong’. When you get the initial inklings of a problem take the time to find out the detail, orientate, and listen to what the team have to say. Instinct is important but try not to kneejerk; once you’ve committed it’s hard to pull back if you get it wrong. Remember that the ‘fact find’ or ‘quick assessment’ is your best friend. There are two sides to every story, try and get them both! Once you have the information you need, seek a balanced and fair approach based on facts and evidence, not bias. The principles of necessity and proportionality can be of great help when there is no ‘right’ answer.
  2. But, make clear and timely decisions. This is the same for both tactics and ‘people issues’. Once your staff have had the chance to turn intent into distinct COAs for you, give clear and unambiguous direction. Key is that the decision is timely: don’t leave it too late, or you’ll allow yourself to be overtaken by events. Recognise a crisis when it is in front of you, and if you have to, act without information – don’t be hesitant to do so. This is the ‘irrational tenth’ that TE Lawrence spoke about, the test of leadership. Remember that a decision not to act is a decision in itself, and consensus is often the enemy of good decision-making. Note the tension between points 1 and 2!
  3. Understand and use risk. Risk is the currency of warfare, and every decision you make as a CO involves taking or balancing risk. This is just the nature of things, and you can’t change it. The only time it becomes a problem is if it’s uncontrolled! In this, military risk theory is your best advisor. It provides clear definitions, a common language, and a clear methodology. So, teach it to your OCs, establish a common lexicon, and use it constantly. Work together to hunt good risk and negate bad risk. Often your team will need to give risk to you, so accept it! But also, if you need to, give it to your boss. You can read more about my thoughts on risk from the article Tactical Spurs Part 2: Finding the Reward in Risk published on the Cove.
  4. Do the things that only you can do. This was the best piece of advice I ever got from a senior Australian General. There are certain things that only you can do as a CO. Only you can teach and train your OCs. Only you can accept certain risks, if the level is high enough. Only you can engage at a command level with your Brigade Commander. No one else has your voice in the Regiment. We are all human, and you only have so much time, mental capacity and energy. So, make sure it is 100% focussed on the things only you can do. Tasks that can be done by others, should (and must) be done by others. This is the art of delegation.
  5. Be a highly competent tactician. There are a multitude of Regiments and Battalions with a multitude of roles, but one thing is a constant: the CO needs to be a highly competent tactician. I specifically focus on the ‘tactician’ element here, not the ‘strategist’. Regiments exist to exert or enable controlled violence at the tactical level. As an Armoured Battlegroup Commander, I sought to be an expert tactician (although I don’t think I made it). I sought to leverage all the elements of fighting power, especially the moral component. I sought to know the doctrine well enough to break it; to apply chaos, fear and friction to the enemy. Ultimately, the CO has to be able to help the Regiment win in combat, so know your tactical role like the back of your hand.
  6. Communicate constantly, and honestly. You are the highest point of authority and the voice of truth within the Regiment and Battalion. While others can echo or pass on your intent, no one can speak with your voice. Equally, no one else can counteract the rumour mill in the way you can! So, communicate with your soldiers all the time. You can’t always do this face to face, so use videos, letters, intents, and orders of the day. Let them know your plans and give them a vision of an inspirational future. Most importantly, always be honest; it is always better to give the truth, even if it tastes bitter. Trust, as the saying goes, is the coin of the realm. The soldiers have to trust you with their lives.
  7. Be an inspirational speaker. We have come a fair way from the ‘just plain you’ approach to leadership, but there is one element of this which is inescapable: public speaking. You will constantly speak in public as a CO: tactical briefs, off-the-cuff talks, formal speeches, any opportunity when you have a group of soldiers in front of you. You have to learn to be good at it, to be able to inspire and persuade your soldiers. There is no real alternative; the secret is practise and preparation. Get into the habit of having your three key themes framed in your mind, always ready to be pulled out and talked through. Breathe deeply, slow down, and use fewer words.
  8. Balance the needs of the individual, the group, and the institution. All Regiments and Battalions are made up of individuals, groups, and institutions. Each of these have different needs, some of which are steady and others of which change rapidly. Ultimately you MUST care for and prioritise the people, as they are the heart of the force – without them we are nothing. But sometimes the needs of the three clash, and groups and institutions have to come first. This is where the hardest decisions often lie. Focus on being compassionate and balanced, especially where people will be disappointed. Again, above all, be honest in your decisions and explain how you have come to them. It will always be appreciated.
  9. Focus on families. The Australian Army needs to grow if we are to meet the challenges of the future, and this means that recruitment and retention are key. Early on I realised that we don’t retain soldiers, we retain families. A soldier and their family need to be seen as a single package, and we need to invest as much effort in keeping the family engaged as we do the soldier. If we don’t, soldiers will leave. Critically ‘family’ includes parents, who guide the decisions of our young soldiers as much as a spouse or partner. As a CO, you have to focus on making Army a positive influence in family life. Ensure you personally communicate with families, especially parents, as wide as possible. Understand what they want from Army, and then seek to provide it.
  10. Be you, but be the best version of you that you can be. No one wants a fraud as a CO. So be yourself, and don’t try to be something you’re not. But work hard to be the best version of you that’s possible, all the time. This gets harder as the situation gets harder, and it’s at these times that you have to dig up the reserves of stamina and determination that probably helped select you for the role in the first place. You can leverage experience to make things easier, but ultimately there are times when you just have to dig deeper and harder than everyone else. As Deadpool said, ‘maximum effort’… it’s the only way.
  11. Be fit, bright and energetic. Linked to the above, try to be a positive force and example in the Regiment. You don’t need to be the fittest soldier, but you absolutely need to be up there as a leader. Train hard, set a good example, and be at the peak fitness that your body will allow. But more than that, my view is that you need to always be bright and energetic: a positive influence in the unit. This doesn’t mean you have to accept low standards, but you positively correct them instead of railing against them. If the unit is in a hole, you don’t push it down harder – you pull it out. Your mood will colour the mood of the Regiment; never underestimate how much it will react to anger, harsh woods and defeatism.
  12. Finally, be committed. A Regiment demands a deep level of personal, emotional involvement: this is almost inescapable. The soldiers you have the privilege to lead might need you at any time, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. It is a sad day if you find yourself saying, ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘I have better things to do’. Go into command with your eyes open to this, and what it means for you and your family. Your troopers will need much of your emotional bandwidth, and you need to be able to give it to them. But this is not a one-sided relationship: commit to the soldiers, and they will pay you back in spades!

There you have it. Twelve reflections that I hope will help others. As I said at the start, context is everything and some of the things that worked for me won’t work elsewhere. But many things endure. The Regiment I had the honour to command was formed in 1860, and I was the 60th officer to serve as its custodian. A lot has changed since 1860, but in many ways the young Australians at the heart of it remain the same. In all, as long as we focus on serving them through good leadership, and defending the country, we’ll do OK. As we say at the Light Horse, ‘Forward’.