Leadership

Reflections on Psychological Rank (2021 Cove Competition)

By Bryn Smith October 19, 2021


2021 Cove Competition - 3rd Place

Australian Army values are synonymous with excellent leaders (Hando, 2021). Soldiers that show service, courage, respect, integrity and excellence will excel at their trade, put others first and always do what is right. These qualities naturally establish someone as a leader.

Add a dollop of charisma – something more than just capturing the limelight when you enter a room – and that person will be a formidable leader. They’ll use emotional intelligence to get team members invested in tasks, persuade team members to focus on a higher purpose over personal biases, and communicate a message of hope (Murch, 2020).

Armed forces need top-tier leaders as well as training and equipment to achieve their purpose. This makes reflecting on leadership an ongoing mission. While schools of thought on leadership may change and evolve, reflection is forever – encouraging the individual soldier to reflect on unique skills and qualities they bring to the table.

My reflection is on the importance of what is called 'psychological rank'. Aigner and Skelton (2013) list psychological rank as one of four ranks a person can hold, the others being social, positional and spiritual:

  • Social – your rank in broader society, as decided by your birth, level of education, employment status, wealth and cultural aspects such as race, ethnicity and religion.
  • Positional – your rank in an organisation, illustrated in the Army by our rank system of commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and other ranks (ORs).
  • Spiritual – your rank on matters of faith and the spirit, determined by whether you follow a religion or philosophy (army chaplains have spiritual rank by being religious ministers).
  • Psychological – your rank acquired from life experience, self-education, or facing hardship. NCOs and ORs, while not having a commissioned officer’s positional rank, can have high psychological rank from their time and experience in the Army or life in general.

Most of these ranks are decided by factors we cannot change. We do not choose the circumstances of our birth or childhood (social); religious decisions are deeply personal that by nature require faith, not logic (spiritual); and it is the Army, not the soldier, who decides the roles attached to your rank (positional).

Psychological rank is different for four reasons:

First, we have more control over our psychological rank. We can start developing it right now by reading a book (see the Army’s reading list for ideas), listening to a podcast, or writing a journal entry. It will take time to see results, but the first steps are here and now.

Second, psychological rank does not depend on the other three types of rank. You don’t need to be at the apex of society, the Army or a religious movement to develop your psychological rank. There is also the bonus that a high psychological rank may put you on the path to greater responsibility in the Army.

Third, psychological rank doesn’t create divisions. While the Australian Army reflects the egalitarianism of the broader Australian society, there is always the chance of an ‘us and them’ mentality over differences in rank. Psychological rank – brought through experience and not needing official authority – invites no such divisions. You either have the knowledge, wisdom and experience or you don’t.

Fourth, psychological rank requires no formal course or training. It can be spread by simply being around (and willing to learn from) those with experience and wisdom. This is recommended by doctrine, with section commanders advised to have senior diggers mentor new soldiers and integrate them into the section using the 'cobber system'.

As I reflect on this, I remember the times I’ve seen someone show psychological rank. The instructor telling stories to a class between lessons. Chatting around a fire during a non-tactical picquet. A soldier sharing lessons from deployment on coping with physical and emotional fatigue. We naturally identify those around us with psychological rank, seeing them as sources of advice and guidance, regardless of whether they have hooks or pips.

Psychological rank is valuable, whether it be informal lessons on a trade, the resilience to cope with hardship or the ability to quickly integrate a fresh march-in to their new unit. Psychological rank will always be an asset, it needs no prerequisites (only time and effort) and it is something we can all work on here and now.

References

Hando, L. (2021). Why understanding yourself and others as a leader is important. The Cove.

Australian Army. (2020). Good Soldiering: Our values & contract. Retrieved from https://www.army.gov.au/our-people/our-values-contract on 23 September 2021.

Murch, D. (2020). Charismatic leadership during a crisis. The Cove.

Aigner, G., Skelton, L. (2013). The Australian Leadership Paradox: What it takes to lead in the lucky country. Allen & Unwin.

Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. 4th Estate.


Portrait

Biography

Bryn Smith

PTE

Bryn Smith is a Senior Policy Officer for the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and serves in the Australian Army Reserves as a Combat Engineer.

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.



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