The purpose of this article is to share some command, leadership and management wisdom I received as a junior officer which has continued to benefit and guide my thoughts and actions – and the advice I provide to junior leaders to this day.

But first, to pay due deference to a former Deputy Chief of Army, Major General Paul Symon, who I served under as a Major and learned an enormous amount from. Much of what follows are thoughts and ideas first sewn in my mind by him which I have appropriated, expanded upon, and used in various professional development contexts ever since. Responsibility, accountability and culpability.

Responsibility and accountability. These two concepts are common use terms. Responsibility, put simply, is the art or act of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s purview, authority and/or control. Accountability, similarly, is defined as the state of being accountable, liable and/or answerable. When applied to the profession of arms, we all know that a soldier, sailor or airman is responsible and accountable for their individual actions, conduct, and performance at all times. Their individual actions, conduct, and performance is their purview and within their control. Whether or not they are on duty or leave, sober or under the influence out-of-hours.

For the commissioned or non-commissioned officer, concepts of responsibility and accountability expand from that of individual action(s), conduct and performance – to the collective actions, conduct, performance and/or outputs of the organisation the officer leads or supervises.

A section commander is responsible and accountable for their section and everything that happens within it or is performed by it. A troop leader is responsible and accountable for their troop. This principle extends through squadron and regimental levels all the way to the highest levels of command. A commander’s responsibility and accountability to, and for, their entity is enduring; whether in garrison, on a domestic training activity, or deployed on operations in defence of the nation and its interests.

Culpability. The third cognitive pillar is less understood but of critical importance in-extremis or when things go wrong. Indeed, an improved understanding of culpability, in my judgement, reduces the probability of something going wrong in the first place by guiding the leader on how they ought to exercise their command to establish culture and climate prior to a negative event, action or outcome occurring in the first place.

Culpability refers to who was at fault and/or who is to blame. That is; fault, blame or guilt which is deserved.

When something goes wrong, the relevant individual(s), commander or commanders are responsible and accountable; that is a given. But prior to making a determination on consequence –that is; sanction, removal, prosecution, incarceration, other, or exoneration or none of the former – some analysis is required. Three tests for culpability will be discussed hereunder.

Test for culpability – one: Were you there or personally involved when something went wrong? Every military professional knows that when something goes wrong, the first questions that get asked are always directed to the most senior member who was present at the time. To cite a garrison example to better explain this first test of culpability, I will present a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say, a troop function/bonding session at the Troop Sergeant’s residence one Saturday afternoon extends into the wee hours of next morning at a local nightspot. Something happens (goes wrong) and member(s) of the troop are in trouble with the law or perhaps appearing on the front page of the local newspaper the next day with compromising imagery captured on someone’s smartphone and a headline damaging to the Australian Defence Force. The Troop Commander and Troop Sergeant can expect to be on the Adjutant’s and Regimental Sergeant Major’s mat soon after. If one or both of these appointment holders were involved and ‘leading the charge’, as opposed to exercising influence, supervision and/or restraint or directing a responsible Corporal to do just that in their absence, the Sergeant and Lieutenant would likely be found culpable and may face additional consequences together with those other individuals involved.

Test for culpability – two: What did you do when you learned about what went wrong? Every military professional knows that ‘bad news’ does not get better with time. Commanders at every level establish priority information requirements (PIRs) for good reason. Put simply, PIRs specify what information must be reported to whom and with what level of urgency. It is conceivable that in today’s information age, a PIR established by a section commander will result in a reportable incident being passed to them then through the chain of command all the way up to the Commanding Officer, the Brigade Commander or perhaps higher. In the event that an individual or subordinate commander sought to conceal, deny or deceive a superior in the aftermath of something going wrong, they would likely be found to be culpable. In my experience, individuals who seek to conceal, deny or deceive a superior will face consequences far in excess of what may have followed if they had simply updated the chain of command honestly and forthrightly in the first instance. In the profession of arms, trust between commanders is essential. Trust is ‘built with a teaspoon’ and ‘diminished with a shovel’.

Test for culpability – three: Should the commander have reasonably been expected to foresee what went wrong? Were there cultural factors and/or factors to do with the established command climate which contributed to what went wrong? While the first two tests for culpability are straightforward, the third is more subjective and requires an assessment of context and other relevant factors prior to making a determination as to culpability. By way of example, if members of a regiment were permitted to undertake squadron-level adventure training interstate – let’s say a white-water rafting activity – which was strenuous, demanding and safe but culminated in a ‘piss up’ the night before a long interstate drive back to the home garrison at first-light the following day. In the event of a vehicle accident on the way home, where driver fatigue was determined to be a contributing factor, the Officer Conducting the Exercise and Officer Approving the Exercise, would likely both be found to be culpable and deficient in their command, planning, risk identification and management, and supervision.

Conversely, if an end-of-exercise culminating function the night before the same adventure training activity with the same long interstate drive the next day included control measures such as finishing at 2000h, where appointed drivers and co-drivers were placed on ‘the dry’, where short halts were directed in convoy orders to break up the journey into ‘bite-sized’ chunks, the Officer Conducting the Exercise and Officer Approving the Exercise may be found to have discharged their duties as well as could reasonably have been expected of them. While they remain responsible and accountable for all that may have gone wrong (perhaps including the death of their soldiers on one of our nation’s roads), they may not be judged to have been culpable.

Is there a fourth test for culpability? While serving as Commanding Officer/Chief Instructor of the Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy several years ago, I used these ‘tests for culpability’ in professional development sessions with instructors and course members on Academy-delivered Subject One for CPL, SGT and WO2 Courses, together with the RSMs Course. I challenged those in the audience to consider whether there was a fourth test for culpability. I do not believe that it was simply audience disinterest in my droll that led us to then conclude that there was not a fourth test for culpability.

All those years ago, MAJGEN Symon presented these three simple tests for culpability which for mine have stood the test of time. I for one have found the three cognitive pillars of responsibility, accountability and culpability, and the three tests for culpability, to be incredibly useful in guiding my command comprehension and decision making.