This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.

It is undeniable that command of a unit marks the zenith of an officer’s career. As a specialist, I perhaps feel this even more keenly because opportunities to command as an SSO are scarcer than in the GSO community. Commanding a unit comprised of 80% Specialist Service Officers (SSO), geographically dispersed across the nation, and with the restrictions during COVID-19 was a unique challenge.

My overall philosophy was to set an environment for personnel to achieve capability, thrive personally and learn. This has unique challenges in Army Education Centre (AEC) as I was responsible for ‘inducting and immersing’ personnel into the Service from day one. At the same time, as the corps school, I was solely responsible for their specialist learning and development IOT operationalise their educational effects to meet the demands of evolving methodologies in learning. The challenge to balance SSO learning and development priorities without compromising capability delivery of Army’s learning requirements was a constant friction point that required my ongoing attention.

Impacting immediately upon my philosophies and plans as a commanding officer was COVID-19. The AEC has a national footprint. It is the only learning delivery unit that has over 70% of its personnel dispersed across the States and Territory, with three sub units and six detachments – all relying solely on HQ AEC for operations, administration and governance support. As such, disruptions like COVID-19 posed not only travel restriction but the prolonged lockdown in the home location of my HQ in Victoria significantly challenged the volume of day to day command and support that I was able to offer to my people.

There are lessons and basic principles that I found to be useful. I hope that future COs might find insights that may prove useful in the ‘new normal’ and ever changing working environment.

Staying Alert not Alarmed – Expect the Unexpected

When I was told that ‘there is no such thing as a typical day in command’, I thought I understood this clearly. Little did I realise that unexpected events would dominate my three-year command journey.

Following the 2018 RAAEC ECR and corps restructure, AEC was established as a new unit WEF 21 Jan 19, under direct command of RMC-A. However, AEC underwent an unanticipated C2 change to nest directly under HQ FORCOMD in Aug 19.

This was a change management process that required turning a perceived ‘disruption into an opportunity to transform’. It required open communication, shaping the team at every level and not adopting a ‘we do as we are told’ mentality. My emphasis was not on the ‘what’ but clearly communicating on the ‘why’ and enabling quick, small, but big impact wins for AEC. As a team, we effected an exponential growth in the demand for AEC work across every training centre, brigade and in the south-west Pacific: every member was meaningfully employed. I also employed Twitter in my communication strategy to promote the great work of our people. These steps also facilitated a smooth transition to the new C2 whilst exploiting every opportunity to expand our footprint.

2020 greeted the unit with OP Bushfire Assist support, by housing Victorian HQ Bushfire Assist contingent within HQ AEC building. This was quickly followed by COVID-19 constraints and housing JTF629, again, within the HQ AEC building. Whilst support to domestic ops was my priority, the unit’s day to day business quickly became highly disruptive. This is not an unusual situation as we all develop a sense of entitlement to our ‘workspace’: our office, desk-space gives us a sense of belonging and it is not easy when that is taken away. Relationship building, networking and negotiation skills of a high order were required to achieve a neat balance between staff expectations, unit efficiency and support to operations.

An idle mind is a devil’s workshop’; hence, keeping everyone ‘connected’, pushing AEC’s instructor development initiatives as ‘essential enablers to essential training’ provided meaningful and fruitful tasks to the team: these provided them with the sense of value-adding. I should highlight that this was also possible with a small team of teams across AEC, where social distancing and adhering to required protocols was made easier. However, there was a constant fear of, ‘what next?’ Hence, every communication to my team included the motto, ‘be alert, not alarmed’: be disrupted but not defeated by events.

Back to Basics, Less Buzz Words

People are our greatest strength and greatest frailty in times of uncertainty, hence, command requires careful management of our people, whether remotely and/or in the workplace. How then do we build a ‘Team of Teams’ when the sense of ‘team’ maybe missing from the workplace. What do we really mean when we say ‘putting our People first’? We are talking about human beings, not machines. People need the human touch and development: they need your attention and support, they need caring for and appropriate corrective action when required. Whilst your command structure will have personnel appointed in key positions to support you with these, you will need some periodic targeted checks on the health of the unit. Merely relying on a Pulse report will be too late. Be ready to reach out to each and every member of your unit in challenging times: your subordinates will greatly value your genuine interest and engagement.

Empower your People

Every human has talent which needs to be optimised for the benefit of the unit and Army. As a CO, you are not necessarily an expert in your trade background –many junior officers and soldiers come with knowledge and skills complimentary to your own ability. Embrace the talent at every rank and use their skills to strengthen unit capability, value them but more importantly, make them feel included and empowered.

Leading from the front is holding the fort – as a CO – if need be. Resist the temptation to micro-manage. Trust your people and invite their input and opinions – you’ll be surprised that ‘diversity and contest of ideas’ is intrinsic to your own team, starting from the most junior rank.

With almost two-years of long-intermittent lockdowns, Team AEC, at every rank, was prepared for and always ready to educate, develop and enhance Army’s People. We cross-levelled talent-virtually to meet organisational change and priority tasks. We achieved this based on faith in our ability, through investing time in training and developing our people. Whether it was to promote online or face to face learning methodologies and platforms, exploiting virtual platforms to engage personnel across all States and Territory for work and social events (including promotions and celebrations), Team AEC did not shy away from executing the unit mission.

You are not Superman/Superwoman – who looks after the CO?

Command is the best job in the world; however, it is not paradise. Accept that you cannot do everything and also that you cannot satisfy everyone. Accept that some people will never be satisfied with the decisions you make, it is human nature, what’s important is to own those decisions and the associated consequences, it is something you will have to live with. In addition to these behavioural challenges within your unit, be prepared to fight in your own corner and be prepared for deeply personal comments against you, including character assassination. Such commentary is unwarranted gossip, unprofessional, highly demoralising and heart breaking on a personal level. Your challenge is to rise above this petty bile and prove them wrong by your example. Resilience is usually at its peak and truly tested during your command tenure.

Challenges in the life of a CO are like an iceberg, 9/10ths of what you go through your people never see. I found trusting in my underpinning ‘dharma’ – principles and philosophies, most of which are embedded in our society, is the best weapon to build a supportive unit. I found this supportive unit nurtured me as well. My mental capacity, resilience and preparedness, and emotional strength was still tested despite this.


On reflection, my biggest regret is the lack of face time with my people. Virtual means of connection should be by default – for wider reach – but should not be a choice in command. The physical presence is crucial. Nuance and tone are best conveyed in person. Do all you can to have face time with your people.

Finally, I will say that command will be the best two (or if you are lucky, three) years of your military career. Be natural, trust in yourself and grow with your team’s development.