This article was published in Smart Soldier 60, May 2020. You can access the full edition on the DPN in the Army Lessons Online page. (Tip: Search for Army Lessons).


Since 1900, 101 Australians have been awarded Victoria Cross (VC)[1] in recognition of selfless acts of valour in the presence of the enemy. The VC recipients risked their lives to save others in extreme circumstances, whether rescuing others under fire or protecting others from being injured or killed.

Army Lessons staff had the privilege of interviewing three recipients of the VC, and a wealth of insights emerged from these interviews. To help digest the information, Smart Soldier 50 focused on insights pertaining to TTPs, weapons and firing, and tips to cope with combat and physical responses to combat. This article focuses on leadership, professional development and training.

As you read through this article remember that each insight is a unique observation to one of these members, and does not necessarily represent the experience or opinion of all.

Professional development

Professional development is crucial to improving your effectiveness as both a soldier and a leader. Being aware of the experiences of those who have gone before is critical for professional and personal development. Understanding what others have experienced and working with the right mentor will help you to better appreciate the challenges that you may experience in battle so that when the time comes you are as ready as you will ever be.

Look outside Army. Become involved in activities external to the military as it will help you to see the ‘bigger picture’. Knowing what happens both inside and outside of Army will help to develop a more focused strategic view. To help you break out, think about undertaking further study – from a simple computer or a communications course through to a qualification at a local university. Such an activity will put you in touch with a group of people and a range of views that you may not be exposed to normally.

Develop yourself through reading. You will find it useful and insightful to read a variety of books including military books. Even if you aren’t a great reader of books in general, the simple act of reading will help to improve your comprehension of military concepts and topics. It will also help you to expand your understanding of situations and environments in which others have found themselves, and how they have reacted, as much can be learnt from other’s experiences and observations.

You should also read books that make you think. Challenge yourself to look through the eyes of the author, especially if you don’t necessarily agree with what they have written. Think about why they thought and reacted the way they did. What can you learn from them if you ever find yourself in a similar situation?

The best way to read something you want to learn from is with a pen. Don’t be afraid to highlight key or interesting areas as you read and then compile them into a short summation of the book (use the front and back covers to contain your notes – or use post-it notes. The act of marking a mark on paper and writing notes help you to remember what you have read and reinforce the information in your memory.

'You can know all the info in the world ... unless you are able to do it, nothing changes.' VC recipient

Some good books to read that would benefit the development of soldiers include:

  • Once an Eagle, by Anton Myrer, although a work of fiction, resonated with one of the VC recipients given their own combat experiences, and is good for highlighting leadership skills.
  • Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose, is a book that helps define what a team is all about and provides a good understanding of what it means to be in a team.
  • Legacy, by James Kerr, provides insights from the All Blacks rugby team and provides practical lessons for leadership and business.
  • The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts From the Men of Task Force Ranger, by Matt Eversmann (compiled by Matt Eversmann and Dan Schilling), is a great read that recounts experiences that would challenge any soldier in their thinking around tactics, mortality and the question of right and wrong.

Stay abreast of current events. Try to stay up-to-date on current events for our region’s geopolitical issues and possible threats. While it may not seem interesting at times, it is really important to stay abreast of world events and what is happening in places like Paris and London, and regions like Congo and Sudan - places where things are happening. You need to understand the level of threat, and what that could mean to you. Challenge yourself to be ready – think about what you would do if you were in that situation and/or what you may be asked to do. Remaining abreast of current events leads to constant preparedness – you are always questioning the news and how it is relevant to you. To be a good soldier you have to think. Ask the questions: What is that? What are they saying about it? Why did that come about? Where are the links back to me?

Train for the battle. Battle is an endurance sport in which you need speed and agility. You also need to functionally prepare yourself, and to train your body for what you will have to do.

'I knew that on the day, I would be running to get there, then I would be fighting, then I would have to get out.' VC Recipient

'When you are training, everything you do is broken down to that mission. I trained that way because I didn’t want to let anyone down in battle. I wanted to be better than the guy I was fighting.' VC Recipient

You will need power, speed and agility, as well as being able to sustain your tempo for long periods of time in a harsh environment, sometimes without the sustenance. It requires mental resolve to do this, including the resolve to overcome the lack of water. By training for battle, you help to prepare your body for the mission and the sequence is habitual. It has to be the ordinary not the extraordinary. Mental resolve should be just a matter of course – habitual.


Consider the following tips to develop and your leadership skills and knowledge, and to apply them on the ground.

Conduct yourself with integrity. Integrity is doing what you say you are going to do. As a new leader, remember that your actions speak louder than your words. If you want your soldiers to do something then you need to also demonstrate that you are willing to try it too. If you display good behaviours, then it is likely that your soldiers will do the same.

Work on your communication. Good communication skills are extremely important as without them you will be disconnected. There will be many times you will need to make decisions without consulting others. But when you do have time to make a considered decision, listen to what others have to say and how it might affect things that you may not have considered previously. How you consider what others have to say will say something about your credibility. Further communication tips include:

  • Learn how to have the tough conversations, and develop the ability to have empathy while being constructive.
  • Simply saying ‘you have to do it that way, because we have always done it that way’ is not good enough.
  • Imagine going home and not talking to your partner for a week or so. It’s going to ruin your marriage. It’s not that dissimilar to not talking with your team. Stop communicating with your team, and you will probably end up not having a team.

Be a good morale ‘influencer’. Leaders should be positive, genuine and authentic, while remaining calm and collected. Being positive will influence the majority of your soldiers to adopt a similar outlook, as will having a sense of humour. Look to how you can boost morale – don’t dangle carrots unless you can back it up. If you fail to deliver on a promise, you will lose the trust of your soldiers. Organise something that is interesting and challenging: ‘We’re going to do really great training, and we’re going to learn to be better than what we are now’.

'Learn some jokes ... as a leader it is always good to have a joke up your sleeve.' VC recipient

Work on your self-discipline and discipline in others. Good self-discipline equals freedom. Self-discipline is about having the ability to correct your own actions when you know you are wrong. Whether you are on your own or not, conducting dry drills or on the range, know that you are always doing the right thing. Additionally, it means also being able to make sacrifices: for example, if you don’t have time to do physical training then wake up earlier to include it in your program. If you want more time to do things then you may need to better manage your time.

Just as you need to be consistent with self-discipline, you also need to be consistent in how you discipline others. Be fair and transparent in your disciplining of soldiers.

'Good leaders need to have the discipline to go the distance.' VC recipient

The use of peer discipline can also be very effective as many soldiers will feel bad for letting down their mates. It is harder for individuals to stand up in front of their team to explain their actions and cop their punishment, than be charged under Service Law.

As a leader, have a personal ethos. You have unit values and Army values, but you also need to have your own; for example, integrity, empathy, humility, courage and the endless pursuit of excellence. Make sure you understand what you value, and be honest with yourself about whether you are living those values. A leader must model the desired values that is the point to leading by example. Be aware of what you believe in and what you are prepared to do for you subordinates.

As a leader, display humility. Don’t forget to be humble – humility is key to gaining trust and respect –don’t leave yourself open to being a ‘tall poppy’. Be humble about your achievements because nobody goes into battle alone. Every commendation is given for a team effort. Reflect that in your language around recognition. As a military, we need to be better at praising those who are good performers. Just as a sports coach identifies key players after the game, identify during your hot wash someone who performed well – all it takes is an 'Awesome job, mate'. We need to focus on the negative too but [in Army] we focus on it too much; we need to get better at focusing on the positive.

Lead, don’t ‘like’. As a leader, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of ‘liker-ship’. There needs to be a clear distinction between a social relationship and a professional relationship. It’s also important for subordinates to understand this rule, particularly if the leader was promoted from a group of peers.


When conducting training, use your imagination, and where possible make training enjoyable, interesting and contextual. Don’t pull out the lesson plan from last time and hope that you capture your audience.

If you can’t train realistically, don’t train. If you train at a level that is sub-par, then that’s the result you will get. Put effort in to make sure your training has the desired outcome, even if you reduce the amount of training in order to get better value out of each training session. Clearly articulate the outcomes you are seeking. Also be prepared to explain not just what you are doing but why you are doing it. Work backwards and plan your training to meet the outcomes.

Enhance mandated training to make it the best possible experience. Once the core skills and behaviours are embedded then you can apply the correct levels of stress and pressure at the right time. To make training instances more realistic, pack-march down to the range or do the obstacle course first then do a shoot; you get the bigger bang for buck when you make it realistic and people are used to carrying live ammo in their pouches. For the infantry, you should have your weapons out at least three times a week with live ammo, including pistols. If combat and engaging the enemy is essential for the purposes of mission success, then every aspect of that should be trained for. Using realistic scenarios, or initiative in training is always welcomed.

Physical training is a very important aspect of soldier proficiency and wellbeing. You should be able to pass the basic fitness assessment at all times and without lead-up training. Physical training instructors (PTIs) are a valuable asset and resource for you to utilise. Don’t wait to be told if you need to work on your fitness.

Don’t always rely on resources being available for training. Some of the best training comes from a clever response to a lack of resources. Be creative and open to new ideas when it comes to training. If training becomes too repetitive, it will lose its effectiveness - unless safety is paramount, then repetition is the key to success.

Use your resources wisely as wastage is counter-productive and leads to bad practices/discipline.

It is important to have repetition in training. The purpose of repetition helps you make critical actions second nature – it builds muscle memory which is essential when your body and mind are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Practising your drills over and over across a variety of scenarios will improve the efficiency of teams to be deployed. Soldiers who don’t take training seriously are found out and it’s too late when on operations.

Develop an understanding of how your body will react during a contact. Soldiers should be exposed to conditions that closely resemble what they will encounter during their first contact. This can be done through the use of simulation to provide a realistic environment. Soldiers should be filmed during these conditions to help them better understand theirs and the team’s reaction to improve their performance while under duress. Everyone will behave differently during a contact, and it would be worthwhile to consider how best to appeal to a soldier’s preferred method of learning.

Question what can be done better in all stages of training; do not just do the easy things. Don’t run the same training scenarios over and over again. This is not good for your soldiers. Instead, effort should be put into developing training that gets the best out of your soldiers. Think about using:

  • video footage of the training
  • socratic questioning
  • mentoring and coaching assets
  • red teaming to support critical analysis of performance

Train with equipment you will use on deployment. The initial shock of a contact can cause soldiers to not think clearly (one soldier recalled how he had called for someone to give him a grid reference, forgetting that he had a GPS). Ideally, you should train with the equipment that you will operate with so that the use of it will be second nature.

Enjoy working with coalition soldiers. They may be different guys with different quirks, but ultimately they are soldiers like you. Take the opportunity to understand how they fight to better fight/train with each other.

Do not cram too much into a short period of Reserve training time. Be considerate of how much time you have when working with Reserve soldiers. Mare sure that where possible training is realistic with the resources available. Also, don’t try and cram training into too short a time frame – soldiers will not enjoy it let alone remember what you have taught. While not all training is enjoyable, make sure that you make it at least interesting – your soldiers will gain more from it.

Look for opportunities to improve teamwork. There is always scope for further improvement in teamwork. The use of bonding activities is very important when developing a team as these activities can provide a shared understanding of hardship and develop trust. The development of bonding sessions should be quality time. Where possible extend the comfort zones of your soldiers. Integrate into your training program competitive activities that require soldiers to learn and apply new skills. Don’t forget to participate with your team - this will transfer to the field.


Effective orders must be clear, concise and simple. Orders must be sequential, contain the relevant information, and be simple. You must be confident in your plan and be able to sell the plan through confident delivery. You are asking your soldiers to be prepared to risk their lives on your plan. If you don’t believe in it, they are going to know and they will call you out on it. Rehearse your orders so you can deliver them with confidence.

The intent two-up is as important as the mission statement. It is ‘the why’ that really counts. Make sure that the intent two-up is made clear to your soldiers. Say it twice just like you say the mission statement twice.

SMEAC[2] is a great tool for orders but be prepared to conduct tasks without them. In combat, everyone already knows the ‘situation’ so it allows you to give quick battle orders (QBOs) – what, how, end state. In the heat of battle, QBOs may be all that are needed especially given little or no time. Being able to give QBOs depends on your team knowing each other and your drills extremely well. Your team must also trust that each person understands what has been issued and the role that they play in carrying out that order.

Be prepared to give orders at a moment’s notice. It is possible that you will be given five minutes notice to go out on a task. Be prepared to provide the important information that the soldiers need to know. You could have a full set of orders already written out, using SMEAC, for a range of scenarios. These would normally take half an hour to deliver and so this would save a significant amount of time when preparing orders for most scenarios. It helps to ensure that no important information is missed. You should review draft orders frequently and improve them as you get exposures.


This article provides useful tips for professional development, leadership, training and orders. These tips are lessons that have been earned through the hardships of battle and preparing for it, and will provide a useful basis for other soldiers to learn and be ready.

CAL would like to thank those that contributed their time and thoughts for this article.