This article was published in Smart Soldier 57, Aug 19. You can access the full edition on the DPN in the Army Lessons Online page. (Tip: Search for Army Lessons and select the second search option).


Leadership for the profession of arms an unlimited liability


It is with great pride and honour that a soldier and officer takes the oath or affirmation and commits their life to serving the nation in the Australian Army. The following words are common to all who share this remarkable contribution:

'I, (name) swear that I will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law, as a member of the (Australian Army), for the period of (number of years), and any extensions of that period, or until retiring age, and that I will resist Her enemies and faithfully discharge my duty according to law.

So, help me God.'

They say their oath or affirmation, subscribe their signature and commence their journey. However, at no point, during this personally momentous occasion, is an individual candidly explained the gravity of the unlimited liability contract they have just signed with Australia and Her Majesty the Queen. Therefore, how many young Australians truly understand this limitless bestowal of dedication to their nation? How many truly understand the nature of war and its inherent military risk?

Does the Army understand unlimited liability?

'No young man truly believes he will ever die.' The Spirit of Age, William Hazlitt (1825)

The unlimited liability contract is a concept that is not readily shared amongst members of the Australian Army. Whether it be due to a lack of comfort with the notion, or that it is deemed of less significance than other aspects of military service, a certain level of professional discourse is missing.

This article will draw on considerations for why this has occurred in Army. It is argued that the understanding of the unlimited liability is foreign to a vast majority of the Officers and Soldiers of the Australian Army in 2019. In this article, no criticism nor blame will be derived from the origin of this, simply outlining the reasons as to why the Australian Army may be evolving to a point where it has potentially lost sight of the hard realities of what the nation requires of it.

What is the unlimited liability contract?

The unlimited liability contract was first socialised by Australian born British Officer General Sir John Hackett in 1962 and published in his work The Profession of Arms in 1963. He states that it is not a legal contract; it is merely a moral framework relevant to military personnel encompassing their service to their nation.

When committing to service within the Australian Army, individuals will experience personal sacrifice at all levels. They will be exposed to additional laws, surrender basic human rights and freedom and, at times, assume dangerous or deadly roles. They must be willing to apply lethal force against the enemy and be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of their own life.

Army’s baseline understanding of the unlimited liability contract

The Centre for Australian Army Leadership (CAAL) conducted a leadership baselining activity with wider Army during the first half of 2019. The leadership baselining activity consisted of a series of leadership working groups with the intent to gain an in-depth understanding of Army’s perception of our current leadership practices and training. At each working group, audiences were presented with the following extract from Director Army Leadership’s Command Philosophy:

'We must never lose sight of the hard realities of what our nation requires from its soldiers: respect for authority, high standards, physical and moral courage, self- discipline, team work, human decency, willingness to place mission and team needs before self, tenacity in the face of difficulties and discomfort, controlled aggression, and mental and physical toughness. These attributes are what victory requires in warfare, and they transcend time, technology and tactics. We are representative of society (and must keep trying to be more broadly so), but under the terms of our unlimited liability contract we must also maintain an ethos that is stricter and more demanding than society’s norms.' Command Philosophy, Director Army Leadership, BRIG Rupert Hoskin 2018

The intent was to generate thought and discussion from the audience on the concept of the unlimited liability contract. Those present demonstrated eagerness and willingness to be a part of the process and openly discussed Army leadership in general. When posed with the question, however, ‘What does unlimited liability mean to you?’ the results were very different. There was a common trend of hesitance and inability to articulate what the unlimited liability contract meant across Army or to an individual. The audience often required shaping and prompting to draw out a response. Officers and soldiers were clear in describing their role and their requirement to obey orders, remain apolitical and serve the nations interests. They were not as forthcoming in their responses on the possibility of applying lethal force against the enemy nor sacrificing their own life.

Why is the possibility of making the greatest personal sacrifice not at the forefront of our minds?

Military doctrine and training

Doctrine is the highest order of intellectual insights for a military. It drives training and capability effectiveness. It is responsible for transforming a civilian into a combatant and shapes the way we train for and fight at war.

'The danger associated with violence engenders fear in combatants and dramatically degrades the efficiency and effectiveness of soldiers and units. Realistic training and strong leadership reduce the negative effects of fear by generating high morale, confidence and resilience.' Army Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power 2017

Despite the consequence of unlimited liability and the grounding realism it should provoke with every soldier, the concept is not currently published in any Army or Defence doctrine. If the theory of ‘service and team before self’ is of the utmost importance to a commander, it will be developed and fostered. The trends, however, clearly suggests unlimited liability is not being continually reinforced throughout an officer or soldier’s career, and it is likely that leadership, doctrine and training may be a reason for this. Therefore, the intent is for the Australian Army Leadership Programme (AALP) to incorporate unlimited liability into Land Warfare Doctrine 0-0 Leadership and systematically embed its theory and understanding into the All Corps Officer and Soldier Training Continuums (ACOSTC).

Careerist approach – self over organisation

Further feedback from the leadership baselining activity indicated that there was potentially a perception that some Army leaders were adopting a careerist approach. Audiences commented that they had observed some leaders who were concerned more with advancing their own careers above that of service requirements and the needs of the team. The common observation was that these leaders did not allow subordinate commanders freedom of action and that they focused on preventing failure and avoided anything that may have proven a poor reflection on their leadership. If values, performance, experience, qualifications and potential are what leads to the next rank, then the desire to achieve well in this regard encourages an individual to place self-needs first. Moreover, the prevalence of the careerist approach will degrade the notion and importance of unlimited liability. This is where Army has an opportunity to revise its individual reporting procedures with the intent to focus more on rewarding leaders who are team-focused.

In recent times, many soldiers and officers have lived experiences in the application of unlimited liability, during campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. They may argue that unlimited liability is not a foreign concept to them. They have seen comrades make the ultimate sacrifice and lived experiences where the application of lethal force was required. The argument is real and undeniable. It is questionable however, that ‘service before self’ remains a key motivator in all aspects of military service, particularly outside of combat roles and engagement in war-like operations.


This article describes the unlimited liability contract and its relevance to the Australian Army. An officer or soldier may at any time be called upon to apply lethal force against the enemy or sacrifice their life in the name of service to the nation. Leadership baselining demonstrated that some members of the Australian Army feel that unlimited liability does not apply to them. Further, current leadership doctrine does not support Army through training the unique nature of soldiering. It does not emphasise that unlimited liability is a fundamental belief underlying the profession of arms. For this to evolve, the concept of unlimited liability will be examined in leadership doctrine and included in the ACOSTC advanced leadership packages. The intent of this training implementation will ensure that the unlimited liability contract is understood in such a way that it is being practised and reinforced at all levels of command. In an ideal world, ‘service before self’ will no longer be a concept, but common practice.