Staff Functions

The Army's Organisational Structure and its Effects on Leadership Roles

By Jeremy Rees July 28, 2021

The Australian Army’s organisational structure divides employees into Other Ranks (ORs) and Officers in order to distinguish between leadership roles. This structure essentially creates a dichotomy between the force’s managers (officers), who hold the highest leadership positions, and workers (ORs), who often become subject matter experts in their field. This dichotomy, the sorting of which generally occurs at the beginning of a soldier’s career, is a highly unusual way for an organisation to choose its leaders. Below, I argue that the current organisation of the Army and the consequent allocation of leadership positions is determined by historical factors rather than current force needs. I then suggest that determining leadership positions according to an OR-Officer dichotomy should be subject to review.

Origins of the Australian Army’s current organisational structure

With regards to the first premise – that the current organisation of the Army is determined by historical factors – consider the development of armies over the millennia. In the case of the Roman Republic for instance, membership of the knight-class or cavalry was based on wealth. Those who could afford to fight on horseback did so. Those that could not, generally subsistence farmers, would make up the infantry based on the differing quality of equipment they could afford.[1] Similarly, membership of the aristocracy or senatorial class, which contributed the bulk of Rome’s Generals, required a sufficient level of wealth to enable an individual to dedicate their time to military and political affairs, rather than engaging in enterprise.

This dichotomy continued in later periods throughout Europe. For instance, in 14th century France, where knighthood had become a full-time profession, membership of the knightly class was only open to those who could fight and train continuously, and therefore depended on having the means to do so.[2] In the British Army, after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Parliament sought to ensure officers came from the propertied classes to reduce the risk they might challenge the status quo.[3] Thus in the British Army, the aristocracy provided the officer ranks and the working classes or farmers contributed the enlisted men.

The current organisational division of leadership in the Australian Army follows the British model. There is a rationale behind this distinction, that is, that the education and training that officers receive better suit them for command. However, academic achievement is not necessarily a good proxy for battlefield success. Moreover, in the Australian Army, in which a university qualification is not a prerequisite for a commission, the historical justification for two entry streams is even more questionable. This leads us to the second premise: that dividing soldiers and the leadership positions they hold according to an OR-Officer dichotomy should be subject to review.  

The need to review the current leadership structure

There are few other professions or organisations whereby future leaders are determined prior to the beginning of their careers and where, after only a couple of years of training, an individual will technically command a large body of people, many of whom may be more experienced. Instead, most organisations choose leaders based on a meritocratic system that requires both skill and experience, and in which people start at an entry-level position and are subsequently promoted.

Early theorists of leadership in the nineteenth century, such as Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton, argued that leaders are born rather than made.[4] Yet while some individuals may demonstrate greater innate leadership abilities than others, authority is at least in part achieved through respect of an individual’s competence, and competence develops through experience. Whilst it could be argued that the current structure is adequate given that SNCOs provide both support and advice to junior officers, as well as leadership within their own units, the partnering of roles with two streams – an officer and a SNCO – may not be the most efficient allocation of resources.

Moreover, the dichotomy between ORs and officers limits the ability of the Army to fill vacant positions with the most appropriate candidate. The Army is already severely curtailed in comparison to other organisations (such as the Australian Public Service component of the Department of Defence), in that talented outsiders are not able to simply join the organisation as senior managers. By further limiting the roles employees can perform based on rank stream there is a risk that the allocation of positions is sub-optimal.

It is thus odd that the Army’s archaic structure is not subject to greater scrutiny. The most recent Defence White Paper and its various associated publications – while considering the types of skills and trades the Australian Defence Force (ADF) would require in future years – remained silent on the traditional rank streams.[5] If such a radical way of determining leadership were introduced in any other organisation, it would, if adopted, be subject to frequent and strenuous reviews to ensure its utility. The current system is an accident of history, and bureaucratic inertia is what maintains the current organisational structure.

In times of crisis the system can come under strain and more agile responses are required. This can be seen in the First and Second World Wars of last century, when battlefield commissions were frequently enacted, to provide depleted officer ranks with a greater pool of talent. If such agility has occurred in the past, there is no reason why it should not occur in the future.

Why should the Army consider change?

It is now time to consider other options to ensure that the current leadership structure is appropriate to the Australian Army’s present needs. Consider a counter-factual scenario, in which no military has existed previously, and one was designing it from scratch. Would the designers develop the current system in which leadership is determined and assigned? And if not, why not?

This article is not intended to advocate abolishing the current system of rank streams nor up-end the Army’s traditions. The ADF has a longer memory than most organisations, as can be seen in the many customs and traditions of both the Army and the other services. Lessons from previous conflicts have been incorporated into how the Army operates and devolves leadership. Moreover, organisational restructure is not necessarily a panacea for overcoming organisational problems. Restructures can be financially costly, reduce retention rates leading to organisational knowledge loss, consume resources that could be better utilised elsewhere, and are too often ultimately ineffective in achieving organisational change. The Army still needs to attract talent, which can be achieved through offering greater pay and responsibility to those that seek it through officer-level entry. Furthermore, by providing young, talented individuals an opportunity to gain leadership positions at a relatively early stage in their career, new ideas and an appetite for change are more likely to appear within an organisation, helping to avoid stultification and group think.

Despite this, it is important to continuously reflect as to whether the current structure is the preferred mechanism for achieving an organisation’s goals. Other organisations, both public and private, have shown they are able to achieve these goals, without the need to divide their employees into positions of power – or the lack thereof – at the beginning of their careers. Ultimately, an organisation’s structure should be intended to achieve the mission of that organisation. If there is a credible reason for questioning whether this is so in the Australian Army, then the currently divided streams of officer and OR leadership roles should be subject to review.

End Notes

[1] H. H. Scullard, A History of the Roman World (Routledge: New York, 1980), p. 64-66.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (Chatham: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1978), p. 62-66.  
[3] Anthony Bruce, The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), p. 65-66.
[4] Keith Grint, Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 53-57.
[5] Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), p. 145-154.



Jeremy Rees

Jeremy Rees is a Combat Medical Attendant in the Australian Army Reserve at 4th Combat Service Support Battalion. In his civilian career he is a public servant, currently at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission.

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