Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing? A leadership reflection.By Mick Janssen May 6, 2021
On the cusp of being eligible for RAR sub-unit command, I made the decision to study leadership through UNSW as part of my tertiary education for this semester, hoping to build on my practical experience as a junior officer. Not being one for many deliberate instances of self-reflection, but perhaps needing them, I wondered: do I have any personal guiding principles for leadership? Outside of realising I have been the beneficiary of significant mentorship from a number of outstanding NCOs and officers, what lessons and leadership experiences can I harness to prepare me for RAR sub-unit command, and would they be useful to others?
Who am I?
Leadership is built upon personal qualities and traits. Integrity is the trait key to my leadership style. The Google search defining it as, 'the quality of being honest'. This matters because one of the factors contributing to organisational cynicism is the perception that leaders lack integrity.[i] This manifests in values statements being twisted[ii] (for those in the Infantry – how many times has “Duty First” been uttered as a sarcastic response to an undesirable task?), and the multitude of meme pages where humour expresses cynical attitudes.[iii] The good thing is that you cannot have cynicism without frustration, and you have to care about the organisation to be frustrated. Importantly, workplace cynicism does not affect work performance.[iv] The flip side is that some individuals will always be cynical. For those you can influence, frustration stems from unmet expectations and it is the role of leaders to manage expectations.
How is this organisational cynicism a leadership issue, and how do I use integrity? How does integrity actually manifest in my day-to-day interactions with my superiors, my peers, and the personnel I lead? Every time I speak to one of my NCOs, if they ask a question, I answer it to the best of my abilities, and I if I know it, I give the context for a situation or decision. I have the benefit of time in my current position, so I can make myself available to regularly interact with my teams. By taking the time to talk to people, reflecting and respecting the effort they put into their tasks, I hope I display honesty and integrity. Like many leadership behaviours, honesty, manifesting in regular discussions must be practised. It can be time consuming and difficult to manage amongst the other various work pressures. Taking the time to talk in-depth with others was not something I was overly given to as a junior Platoon Commander; I have had to practice it continually. If I can allay a work related frustration with honesty, a careful explanation, and a plan of action or a way forward, hopefully I maintain that individual’s perception of individual, group, and organisational integrity.
Your communication style is reflective of your leadership. After a meeting this year, a SNCO pulled me aside and said that every point I had made during that conference had been undermined by my swearing. That was a shock as I did not think how I punctuated my points had been excessive, I did not even realise I had sworn that much. The realisation was that if I cannot communicate effectively, how can I be an effective leader? Upon a rare moment of self-reflection, I realised that I must control how I communicate with others, and part of that is knowing what behaviours and actions trigger an emotional response from myself. To do that, developing your emotional intelligence, and mastering your own immediate emotional response is key. Understanding the interplay between leadership and emotional intelligence is important, given that “leadership is an emotion laden process,”[v] and that people are watching you and will make a judgement on your leadership based on your reactions, actions, and communication. Of great benefit is finding that trusted individual to provide feedback on your communication style, and help you understand how people perceive who you are.
Where am I?
My posting to Australia’s Federation Guard (AFG) as a Troop Commander was a challenge. For the first time, I was unsure of how to relate to everyone in my command. Leading diverse teams is challenging and requires adaptability and situational awareness. Being an Infantry Platoon Commander had been comparatively easy. Weapons training, extra physical training, Thursday sporties, time at the Battalion boozer, an early knock-off on a Friday. If I could realise one of these activities for my Platoon with some regularity, and outside trying to help them achieve their long-term career aspirations, I could probably keep the majority of them pretty satisfied (as I was getting an extra afternoon gym session or blowing stuff up with heavy weapons).
But how could I relate to a RAAF clerk, a Navy steward, or an Army dental technician? Looking back on it, I leaned heavily on my SNCOs to guide me, who were not Army, and without exception excellent; but I realise that I did not fully allow myself to relate to the multitude of experiences within the unit, and from across the ADF. My adaptation to AFG, was to my commander, probably less than seamless. “Leader adaptability is the capacity of leaders to adjust their thoughts and behaviours to enact appropriate responses to novel, ill-defined, changing and evolving decision-making situations.”[vi] The situation for myself, being an underwhelming drill exponent, and now commanding a tri-Service Troop, was novel and not an area of the ADF I expected to find myself in when I originally posted to Canberra. Time, experience and situational awareness enables leaders to adapt. Leaders develop expanding role sets through experience, shaped by the situations they face.[vii] The role I had developed as an Infantry Platoon Commander was likely not fully suitable to seamlessly lead in a tri-Service environment, and my adaptation was probably slower than the Troop needed it to be, resulting in my personal frustration in understanding the motivations of my subordinates. I had good situational awareness, just not good enough to adapt for my subordinates within a more acceptable timeframe, and until I could bridge it, creating distance between myself and them. “Adaptive decision-making consists of high levels of situational awareness, coupled with the ability to use that awareness to guide the formation of decisions that positively and actively address the situation at hand…”[viii]It is the leader’s responsibility to adapt to the situation, and the greater level of situational awareness they can apply in knowing their subordinates, their motivations, and the environment they work in, the easier it will be to lead them.
What am I doing?
I have asked myself this on a few occasions.
1) In the Malaysian jungle, during a torrential downpour, looking at two bad harbour positions and deciding which is the least worst for the night.
2) Nine hours into a twelve hour shift as a watch-keeper at HQJOC.
3) Having the unit’s plan to deliver training needing a complete re-assessment and execution as the operations officer at the School of Infantry.
Best stated by a popular cartoon – What is my purpose? I have questioned my purpose within Army a few times and I doubt this is unique. How do you alleviate doubts about purpose? I believe it is through leaders providing vision.
Where those opportunities arise to contribute to organisational change, empower your subordinates to achieve that vision. Seek to carve out those opportunities if they are not immediately available. That vision has a set of goals, and a myriad of ways to achieve them. The achievement of those goals provides purpose to everyone and contributes to collective success. As a DFSW Platoon Commander, I had the opportunity to trial a split anti-armour/machine gun Platoon, giving my section commanders greater freedom in pursuing specialisation and understanding how effective they could be across a narrower set of weapon systems. This year, I have had the privilege to raise Training Support Company at the School of Infantry, giving my NCOs the tasks to re-design training, contribute to introduction-into-service programs, trial new equipment, and undertake training transformation initiatives. At the Platoon level, there are opportunities to provide vision nested within a superior’s direction. That vision may not have any long lasting effects that endure after your tenure in that position, or have particularly lofty goals, but it will provide a purpose for your subordinates and it will provide the centre line from which they base their freedom of action.
Vision requires an ability to inspire,[ix] and is reliant on subordinate buy-in. In both cases above, the initial purpose was unclear, and would have remained so without clear communication and understanding of expectations. In turn, to pursue this vision, leaders must provide the means to subordinates to grant them the ability to achieve those tasks based on their subject matter expertise and ensure appropriate recognition is given to them as well when the vision is met. The more opportunities you give your subordinates to enact change, the more willing they will be to pursue future change.
A reflection on leadership could be exhaustive. My personal reflection is not. By maintaining integrity, understanding how you communicate and thus are perceived, being adaptable and maintaining situational awareness, and providing vision, I believe a leader has the key elements to lead in any situation and succeed.
[i] Dean, Brandes & Dharwadkar, 1998, 346.
[ii] Dobbs & Do, 2019, 7.
[iii] Dean et al., 1998, 346.
[iv] Johnson & O’Leary-Kelly, 2003, 641.
[v] McCleskey, 2014, 81.
[vi] Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings & Thatcher, 2013, 393.
[vii] Ibid., 395.
[viii] Ibid., 395.
[ix] Orazi, Turrini, Valotti, Manning & Mccourt, 2013, 488.
Dean, James W. Jr., Brandes, Pamela, and Dharwadkar, Ravi. (1998). Organisational Cynicism. The Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 341 – 352.
Dobbs, James M., and Do, James J. (2019), The Impact of Perceived Toxic Leadership on Cynicism in Officer Candidates. Army Forces & Society, 45(1), 3 – 26.
Hannah, Sean T., Balthazard, Pierre A., Waldman, David A., Jennings, Peter L., and Thatcher, Robert W. (2013). The Psychological and Neurological Bases of Leader Self-Complexity and Effects on Adaptive Decision-Making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (3), 393 – 411.
Johnson, Jonathan L., and O’Leary-Kelly, Anne M. (2003). The effects of psychological contract breach and organisational cynicism: not all social exchange violations are created equal. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 24, 627 – 647.
McCleskey, Jim. (2014). Emotional intelligence and leadership. A review of the progress, controversy and criticism. International Journal of Organisational Analysis, 22(1), 76 – 93.
Orazi, Davide C., Turrini, Alex, Valotti, Giovanni, Manning, Nick, and Mccourt, Willy. (2013). Public sector leadership: new perspectives for research and practice. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 79(3), 486 – 504.