Leadership in Focus: Are Our Senior Soldiers Capable of Occupying the Rear Rank?

By Jason Moriarty May 13, 2019

In this article I will examine how our Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) and Warrant Officers (WO) should reflect on the capability; fitness, endurance, character and resilience required to occupy the rear rank. I will use the Roman Legion as a historical testament to how these expectations and attributes have been forged in our senior soldiers. Moreover, I will focus on the Roman Legion Triarii as the equivalent of the modern Senior NCO and WO.

I will argue in support of the United States (US) Army policy of ‘can’t run, can’t lead’, and discuss whether this policy has value and merit in the Australian Army.

Lastly, I will view leadership through the prism of the Triarii and delineate the difference between leadership characteristics and principles.

Origin of the rear rank

Whilst in parade formation, Australian Army Senior NCO and WO occupy the rear rank, colloquially called the Cerefile. It is thought that this tradition can be traced back to the Roman Legion rear rank which was comprised of their most senior soldiers, otherwise known as the Triarii.

The Roman Legion is a term that can encapsulate all of Rome’s armed forces, and their dominance spanned 2 millenium. As their fighting supremacy evolved, there were notable changes in their application of weapons, tactics, composition and organisational structure; leading to a core of traditions and military expectations that have stood the test of time.

Not only were the Triarii the oldest and most experienced, they were also the most heavily armed. They were used in many tactical formations over time, but are famously notarised in the saying, ‘It has come to the Triarii’, as they were generally the absolute last line of defence if the forward lines were broken.

The Triarii stabilised the line and ensured the Manipulus (120 men) did not lose momentum; as well they prevented soldiers from withdrawing in pressure situations. The strength of the Manipulus was only as strong as its rear rank - these senior soldiers were the hard shoulder when chaos and fear in conflict reigned. Junior soldiers relied on the Triarii for mentorship, wisdom and instruction. Similarly, the Triarii often counselled officers on matters relating to tactics and training. The Roman Legion required every soldier to be physically and mentally strong, regardless of age or seniority. This standard of strength and fitness was often perceived as the crux of success.

How do our modern senior soldiers compare to the Roman Triarii? Do we have the fitness, stoicism, knowledge and endurance to hold our own in a modern setting?


Authentic leaders reflect their beliefs. There is consistency between their values, ethical reasoning and their actions. They also consciously and actively develop positive traits such as confidence, optimism, hope and resilience in themselves and in others. They stand steadfast: they are the last line.

The Australian Army actively seeks people of good character to fill its ranks. The question is, to what degree has it succeeded? Does the character of the Triarii exist in our Army? What characteristics do the modern senior NCO and WO need to demonstrate in order to reflect the expectation of strong, dependable leadership? On a personal level, three characteristics stand out for me: courage, resilience and self-discipline.

Courage is having the conviction to do what is needed and expected of you, not just as a senior leader but as a soldier. A leader must be driven by an internal energy and deep commitment to do ones best, to achieve what is needed to succeed.

Senior soldiers use this energy and commitment to bring about change—even in the face of resistance; to do better; to do what must be done. They have the resilience to embrace change, to learn from failure and become better leaders. The modern day Triarii must be mentally and physically fit (strong), and be able to absorb internal and external pressures that leadership roles create. The senior NCO and WO rank demand the ability to remain stoic in the face of adversity, to become the pillar of strength for both junior and senior soldiers alike.

Finally, good leaders need the self-discipline and maturity to apply what is needed to be successful, to wake up early and do rigorous physical activity, to set standards and to resist the easy path so that they can inspire courage and resilience in others.

Although there are many characteristics that make a good leader, I believe these three are key to achieving success and establishing standards that encourage good followership.

Capabilities of the Senior NCO and WO

The Triarii were physically and mentally robust; they had to be to withstand the long marches, the environment and, most of the time, a formidable enemy. Roman Legion commanders enforced and demanded high standards from their senior leadership. This required officers and Triarii alike to encapsulate the very essence of the profession of arms: to lead by example, to set the standard and to embody the attributes of a soldier so that junior soldiers could emulate. I challenge you to reflect on this as you absorb the ‘can’t run, can’t lead’ policy noted below.

US ‘can’t run, can’t lead’ policy

The US policy of ‘can’t run, can’t lead’ is difficult to find in black and white, but is widely accepted as such in the US military. I took the opportunity whilst on operations in a coalition environment to ask several American Command Sergeant Majors their interpretation. Broadly, if you aspire to be a Command Sergeant Major, you cannot have a physical restriction (permanent) and must be able to complete the basic fitness test without limitations. A permanent restriction would mean you could not lead.

The Command Sergeant Majors I spoke to, support the policy, but agree there are some minor issues in the execution; However, the intent and direction is spot on. The Command Sergeant Majors I spoke to were all in-shape and fit the stereotypical look of a senior enlisted soldier within the US Army.

Implementation of such a policy in the Australian Army would no doubt be difficult. Could it be done? Should it? Is there an appetite for such a policy? I think with some modifications it could be implemented. I certainly believe it would resonate positively with soldiers and Junior NCO who expect their senior leadership to lead by example. At the very least, I believe it should be a discriminating factor when reviewing annual performance.

Principles of leadership behaviour

Australian Army Leadership doctrine dictates 10 principles of leadership:

  1. Be proficient
  2. Know yourself and seek self-improvement
  3. Seek and accept responsibility
  4. Lead by example
  5. Provide direction
  6. Know and care for your subordinates
  7. Develop the potential of your subordinates
  8. Make sound and timely decisions
  9. Build the team and challenge its abilities
  10. Keep your team informed.

Annex B to chapter 1, Land Warfare Doctrine 0-2, Leadership

These principles are a guide and should not be confused with leadership characteristics. The ‘Civilian’ equivalent is unsurprisingly very similar. In one well-regarded version, they are as follows:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement
  2. Be technically proficient
  3. Seek and take responsibility
  4. Make sound decisions
  5. Set the example
  6. Know your people
  7. Keep people informed, provide direction
  8. be Accountable
  9. Supervise; and
  10. Train and develop your people

Instant Team Building - by: Brad Sugars

So…which of these military/civilian principles is the most relevant and/or important to the contemporary Senior NCO and WO? Admittedly, as I pondered this idea, I rocked back in my chair and processed the list. Forced to evaluate my own leadership principles, I contemplated examples of when I demonstrated these—behaving as I thought one ought —could I put a value on each one? I suspect you might be doing the same.

What did you come up with? Some principles resonate more with me than others, like: lead by example, develop the potential of your subordinates, know and care for your subordinates (does not mean making popular decisions) and be proficient. However, like me, I think you would agree we must demonstrate all of them. These 10 principles are the pillars of good leadership and are universally accepted. They are as relevant today as they would have been when the Triarii stood stoically in the rear rank centuries ago.

These principles go a long way to ensuring senior soldiers are worthy of the honour befallen to them by replicating the legacy forged by the Roman Triarii. As I mentioned earlier, these do not necessarily form the character of a leader, but as you would have gathered, they are closely aligned.


Australians have high expectations of our soldiers. Soldiers deserve Senior NCO and WO that are the best representation of these expectations. Further, it is assumed that whilst deployed on operations, everyone is able to fight (fire and move) without being a liability, requiring both physical and mental resilience. Who best to set this example; to display the will to win; to show the exemplar of what 'right' looks like.

Like the Triarii, our Senior NCO and WO should be the last line of defence, the steadfast and true leader who holds the team together when chaos might otherwise reign. This means they must be mentally and physically fit; they should personify principles of leadership, and demonstrate a dedication to improving their leadership character.

My challenge to you is to reflect on this article and determine whether or not you can meet the mark of an idealised contemporary Triarii.

Lead by example: set the standard.



Jason Moriarty

Jason Moriarty is currently serving as Regimental Sergeant Major of 2nd Cavalry Regiment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


A well written and provocative article. I would like to challenge the comparison of the Triarii and the modern SNCO as well as the ‘can’t run, can’t lead’ policy. Roman Triarii and the modern SNCO This to me seems like comparing the Lee Enfield .303 and the EF88. Some of the traits of the Triarii are archaic and irrelevant or inappropriate in the modern setting. In particular; stoicism, which is a double edged sword. In the Roman times the Triarii were the epitome of man in all aspects. In the modern era, with the new generation of soldier entering the Army, the SNCO needs to be “resilient to embrace change” and find a healthy balance between stocisim and compassion. In the past we as a Defence force have failed our soldiers by not talking about our feelings and telling the soldiers to “toughen up”. This has created the perfect environment for the rapid increase in mental health issues within all ranks. If [we] listened to the diggers earlier, would things be different? I do agree that the modern SNCO, along with every other member of the team, should have an appropriate level of fitness. This is why we have defined policies on the basic fitness and health standards within Army; however, I do believe that not all great leaders are ultramarathon runners or Olympic weightlifters. I strongly believe that the strength that we need to possess is within our respective technical roles as well as the All Corps space within the organisation. We are all soldiers first after all. ‘Can’t run, can’t lead’ policy I have thought about the ‘Can’t run, can’t lead’ policy I have tried to relate it to our Defence Force and my personal circumstances. I can see merit for this policy and, at the same time, I feel that it is inappropriate. In 2011, I suffered a spinal injury in an abseiling accident. I was initially told that there was a strong possibility that I would not be able to walk again and that, if I did, it would not be the same as before. After several years of rehabilitation and restrictions I have recently completed a half marathon and have my sights set on a full marathon this year. Had I not possessed the level of mental and physical toughness I do, things could have been completely different. This is why I feel that this policy is inappropriate within the ADF as my restrictions had no bearing on my ability to coach and mentor my soldiers. On the other side of the coin, I see merit in that career decisions made by SWOMS would be easier and some of the senior members of the enlisted ranks would not hold up positions that other people could progress into.

I enjoyed this article and I'm encourage with the discussion it has provided. I would just like touch on a reply, which stated "stoicism is a double edged sword." I argue that stoicism in its truest sense is what we are after in all our members. The philosophy of stoicism should not be confused with the contemporary meaning of the world stoic. Stoicism today is considered to be unfeeling and cold; to lack sensitivity and to not display compassion. Moreover, if you do a synonym search for the term "stoic,” words such as apathetic, detached, indifferent and even unresponsive to ........ can be found. This is not stoicism! Stoicism is the practice of self control - "According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly (1)." I suppose in a Shakespearian since, Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2 sums it up nicely, "tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Stocism and compassion are not polar opposites and this is a false dichotomy. Core tenants of stoicism include; Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance, and I can see commonality with these and the values of our Defence Force. Maybe the study of stoicism is more valid today than centuries ago, and should be considered as a way forward. Reference 1.Wikipedia contributors. (2018, November 1). Stoicism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:49, November 2, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stoicism&oldid=866728446

I would note the significant difference between the expected behaviour of the Triarii and the modern "can't run..." philosophy. The ultimate value of the Triarii was that when faced by the enemy they WOULDN'T run. They would Advance, they would Attack, they would Hold, if needed they would control the Withdrawal of the junior soldiers, so that it didn't become a rout - the only occasion in battle when being unarmed and running fast for a mile-and-a-half to escape the advancing enemy is a personal achievement. The role of the marathon runner was well-understood in the Classical armies of that period. He was the unarmoured, often almost naked, "Signaller" who sprinted away from the battlefield to deliver the news. The experienced Triarii with his heavy armour and proficient with his weapons would still be on the field - victorious or dead. Now, while we often only train for the minimum annual PESA with heavy packs and rifles, every morning for PT we venerate the qualities of the unarmoured message-runner, and fail to ask the relevant question: Where in the phases of warfare do we need to run long distances really fast without carrying equipment and weapons? There is only one - it's called the "Rout" All you lycra-clad sprinters, keep practicing your inglorious flight from the battle in case you ever need it, the Triarii who practice stomping forward in heavy packs will still be holding the line against the foe while you do so.

I love this reply, could I quote some of this for my leadership degree I am currently under going? It is based on the British Army Leadership Code, however in my opinion needs some proper encouragement and some old school direction to push it properly into a society bent on making up there own rules. Enjoyable reads through out

Best response so far. It doesnt matter if you can run, doesnt matter what you can lift. All that matters is if you can fight and your ablity to train and develop the next generation of fighters. That is the role of a SNCO.

<p>Spot on Clinton</p>

I agree I broke my ankle badly in the field and was on restrictions for 18 months. It took almost two years to be able to run again due to the severity. It would have been even more detrimental if my annual reports became null and void for that period.

Great Article Jason, and no doubt thought provoking and confronting for some more than others. Our Army, Our Great Nation deserve the best. This is not to say that broken individuals have no place it just means that whilst they rehabilitate our best are chosen to lead.

Intersting article.. and once something I was completely in tune with however ... the I started to read - churchill, Cosgrove, Lavarack or the palladin. Not your average middle distance runners ...

Solid article Jason and has stimulated some good discussion. Senior soldiers rarely make it to the rank of WO2 and WO1 without managing personal injuries and niggling joints. I'm no stranger to these and have had to work hard at times to rehabilitate from surgeries, just like you and many others. At 40 years of age, I for one still pass my BFA at the same standard as the 18 year olds, and to be honest, I don't think it is that hard. Why? I'm fully committed. I don't make excuses. I know what's on the line. I am certainly no great specimen and often resemble a dump truck needing a new set of pistons when I run, but I invest my time and take pride in my results. We are paid to maintain a standard of fitness and that standard should be a very good one, not the bare minimum. We should take the title of 'Soldier Athletes' seriously. Our culture as an organisation has certainly changed recently, but unfortunately not in the direction of having exemplary physical fitness and strength. We talk a good game, but that's where it usually ends. If anyone want's to disagree with me, I'm happy to discuss it. I understand that many senior members have been injured during their period of service, as I have, but collectively we need to start selecting those people that are physically superior for progression to senior leadership positions. Will we miss the opportunities to harness the experience and expertise of good Warrant Officers? Absolutely. But there are more available as we have no shortage of experienced, knowledgeable and competent Sergeants that are 'fighting age' that are incredibly motivated to be Warrants. For too long we have had a culture of 'Turn Taking' for senior positions as though 'Time In' justifies promotion or selection for higher duties. This in my opinion needs to stop and the broom taken to the ranks. It's not personal, it's just business. We're in the business of winning the land battle and slow fat people that can't keep up but make excuses need not apply. Soldiers don't care how fit you used to be or how well you used to pass your BFA. They care about the example you set and whether your example represents something they want to aspire to be or an example they are motivated to avoid. In my current appointment I have worked hard as an SSM to ensure that my soldiers see me training hard in my own time, suffering just like them at Squadron PT and place great emphasis on their physical fitness by relating it to their survival on operations. I encourage them to constantly test themselves mentally and break down mental barriers they may have. This would not be achieved if I did not set the example for them and 'walk the talk'. Quite frankly, I'm sick of the excuses. When we look in the mirror, if the reflection looking back at you isn't someone you would of aspired to be like when you first joined, then get out. Lets stop pretending that it is acceptable to be an over weight and physically incapable senior soldier and leader within our ranks. If you're not prepared to lead by example, then stand aside and let those who want to, and can, come through and do the job the soldiers want them to do. The diggers want leadership. They want inspiration and they want their senior soldier leaders to be role models and give them inspiration. They want fighting Warrant Officers. If that means that SWOMS needs to purchase a few more reams of A4 paper for termination letters, then look me up. I'll donate as many as they need.

Totally agree with you Stu Camac. Age bias should not be prevelant in our Army but neither should fat soldiers.

Some valid points are raised Jason. I Believe this could be inserted nicely into ACSTC at the SGT/WO level!!! Might cause a few shuffles in the seats. The only friction will be hard, competent, professional SNCOs who are injured through no means of their own would miss some opportunity. However, it is an Army so only the fittest and strongest should lead/mentor

I agree with Jnr, only the fittest and strongest should lead.

I challenge the mindset of "can't run, can't lead" as this is a very narrow outlook, and restrictive to those that may be restricted executing their duties as a part of service life. I fall within this category and do not let the limitations of my permanent restrictions impede my ability to "lead" and I take great pride challenging myself to be the best leader possible. My permanent restrictions are imposed by a "risk adverse" methodology but my character is what defines me and I daily challenge my physical inabilities.... 'Invictus' means 'unconquered', this embodies the fighting spirit of service personnel. Great article and the fundamentals and characteristics of a leader are very valid.

Great article. I wonder what the Romans did for injured in battle triarii.

Leadership 1o1 is fitness. Gone are the days when the SNCO/WO stood on the side smoking whilst their Pl/Coy did PT. Soldiers and might I might add Commanders expect us to lead by example and the best way to demonstrate this every day is PT. I don't believe you need to come first but you shouldn't be coming last.. get out there, hit gym and track.

So are you suggesting the only true leaders are those that can do PT?? There are many other forms of training that should happen for any military force, where senior NCOs should be taking initiative and being some of the first to demonstrate competency and currency in both skill and ability. This should also resonate in the way they integrate with the teams they command and help those who struggle. I would challenge anyone who suggests leadership is all about physical fitness - robustness and the will to carry on though is different and shows also self discipline as well as leadership depending on context.

Hmmmm. In Infantry terms I am positively Jurassic, yet I still strive to keep up and run with the young fellas. I believe that you have to be able to at least do that to not be considered a Joke. Like most Infantry Warrant Officers who are CSMs in Battalions, I am carrying the legacy of the many injuries that I suffered as a Section Commander and a Platoon Sergeant. I can no longer do everything that the youngsters do, but I get out there and do my best, and I find that I am not embarrassed to be down the back. None of my soldiers expect me to be up the front. I am never the last either. Get rid of all of the older soldiers and you will certainly find your Sergeants and Warrant Officers will be younger and faster, but they will not know what they do not know, and your soldiers will suffer for it.

A great article and primer Jason. The topic of physical fitness is always polarising. Staunch proponents of physical ability are often forced into introspection on occasion of injury, i.e. people check themselves, their attitudes and what they have to offer when their physical prowess is no longer on the table. For senior soldiers with 30+ years of service in combat units with little respite in staff roles "off the tools", the toll of a life of arduous physical activity under load rarely produces highly mobile senior soldiers, let alone retirees. In ancient Rome the average life expectancy (inclusive of infant mortality) was 25 years; without infant mortality: 50 years--somewhat shorter than the "threescore years and ten" of Psalm 90:10. The average age of those 'senior soldiers' in the Triarii was likely in the 30-40 year age bracket--the rear rank was occupied by 30 year olds. The entry age for the Legion was 18-22 with an average service life of 25 years. Thus, retirement around 43-47 years old, if in fact you had lived beyond the average life expectancy and not died as a casualty of combat, disease or misfortune. We frequently reflect our own contemporary standard of living, fitness and health with stylised and in most cases romanticised constructs of ancient warriors. My key point here is that the Triarii were not veterans with 30+ years of service still attacking PT at the same intensity and standard of physically peaked 20-30 year olds. Our bodies break down; we get old. As time progresses, we expect experience to increase inversely to our rate of biological decay. I believe the question we need to ask is: what is the next rank after the Triarii? It's the CP, the JOR, the project office etc. It's the place where experience is not wasted overcooking platoon tactics. I believe this is explored by Joel McMahon in "Defining the role of the Regimental Sergeant Major". The shrewdness of our senior soldiers is their defining invaluable commodity to our organisation--the moral and intellectual counterweight that balances the physical strength of our junior, maturing soldiers. They are our applied scientists; the senior mechanics who know how to turn the engineer's schematic into an actual thing. They are our mature systems--proven to deliver--not the new prototypes. Our senior soldiers are the masters of the intangibles like morale; the grey areas of policy, devoid of measures and metrics, and black and white certainty. They have the seen the patterns in the chaos and the seasonal iterations of good ideas. Like Benjamin the Donkey of Animal Farm, they've lived long enough to see the "rebellions come and go", the armour into the unit and the armour out of the unit and so on. When we can't explain or understand the unique and critically important functions of our senior soldiers, we are lost. Even the Triarii need mentors.

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