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Article – Candour in Australian Defence Force Leaders

Being “frank and fair” with people sounds simple enough that most Australian Defence Force (ADF) leaders are willing to subscribe to the idea and include it in their opening addresses, command philosophies and initial interviews. Outside of these times – when the same commanders are challenged by subordinates who are trying to be frank, fair and fearless in their learning, development, craftsmanship and work outcomes – some of these same commanders retreat and hold their people at arms-length by virtue of rank and authority. These frank and fearless opinions are often dismissed as inexperience or naivety. Why do they refuse to listen to or accept frank, fair and fearless insights from their subordinates? Perhaps the answer lies in our culture.

In ‘Outliers‘, Malcom Gladwell theorises that culture was having a significant impact on airline safety in the 1980-1990s. He identifies that the air safety record of Korean Air was a significant outlier at the time for all the wrong reasons. The reason for their poor safety record according to Gladwell, was their use of ‘mitigated speech’. It was seen as culturally important to not directly challenge authority, in particular when speaking to a superior. Gladwell recounts the final minutes of Korean Air flight 801 and discusses the analysis of the black box recording which reveals several moments where the flight crew used mitigated speech to brief the flight captain of their impending doom. They chose to honour the cultural norm rather than be courageous and save their lives and those aboard the passenger flight.

Gladwell explains that there are varying levels of mitigated speech as can be seen in the following hypothetical example. You are a passenger in a car on a three lane freeway; you are in the middle lane and notice water pooled in your lane ahead. Driving over the water will result in you aquaplaning and possibly spinning. There are at least 6 ways to persuade the driver to change lanes and avoid the water.

  • Command: “Move into the left lane.” The most direct statement.
  • Obligation Statement: “I think we need to change lanes.” Subtle mitigated language.
  • Suggestion: “Let’s go around that water.”
  • Query: “Which lane are you going to move to?”
  • Preference: “I think it would be wise to move into the next lane.”
  • Hint: “That water looks nasty.” The most mitigated statement.

ADF officers, by virtue of rank and appointment, have a habit of enforcing mitigated speech use in almost every exchange between superiors and subordinates. For weak commanders and meek subordinates, interactions with each other are masked as respectful but it is questionable if they are really genuine. This approach has the potential to cause a significantly deleterious effect to the performance of the organisation; without direct honesty our capability suffers. People are afraid of speaking up and saying what is on their mind when it comes to a whole range of things, be it operational planning, exercise conduct, management of sensitive issues or even the benign achievement of corporate governance. However, when leaders genuinely ask for, and are ready to receive, candid feedback, something radical happens. Ideas flow, personnel issues are solved quickly and bureaucratic nonsense is pushed aside in favour of achieving the mission. Another way of describing this comes from our own doctrine. One of the principles of leadership is to communicate and keep your people informed. The doctrine articulates that subordinates will look for logic in orders and in a high trust environment should question where this logic is absent. This questioning, when it occurs, could be described as candour.

Kim Scott, a long-time director at Google, cofounder of Candor Inc. and author of ‘Radical Candor – How to be a Kick ass boss’ is a crusader for being frank and fair in the modern workplace. Her book speaks to the ideas of giving a damn (Caring Personally) and providing constructive criticism (Challenging Directly) to help people grow. Scott has also presented her ideas at a number of leadership conferences (find an example here).Key to her theory is the four quadrant diagram in figure 1.


Figure 1, Scott’s Graph


Scott’s graph results in the following four quadrants:

  • Radical Candour – Having empathy for your people and challenging them to do their best.
  • Obnoxious Aggression – Failing to have empathy, but constantly challenging people.
  • Manipulative Insecurity – Failing to have empathy or challenge people.
  • Ruinous Empathy – Failing to challenge.

Senior leaders and commanders who can tolerate non-mitigated speech and radical candour, as Scott identifies, are far more capable of accepting advice from subordinates and have a significantly higher rate of mission achievement. Those same commanders are also ready for personal growth and to receive accurate feedback on their performance as a commander. Further, they create high trust environments which foster innovation, initiative and good tempo in sound decision making. This idea is supported by Tim Jones in his Grounded Curiosity blog post about Driving Innovation Forward. Jones states that for innovation “the key enabler… is a command culture that doesn’t punish ‘failed’ experiments.” This translates into allowing subordinates to be candid and take risks in order to learn. Subordinates who are capable of being candid are also more confident in their daily interactions with their superiors and are far more likely to openly discuss their weaknesses and seek development opportunities.

Interestingly, one of the common idioms taught to junior officers in training is to ‘act as if’ or ‘to fake it until you make it’. There is no denying that confidence breeds confidence; however the danger with this mentality is that too often the false confidence becomes arrogance, which is not backed up by knowledge, skill or talent. That arrogance then becomes the ‘can-do’ attitude that our small defence force is famous for, but for all the wrong reasons. I have witnessed peers and superiors lie directly to their superiors in spirit of the ‘can do’ attitude, and to save face in absolute fear of failure. I believe that if they had been able to be candid in their advice and daily exchanges they would have identified that they had room for personal growth and greater mission accomplishment. Instead they persisted with mitigated speech and arrogantly faked it until they made it … until they could get out of the room. Ultimately, they failed to inspire their commander to honour their agreement to be frank and fair.

The path of change for the ADF when it comes to candour is simple: allow your people to explore what it feels like to speak to you as a person. This may find them walking dangerously close to being insubordinate or being overly familiar. Teach, coach and mentor them to find the line, show them how you do it with your superiors, and correct them in a constructive way when they get it wrong.

To conclude, if you subscribe to the idea of being frank and fair, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I as honest with my subordinates and myself with regard to my performance as I can be, or am I afraid to reveal my true self?
  • Can I inspire my subordinates to be more candid with me by showing them candour with my superior?
  • What am I not getting from my subordinates by accepting their use of mitigated speech?


About the author: Wes Bartlett is a Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Officer. In 2017 and 18 he was Divisional Officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where he actively sought to employ ‘radical candour’ as part of training future ADF leaders.  


3 thoughts on “Article – Candour in Australian Defence Force Leaders

  1. Great article. It takes a humble, mature leader to be comfortable creating this leadership climate. Putting ego aside can benefit all leaders and their people, which will open meaningful communication channels. The leadership environment is changing as globalisation, urbanisation, technology, immediate access to information and instant means of communication pervade our lives.

  2. Thanks Wes for a well-presented and thought-provoking article. I certainly agree with your thesis: leaders must cultivate an environment where differing views and constructive critique are not only welcomed, but seen as good character and professional behaviour. I suggest (partly echoing Darren’s Murch above) that confident leaders do this well, because they A) are comfortable in their skin and don’t feel threatened by differing views, and B) have the grace and good sense to understand that they could not possibly have all the right answers themselves and can only benefit from others’ advice. I don’t think we have a major problem with this in the Australian Army, because our cultural background includes critical thinking and candour, but perhaps I am mistaken and in any case we can always improve. I would add that this is a skill set for subordinates also: it’s not just a matter of WHETHER you express a difference of opinion with authority, but HOW you go about doing it. As part of our RMC-A led body of work on Australian Army leadership development, we see this as an important area for improvement and are titling it “Contributory Dissent”. The key point being to add value in a respectful way, be convincing and influential, make change and do it in a way that contributes to the leadership climate and the organisation’s effectiveness. A tall order perhaps, so more discussion is welcome! Again, good on you for taking the trouble to express yourself and contribute.

  3. Great article compare Gen Richard Nugee on leadership where he advocates a similar approach. Strangely all the Australian exchange officers i met on Ex Long Look were very far from shy and retiring in offering an opinion! And in WW2 weren’t the Diggers noted for being constructively “obnoxious and aggressive”?

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