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Article – A Reflection on Leadership as a Career Soldier

“Our people are expected to lead by example and maintain a high level of personal and professional integrity at all times. The Army is an exemplar in the community, and is rightly held to higher standards than the rest of society. Therefore, we have a responsibility to always act in the best interests of ourselves and the Australian people.”   Australian Army Leadership 2016

The Department of Defence (2016) defines leadership as the process of influencing others in order to gain their willing consent in the ethical pursuit of missions. I enlisted into the Australian Defence Force on 09 May 2000 and was allocated to the Royal Australian Armoured Corps as a cavalryman. As I have ascended through the ranks, I have also conducted various leadership courses. Each of these courses forms a pre-requisite qualification for subsequent promotion to the next rank. With each promotion, soldiers within my trade are introduced to additional leadership responsibilities. Successful performance leads to promotion and further responsibility. The concept of promotion is similar to most private sector organisations in that leaders are assessed against their knowledge, experience, qualifications and potential. Throughout my career I have achieved each training milestone and been assessed against my peers at each promotion gate. So far I have been successful, however, there are numerous experiences and characteristics to reflect on and seek improvement.

This article provides a reflection on my journey as a leader throughout an 18 year career within the Australian Army. It includes a critical analysis of experiences and situations I have encountered, and identifies different principles and practices that could be utilised to enhance my own personal and organisational leadership skills. It also includes areas that could be improved as well as possible solutions.

Biography Part One – Leadership in its infancy

On promotion to Lance Corporal, I was employed in my first leadership role as an armoured fighting vehicle commander. To qualify for this role I was required to undertake two separate leadership qualification courses which, upon successful completion, set the conditions for my employment as a commander. I was 23 years old and within three months of promotion I found myself in the desert of southern Iraq. In my newfound role I was responsible for my own safety and also two members of my crew. Additionally I was responsible for the employment of a two million dollar armoured fighting vehicle within a hazardous environment.

Kirkpatrick & Locke (1991, p.50) argue that effective leaders not only require ambition and drive, they must also genuinely want to lead others. During that first appointment I excelled in numerous areas. I possessed drive, ambition, knowledge, initiative and a strong leadership motivation to lead soldiers in combat. However, these strengths encouraged a personalised power motive style of leadership. Magee & Langner (2008, p.1549) investigate the connection between personalised power motive and anti-social decision making. This theory was proven through my early experience as a leader, particularly throughout that deployment. Often I would make decisions in isolation, without any consultation with my subordinates. This methodology had potential to undermine the respect that I had earnt from my team. Retrospectively, a better approach would have been a socialised power motive, utilising the strengths of the team collaboratively to drive the decision making cycle. This approach provides team inclusiveness and mission ownership. Underpinning this is a clearly articulated vision with numerous attainable ‘SMART’ goals. With further experience I have learnt that the most junior member of the team can identify the solution to a complex problem. Failure to include the team in planning can result in the least viable course of action becoming preferred.

Biography Part Two – Fighting the Organisation

Upon return to Australia I was promoted to Corporal and six months later we commenced training to return to Iraq. I did not have to complete any further leadership qualifications and was assessed as competent to be employed as a troop corporal. With this role came the additional leadership responsibility incrementally passed on by virtue of the position. Once again the troop was deployed to Iraq. I was now employed as a genuine leader on the battlefield.

Kuhnert and Lewis (1987) discuss the transformational leadership theories of Burns (1978) and Bass (1985). They identify numerous similarities between charismatic and transformational leaders. Transformational leaders need to impart their leadership skills onto subordinates, a theory suited to military organisations as it encourages soldiers at all levels of command to put the needs of the organisation first. Bass (1985) defines a transformational leader as someone that can motivate the team to accomplish more than they previously thought they were capable of. This is achieved through raising the level of awareness and importance of strategic goals and means to achieve these goals. Transformational leaders also motivate the team to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the team, in effect, lowering an individual’s need levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

 

I developed transformational leadership skills, but struggled to fully implement this style. At the rank of Corporal, I was still heavily invested in my subordinates as friends. This hindered my ability to be the conduit for strategic direction and values from the organisation to the soldiers. Being young and headstrong, if I did not agree with strategic direction I was vocal in my contempt. In hindsight, blatant dissent towards senior decision makers was a toxic element within the team as it encouraged deviancy to become normalised. It also clouded the strategic vision of the organisation. One particular issue was the use of personal protective equipment. There were rules regarding the use of personal body armour when deployed on operations. These rules were interpreted differently by various teams which could have cost lives or caused serious injuries. As military leaders we need to strictly enforce standards as they are intrinsically linked to saving lives. We are also responsible for developing the leadership skills within the team. If there is a toxic leader at any level, the corner cutting becomes normalised to the next generation of junior leaders. The colloquial ‘hard right over the easy wrong’ is always the path a leader should choose.

Biograpahy Part Three – Becoming a Leader

After the second deployment I was posted to Townsville and promoted to Sergeant. In my new role I was the second in charge of a team of 36 personnel and 18 protected mobility vehicles. My troop leader and I worked very closely together with any decision making. I was responsible for the training and personnel management of the team. After conducting numerous training exercises and activities the troop deployed to Afghanistan. During this deployment I gained the most experience as a leader. One task was a convoy escort totalling 53 vehicles of which I was commander of the advance guard. During the mission our fuel and recovery vehicle were both destroyed by improvised explosive devices. In the advance guard, my infantry force element was in contact and four Australian soldiers obtained blast injuries. Situations like this really tested my capacity to lead under pressure.

Miner (2005, p. 65) defines a good leader as being both transformational (leaders who engage with followers, focus on higher order intrinsic needs, and raise consciousness about the significance of specific outcomes), and transactional (leaders who exchange tangible rewards for the work and loyalty of followers). He also states that the worst are neither. Throughout my time in that leadership role I further developed my transformational leadership skills. I found the balance between being proactive and passively monitoring the team. This position also afforded the opportunity to develop the leadership skills of my subordinates. As a leader I became more cognisant of the organisational vision, goals and values. This led to clarity within my style  and intent as a commander. I was also influenced by numerous excellent leaders throughout that deployment.

A good leader needs to be able to place his/her own needs beneath the needs of the organisation and motivate the team to do the same. This is particularly difficult when asking soldiers to put themselves in harms way. An example of this was the need to motivate my soldiers to conduct partnered patrols after an Afghan National Army (ANA) member shot and killed three Australians. This was one of a number of similar incidents that resulted in injury or death. The conduct of these patrols was an essential element of the strategic government plan. Failing to continue to operate with ANA soldiers would have significant political implications. In this case I placed the strategic goals of the organisation above our own needs and fears and attained successful results.

Biography Part Four – Leadership Training and Mentoring

I am currently employed in a leadership/training role at the School of Armour as an instructor. We deliver training to potential crew commanders and troop leaders, preparing soldiers and officers for their first leadership appointment. In the last two years I have trained approximately 50 of Army’s future leaders. Considering that 19 of these personnel are now cavalry troop leaders, collectively they are responsible for approximately 300 soldiers. It is good to know the impact of my instruction has an effect across the organisation.

George (2003, p. 12) describes leadership as being authentic, being yourself and the person you are created to be. An authentic leader needs to have strong beliefs and be authentic to their team. I would assess myself to be an authentic leader, although, at times my own personal goals do differ from the organisation’s. Retrospectively looking back during the early stages of my career, I strived to be a leader that I believed superiors or subordinates wanted me to be. This resulted in having numerous personalities based on who I was working with at the time. To the soldiers I was one type of leader; to the superiors I was another. Over my career I have managed to cease doing this in an effort to adopt a more authentic leadership style. I now realise that I do not have to impress everyone and leadership is not about making friends within the team. It is about leading the team towards the strategic goals of the organisation through collaboration and professional relationships.

Areas for Improvement

Communication is an essential element of leadership. As I have ascended through the ranks I have improved vastly as a speaker and leader. However, this has been to the detriment of my skills as a listener. As I have acquired more responsibility I have found less time to listen to people. Realistically there is no reason why I should not be able to give my undivided attention to someone and be an active listener. Improving my time management skills would allow for more in depth conversations with my subordinates and trainees. Through active listening I will gain greater insight into the workability of plans and procedures, essentially keeping my finger on the pulse. It is also an opportunity to gauge the wellbeing of the team. Identifying personal issues that may be affecting the balance of the team as a whole will lead to increased synergy.

Another area of improvement is my ability to receive negative feedback. Humans generally do not respond well to criticism, particularly in a strong leadership environment like military organisations. There is always a fear that criticism will lead to the identification of weakness. A way to approach this is delineating the difference between constructive criticism and general criticism. Constructive criticism aims to seek improvement; general criticism does not achieve an outcome. A characteristic of a good leader is someone who can accept constructive criticism for what it is and learn from it. It is important to use feedback as way to prompt self-analysis and improvement. This feeds the continuous cycle of leadership evolution.

The third area I have identified is the need to be a more proactive authentic leader. Fostering a culture that instils the organisations core values and vision is the key to success. This is a trait I have been developing over the last 18 years. Understanding the direction of the organisation and motivating soldiers and officers to strive towards that direction is essential. Being able to deliver the unpopular decisions without any bias or contempt is an invaluable skill. There are always going to be decisions and procedures that are unpopular. Understanding them and motivating the team to achieve the goal is important. Coupled with good communication, it is a powerful tool that can be utilised to achieve excellent outcomes.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as leaders we should continuously measure our performance and effectiveness. This will allow us to tailor our style within an environment that constantly evolves. Throughout my 18 years in the Army, I have observed significant procedural and cultural change. The key to remaining relevant is maintaining vigilance of your own abilities. Military leaders need to possess the characteristics of flexibility and adaptability; analysing the situation and tailoring leadership style to support the organisational direction. Combined with personal ethics and morals, we create a holistic worldview.

Leadership is a personal journey which is influenced by numerous factor, both internal and external to the organisation. As individuals we forge our own path and use a mixture of knowledge and experience to develop our own style. Over my career I have combined a mixture of reading and observation to assist with this. Professional development is an individual process and as leaders we reap the benefits that we sow.

We are responsible for building the future leaders of the Australian Army. We must ensure to impart the right messages and continue to develop and grow.


References

Australian Army: Our People, Our Values.

Department of Defence. (2016) The Defence Leadership Framework, growing leaders at all
levels.

George, B. (2004). Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

George, W. (2007). True North: Discover your authentic leadership. Centre for business
ethics.

Hyatt, M. (2017). The 5 marks of authentic leadership influence matters, but it’s not the whole package.

Kotter, J. (1990). What Leaders Really Do. Harvard business review. May-Jun. 22-24

Kirkpatrick, S,. & Lock, E. Leadership: Do traits matter. Academy of management executive.
Vol 5, no 2.

Kuhnert, K., & Lewis, P. (1987). Transactional and Transformational Leadership: A constructive-developmental analysis. Academy of management review. Vol 12, issue 4. 548-
657.

Magee, J., & Langner, K. (2008). How personalized and socialized power motivation facilitate antisocial and prosocial decision-making. Journal of Research in Personality.Vol 42,
Issue 6, p. 1547-1559

Miner, J. (2005). Organizational Behavior: Essential theories of motivation and leadership.
New York. M.E. Sharpe

 

2 thoughts on “Article – A Reflection on Leadership as a Career Soldier

  1. I have two areas of interest regarding your post, which I did enjoy reading. It is probably easiest to go through as you discussed them in the post, the first being a leader making decisions in isolation.

    1. I have had this discussion of group or team decision making being applied before, and my personal view is that it should be used as it provides the benefits you discussed and in addition, exposes junior soldiers to a process that Army rarely expects them to be proficient for months or years into their training; however, there will be a point where a teams lack of knowledge or experience would preclude from being involved in making a decision (for example, trainee soldiers at the School of Armour). In your experience,

    – would you attempt to always include the entire team in decision making?

    – If no, is there any specific situations that you would discourage group decision making?

    2. The second is regarding authentic leadership. You stated,

    “I strived to be a leader that I believed superiors or subordinates wanted me to be. This resulted in having numerous personalities based on who I was working with at the time.”

    “leadership is not about making friends within the team. It is about leading the team towards the strategic goals of the organisation through collaboration and professional relationships.”

    My assumption is that your team and understanding of strategic goals has broadened over time as you have transitioned through the ranks from soldier to commander/manager, working with bigger teams as a result. I think that as a result of those changes, it is inevitable to expect a change in leadership styles shall occur, and that a military culture encourages that a separate leadership style will exist between subordinate-superior and superior-subordinate

    – Does the military encourage a split leadership style? If so, is this acceptable for future leaders?

    – Do you believe leadership styles should change as command and management responsibilities change?

    – You have changed your style of leadership over time, in which direction did your style shift? Towards the leader of subordinates, or superiors, or a combination? And what was factored into you making this decision?

    Kudos for a well written and engaging post. You seem to have a good read on your own strengths and weaknesses in leadership, which would have taken a lot of courage to place on record for anyone to look at.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Kym shared your article at work and I am glad that she did. Thank you for giving an insight into your experiences and how they have informed your attitude toward leadership and responsibility. You are an inspiring individual and a great writer – your writing style is very engaging!

    Cheers, Selene

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