Property and Infrastructure Specialists

Leadership Lessons Learnt from Defence

During my time in the Army, I learnt a few things about leadership that I feel are worth sharing. From my experience in and out of Defence I’ve found these lessons are as applicable to the business world as they are to leading troops in a war zone! Here are a few I hope you find useful and can apply to your role as a leader at any level within your organisation.
Leadership Lessons Learnt from Defence

Lead with confidence

Leaders are expected to lead. This sounds intuitive right? Well it’s surprising how many leaders doubt their leadership ability. I recall working for a Brigadier General who headed up the Army’s Logistic Support Force (LSF). This Brigadier was an accomplished leader in-charge of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment. I worked for the Brigadier for two years and still hold him in the highest regard for his stoic poise and ability to lead with absolute confidence.

I ran into this Brigadier many years later when he was working as a senior executive with KPMG. As we reminisced about our time at HQ LSF, he revealed to me how much he appreciated the council of those who supported him, including mine and noted that every day as he got dressed in his service uniform he stood in from of the mirror and recited to himself over and over “They expect you to lead them. They want you to lead them. They need you to lead them”.

I had never thought that this consummate leader needed to perform a daily affirmation to help him step out in front of his troops and lead. If you are a leader who lacks self-confidence, you must find your affirmation. You must also understand that your troops see you as their leader and want, and need, you to lead them with confidence.

Never accept inappropriate behaviour

“The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept”. This quote was made famous by the former Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, when addressing ‘the troops’ about misconduct towards female soldiers.

What General Morrison was saying was that not acting to address bad or inappropriate behaviour has two effects: it normalises the bad behaviour; and it makes those who observe it and do nothing, complicit.

Addressing bad behaviour can be very difficult, especially as it often starts out seeming quite innocent. However, minor indiscretions can quickly escalate if left unchecked. Never walk past or accept bad or inappropriate behaviour.

No enemies inside the wire

The ‘wire’ refers to the barbed-wire obstacles we place around our defensive positions on operations. Being outside the wire means you are exposed, away from friendly troops and in hostile territory. When you are inside the wire you are under the protection of inter-locking machine guns, fortifications and pits and in the company with others willing to die for each-other and the mission.

The concept of no enemies inside the wire is one of absolute trust. In the business world you can’t afford to let enemies infiltrate your organisation. This includes anyone who doesn’t have the best interests of your organisation at heart. If you do, you have let the enemy inside the wire.

Understand your mission within the broader mission

When I was a newly promoted Corporal, I was called into a Platoon briefing where the Platoon Commander delivered his Mission Brief. My task was to return to my Section of eight soldiers and deliver my Mission Brief with my Platoon Sergeant tagging along to listen in.

After my brief was complete, my Platoon Sergeant pulled me aside and asked me how I thought I did, to which I replied that I thought “I had nailed it”! My Platoon Sergeant paused for a second, then proceeded to tell me that I had just done a fantastic job of delivering to my Section the Platoon’s Mission, not my Section’s Mission.

As a Section Commander, it was my job to distill from the Platoon’s Mission what were the exact activities and tasks my Section needed to perform in support of the Platoon’s Mission and how those tasks interrelate with the rest of the Platoon. Make sure you know what your mission is.

Support your commander’s intent

Equally as important as knowing your mission and being able to articulate it to your troops, is the need to understand and support your commander’s intent.

This means that when your ‘plan goes south’ and your mission is compromised, you can continue moving forward and support the larger campaign. It also means that you understand that your commander likely knows a lot more about the overall battle than you do. While you may not always agree with your commander’s decisions, once the order is given, you need to support it as if it were your own.

I recently had an indiscretion where I disagreed with a decision made by the leaders in our business. When I verbalised my concerns in front of the group I realised I had lost sight of the bigger picture and forgotten to support my commander’s intent. As a leader, I had also forgotten how much weight my comments carry over my staff. The time to voice your opinion is in an appropriate forum prior to a decision being made. Once a decision has been made, remember to put aside your personal views and opinions and support your commander’s intent.

Empower your staff

In the military, there is an absolute need to push power and decision making, as far down the chain of command as possible. Those junior soldiers fighting on the front line can’t be led effectively by Generals in the rear echelons. The Corporals and Lance Corporals at the forward edge of the battle must have the authority to make decisions that directly impact on their mission and the very lives of those they lead.

In most business scenarios, the battlefield is much less dramatic, but the principle of decentralised command is just as valid. Empowering your staff to make critical business decisions is a powerful business principle. It has the added benefit of widening the decision-making bottleneck and freeing up senior managers, who are otherwise bogged down making or approving tactical decisions.

One third two thirds rule

This rule states that a commander should use one third of the time available to plan the mission and allow the remaining two thirds of time for subordinate commanders to plan and execute their missions.

Too often in business this rule tends to be reversed and those responsible for executing the mission have insufficient time to develop proper plans, resulting in failed missions.

A leader who fails to apply the two thirds one third rule is setting up his subordinate leaders, and the business, to fail.

One foot on the ground

On the battlefield we always have ‘one foot on the ground’. Metaphorically, this means prioritising your effort and developing robust plans to efficiently and effectively execute those plans.

Having too many objectives in play at one time always results in disaster. Also, making every task ‘priority one’ means no task is ‘priority one’. Prioritising and executing those activities most critical to mission success, is without a doubt the single most important lesson any leader needs to learn.

These are a few of the lessons I have learnt from my time in the military. I hope they resonate with you and you can apply them in your day to day leadership of your “troops”.

After joining the Australian Regular Army at the age of 17, I ended up serving 21 years in the Army in various engineering, logistics, project management and leadership roles, including operational service overseas. I served 10 years with infantry units including 5/7 RAR (Mechanized) and the 4th Battalion Commando, before discharging as a Warrant Officer Class One (WO1).