Leadership is an interesting topic and can be viewed as one of the most complex and connotative words in the English vernacular. It is both discriminately and indiscriminately applied across a wide range of contexts and has been described as one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. History is littered with examples of people who have been labeled “leaders”—both appropriately and inappropriately—but what is leadership, exactly, and what makes an effective leader? Is leadership a discipline of its own, or is it a byproduct of authoritative positions? Is there a universal standard of leadership that exists? Is there a tangible criteria that can be used to measure true leaders? Are people born as leaders or is leadership something that can be learned?

I wanted to write an article on leadership as it has been a popular topic of discussion over the past couple of weeks and one I wanted to elaborate on. I will begin by detailing what leadership means to me based on my professional and personal experiences to date. I will explore three leadership theories—being servant, authentic, and transformational—in order to make a comparison as to which theory has inadvertently guided my personal perception of the topic over the years. I will then highlight the most relevant skill I believe has been crucial to my idea and implementation of leadership over the course of my career. Finally, I will explain why my concept of leadership has worked for me in my professional and personal lives.

My professional leadership exposure and experience

Effective leadership has been the cornerstone of my chosen profession for over a decade. Having been a full-time member of the Australian Army from 2004-2014, with the last six years of my career served as a special forces soldier, I have been exposed to a variety of leaders and leadership styles. My exposure to and implementation of leadership strategies have taken place in the most benign of environments to some of the world’s most dangerous. I have followed and led team members in countless domestic training serials as well as combat operations abroad. A critical part of our mission success has always rested on the implementation of effective leadership methodologies, where the consequences for failure are as obvious as they would be tragic.

The Australian Army is unique in both its management strategies and styles of leadership. This is partly due to our unique organisational objectives, being that we must provide a “potent, versatile, and modern army to promote the security of Australia and to protect its people and interests.” The 2nd Commando Regiment has an even more specialised role within the Australian Defence Force (ADF), namely to “conduct offensive and recovery operations beyond the range and capability of other ADF elements.” Our unit’s special operations are undertaken to achieve or support political or military objectives in support of national security and foreign-policy objectives. It is not hard to see, then, how the exclusivity of these objectives are commensurate to the uniqueness of leadership style required to achieve them.

Over the course of my decade-long career, I was part of an established hierarchy where differing levels of management and leadership duties were relative to certain ranks and positions held. There was a very distinct chain of command which distributed responsibilities and thus accountability to the appropriate rank and experience. However, each individual was still considered a leader and the Australian Army specifically includes leadership as part of the “Nine Core Behaviours” expected of its members. These core behaviours indicate the expectations that are placed upon the individual soldier to deliver as part of their employment; they are not negotiable qualities and are expected from every officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) from either their first appointment course at RMC Duntroon, or day one of recruit training at Kapooka.

My personal construct and assumptions of leadership have been formed around the demands and expectations of the special forces operating environment. Even though there are very clear sets of responsibilities relative to rank and position, our organisation does not necessarily reflect leadership theories associated with a top-down hierarchical framework. Australia’s special forces go to unprecedented levels to promote the Australian Army’s core behavioural trait of “every soldier a leader” amongst its members.

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To provide an example, the theory pertaining to “commander’s intent (CI)” and the progressive loss of control relies on individuals and teams to function both organically to, and autonomously from, the command elements during any given mission. This places a large amount of intuitive decision-making and leadership back on the individual in order to achieve their objective the best way that they can within the parameters dictated. Utilising the Army’s doctrine and encouragement of maneuver warfare, this then forces the individual to consider their individual military appreciation process (IMAP) and choose the most suitable course of action (COA) based on their situational awareness (SA).

Once on the ground, things can and generally do change, which again challenges soldiers to make snap decisions and amend their plans to suit the constantly changing battlefield. It is at this point of departure where a unique appreciation of leadership is instilled in the individual soldier. No longer is leadership seen as a learning objective or summative assessment; it becomes instinctual for the soldier because it is now fundamentally linked to his survival.

Leadership is also seen as a qualitative trait soldiers can learn through a series of promotional courses prior to them taking on a new rank. These courses conform to the Defence Training Model (DTM), a system used by the ADF to provide a consistent method to ensure training produces members with suitable skills and knowledge for their use within the defence force. Skills and knowledge are taught that are expected of the rank that a person may be promoted to, thus giving individuals the confidence that they can perform their new job prior to the promotion actually taking place.

Similarly, individuals are almost always understudying the person who is one rank above them in their direct chain of command. This type of mentoring occurs throughout the military and acts as a redundancy measure in case the senior soldier or officer cannot perform their duties. This concept prepares the soldier for a worst-case scenario by allowing for, say, an operation to continue in the event that a commander is incapacitated or killed. It also instills a deep sense of responsibility in every member of a team, as they may be required to step into their superior’s position at a moment’s notice.

I find it rather ironic, however, that despite my professional experience and leadership practice to date, I only learned about the academic theories pertaining to leadership and management while pursuing my master’s degree. I think it absurd that an organisation which places so much emphasis on developing effective leadership, and relies so heavily on the same notion, does not teach—or at the very least, expose—its junior soldiers to such theories and framework. We learn key skills and knowledge to perform our duties, which are defined by certain rank, however the notion of leadership is more or less an assumed role once a promotion has been earned.

(Featured image courtesy of armyphotos.net)