Note: This is part of a series. Read part one here.

The Australian Army and Special Forces’ unique organisational objectives make it quite difficult to slide the expectations of leaders neatly into just one of the academic theories presented during my studies. The Australian Army and SOCOMD are not businesses in the traditional sense, however there are three theoretical approaches to leadership in particular that reflect my exposure and professional experience within the command—servant, authentic, and transformational styles of leadership.

Servant leadership was founded by Robert Greenleaf as an alternative view of leadership, the most critical aspect of which is its explicit focus on and concern for followers’ needs. Greenleaf defined servant leadership as a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. Servant-leaders value the people within an organization above almost everything else; they give them the freedom to excel, “awakening, engaging, and developing” them by creating an organizational culture whereby opportunities to learn as well as make mistakes is nurtured.

Authentic leadership relies on the notion that the leader in question is trusted, viz. authentic in nature. They are a “what you see is what you get” type of person. Being an authentic leader means first and foremost that your style reflects who you are, not what the literature on leadership says you must be. Rather than trying to emulate characteristic traits and developing the image or persona of the “ideal” leader, authentic leaders use their natural abilities by playing to their strengths and working on their recognised weaknesses. Just like servant leadership, authentic leaders also have a strong desire to serve and empower others, and they do this by developing a leadership style that is transparent and entirely consistent with their personality and character. Essentially, knowing one’s true self and acting in accordance with that true self is the harbinger of authentic leadership.

Transformational leadership has been defined as,

“…a process of inspiring change and empowering followers to achieve greater heights, to improve themselves and to improve organization processes. It is an enabling process causing followers to accept responsibility and accountability for themselves and the processes to which they are assigned.”—”Continual Improvement in Government Tools and Methods,” Koehler and Pankowski

Transformational leadership theory suggests that its proponents stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity. In a government environment, transformational leadership requires a leader to influence others to accept responsibility for making decisions that improve organizational processes. A leader who practices this style of leadership is thus motivated by helping followers identify what they must do in order to achieve a desired end state. Gill, Levine, and Pitt list the four “I’s” of transformational leadership as: individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. A transformational leader empowers followers by not only being a moralistic role model, but by supporting and encouraging them with interesting work and a shared vision.

All three of these theories reflect a number of similarities to my military experience. For instance, servant leadership reflects certain philosophies pertaining to military leadership, such as never delegating a task that you were not willing to do yourself. Authentic leadership is also inextricably linked to the qualities nurtured in effective military leaders, such as integrity, honour, and authenticity. It is, however, transformational leadership which most suitably reflects my professional experience.

The most effective military leaders are those who can influence their subordinates to work as proficiently and professionally as possible toward a mutually desirable end state. Even though the ADF is a strict hierarchy where total freedom of choice is relinquished upon enlistment, it is the successful practitioners of transformational leadership who motivate their followers to achieve extraordinary results for no more of a personal gain than if it was completed in a mediocre fashion. Essentially, it is those leaders who inspire their troops to go above and beyond their normal duties for them, rather than for transactional benefits, who are the hallmark of an effective military leader.

The most crucial leadership skill

Leadership relies on a number of key and relevant skills to be effective, and my professional experience has led me to believe that self-awareness is the most important. Military leaders must be aware of their own emotions and how they affect those around them as they undertake the daily missions and tasks assigned them. The Australian Army website describes how its recruits conduct lessons and extensive sessions on developing self-awareness, thus instilling the concept in soldiers from the very beginning of their military careers.

In the Sandhurst Guide to Developing Leaders, Britain’s Ministry of Defence examines the necessary requirement for self-awareness, linking it to “continuous improvement and development of leadership skills.” The United States Army leadership doctrine also emphasises the importance of self-awareness, which it defines as “being aware of oneself, including one’s traits, feelings, and behaviors.” It also states that it is has the “potential to help all leaders become better adjusted and more effective” by recognising their “strengths and weaknesses across a range of environments.”

Being self-aware is one of, if not the most, important trait that a leader must possess. It allows a leader to:

  • Fully understand who they are as a person
  • Reflect on their experiences in order to make sense of and learn from them
  • Recognise their strengths and weaknesses in order to identify opportunities for growth
  • Connect to their subordinates in a way which is commensurate to how they are truly perceived by them
  • Fully understand their changing environment through continual reflection, thus allowing them to adapt and operate effectively within it.

Self awareness is the hallmark of a great leader and is a notion the military nurtures within all of its members. For instance, one simple and highly effective process that was indoctrinated from my earliest memories of the Australian Army was the after-action review (AAR). An AAR is conducted after every activity—whether training or operational—which allows for every participating soldier to reflect on what actions needed to be worked on (fixes), what actions were done ordinarily (improves), and what actions were done well (sustains). Every soldier is familiar with the tri-notion of “fix, improve, sustain,” which is ultimately synonymous with the self-awareness notions of reflection, identification of strengths and weaknesses, receiving constructive criticism from peers, self-analyses, and proactive adjustment for self-improvement.

How my concept of leadership has worked for me

My personal concept of leadership has been crafted around the unique roles and responsibilities that my chosen profession has dictated. Each of the leadership theories presented has suitable ideals that reflect my experience, however the transformational style of leadership is the most relevant to my time served within the military and SOCOMD. Since learning about this theory in depth, I can see how the teachings within the ADF closely follow this particular set of guidelines.

This theory fits quite neatly with the way in which I choose to motivate and inspire people through interactive goal setting within a challenging and demanding environment. I now understand the overall importance that this type of leadership has within a military context. Motivating followers to achieve goals by way of the stimulation and inspiration that a leader empowers them with is an incredible concept to formulate a style of leadership around. It allows subordinates to not only accept a high level of responsibility, but it allows them to develop their own leadership capacity based on the trust and confidence that are bestowed upon them. For military leaders, it does not get more effective than transformational leadership.

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