Updated: Aug 7
Wardaddy: "I won't ask you to do anything I haven't done myself..."
A signature of successful teams is a culture of winning cultivated by natural leaders who empower their people to operate independently and with initiative.
Successful leaders know when to lead from the front, & when to hang back and allow their team to lead by their own decision making; think "Recon Pull vs Command Push".
Critical is the capacity to know when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out of the way.
True leaders accept full responsibility for failures, but acknowledge credit for success sits on the shoulders of the team.
At 45 I find myself reflecting on the learning of leadership and its application in both the military and in business. I base my thoughts on a solid background in leadership grounded by an upbringing in farming, a subsequent 21 years of service in the Army, and now a number of years in private enterprise. One thing which rings true, is that despite a good 30 years of learning, not a day goes by where there isn't a lesson on leadership served up, be that good, bad or ugly.
An art not a science...
The definition of leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal, led by someone who possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills that makes others want to follow their direction. In military application the definition can be extended further, as the task is often made more difficult when the common goal can be dangerous and difficult to achieve by people who may be afraid of the task (think the Landings at Normandy for context).
A signature of successful teams is a culture of winning developed by natural leaders who empower their people to operate independently and with initiative. I have seen this first hand in two organisations throughout my career, firstly in service with the 1st Armoured Regiment (Tank), and secondly during my service with Special Operations Command.
My first Brigade Commander (BRIG JJ Wallace) and Commanding Officer (LTCOL C. Orme) would have lasting influences on both my career development and thoughts on leadership. Wallace was an Infantry Officer with a special forces background who was the first to command a Mechanised Brigade, and Orme was a shining light who championed the relevance of the Tank as a capability to be retained within the Australian Army, most notably capped by the introduction into service of the M1 Abrams Tank to replace an ageing warhorse in the Leopard Tank.
Both men had a demonstrated natural inclination to think strategcally, making all leaders from Junior NCOs to Squadron Commanders think of the higher and lower order effects of their decisions, inculcating a culture of knowing when to lead from the front and when to hang back, allowing their teams to lead by their own decision making (think "Recon Pull vs Command Push"). When they were performing well they would let the junior leaders pull the battlegroups forward; when they stalled they would give them the push they needed to maintain momentum in the battlespace.
More importantly they allowed their junior leaders to fail, and fail fast, as the best lessons are learnt from adversity and understanding the consequences of decisions made that affect the outcome of the Team. The guiding principle was simple; right thought process, wrong decision, learn from it and don't make the same mistake again. In creating this learning environment, they created successful teams with individual and collective skills that would go on to be applied in the operational environments of East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. The leaders they trained during 1997-1999 are emerging as the senior leadership of the Australian Defence Force during one of the most conflict centric periods in modern history; made more notable that the period during which this training occurred was the longest period of peacetime for the Australian Army since the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
The second instance was based around my time in Special Operations Command in the latter years of my military career; not as a Special Forces Operator, but as a Logistics Officer responsible for planning and supporting a range of operations domestically and abroad. It was during this period that I truly witnessed another leadership style with blurred lines around who the assigned leaders were, versus the leaders who came to the front in small agile teams operating in unique dynamic environments where decisions at the tactical level had consequences at strategic political levels. The highlight of my career was the opportunity to deploy with two rotations of the Task Group in Afghanistan, where daily I gained exposure to a unique organisation operating at the peak of leadership and military skills, at the tip of the spear in warrior speak.
The special forces secret to success, among many things, is built on culture. A culture that focusses on developing quality personnel, through high level training, and breeding a detailed level of understanding of the mission at all levels. This is critical when small teams of personnel are called upon to provide unique capabilities for government, often to conduct protracted operations in remote areas with little tactical level support.
In developing these small teams, leaders become critical in supporting team members to develop mission critical skills, often in areas which is not their primary role. They are also required to know the outcome that is intended; that is the "why" behind the mission, so that should the environment change and they are cut off they can make decisions in the field that will still allow the mission to succeed, or to make the call for it to be aborted should the situation dictate. Key among this special forces culture is that it is not the most senior person in the room who is the smartest, but rather the natural leader who sees the right answer at that time that the team requires to achieve mission success.
The loneliness of Leadership
Leadership, be that in the military, in government, in sport or in business - can be a lonely and thanksless role. True leaders accept full responsibility for failures, but acknowledge credit for success sits squarely on the shoulders of the team. It can comes down to the simplest of things; being the last to eat, being first to turn up and the last to leave, being the person who looks out for those who are struggling and lifts them up, or the one who makes the call to let someone fail - in order that they may learn a valuable lesson. In it's purest sense, leadership is knowing when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out the way.
Some of history's greatest leaders step forward when all seems lost, think of Winston Churchill at the height of despair in World War II, or General Petraeus taking the reins during the peak of the War in Iraq. Yet both men would be quick to acknowledge their success at the peak of their careers rested firmly on the shoulders of those in their teams. Or as eloquently put by Churchill:
"Never was so much, owed by so many, to so few".
On reflection consider this... Where does your leadership position you, and what can you do to take yourself through the next evolution for the benefit of you, and more importantly, the team?
About the Author: Col is a Financial Adviser CFP® Professional and Financial Author based in tropical Townsville, North Queensland, Australia. Prior professional background of 21 years in military & international logistics, strategic planning and management. He has lived and worked extensively in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and the USA. An advocate for easy access to quality financial advice and opinion that is honest, transparent, and which offers a contrarian position to mainstream media.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking”. General George S. Patton