I left school at 18 years of age
and joined the Australian Army where I undertook 4 years of tertiary and
leadership training with the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the Royal
Military College Duntroon. Most of what I learnt in that time was structured
academic education about leadership, management and tactics. I then graduated
into the Royal Australian Infantry Corps and was posted to a Battalion in
Darwin with a couple of my good mates.
After a very short time out of the College I was informed that I
would be deploying to Afghanistan in a combat capacity as part of Mentoring
Task Force II. It meant that I would be responsible for a Platoon of soldiers
(24 in total) for the duration of a 10-month deployment. The deployment would
prove to be a crash course in leadership and growing up. Basic mistakes would
result in death or injury and would likely have implications on an overall
strategic campaign that influenced nearly 50 countries.
I thought I would take the opportunity to compile a list of lessons
I learnt from the experience now that I am blessed with the benefit of
hindsight. Hopefully it helps someone out there…
Lesson 1 – Leading is not about
When I left the Military College, I was incredibly self-focused and
concerned, as I think most of the newly graduating officers were. My pursuit
for excellence was largely overshadowed by a need to win, have a strong career
and be accepted by my peers.
Afghanistan taught me very quickly about the importance of servant
leadership. People were not interested in a leader that was career focused.
They needed a leader that:
1. Could voice their concerns in
forums where they were not represented.
2. Could listen to different points of
view and find patterns or links which could be formed into a robust plan in a
3. Was genuinely interested in their
safety and getting them back home to their families and friends.
4. Took an interest in them as
individuals and not just a employee.
As my career progressed, I learnt that the more I protected my
staff, peers and supervisors and represented their interests, the more plans
started to work, and less time was needed to coordinate them. I was also able
to work around red tape by leveraging off enduring relationships and loyalties.
Most importantly, I learned that a leader has to find their own
style quickly. Copying other leaders doesn’t work, it wastes time, and presents
as disingenuous. Furthermore, the world doesn’t revolve around you or your
preconceptions of the world. It’s going to tick along if you are there or not,
so go and make a positive legacy.
Lesson 2 – Don’t assume you
know a person
I left the Military College as an easily influenced, right wing,
Caucasian with very limited life experience. In a very short time, my platoon
and I was dragged from the protective environment of Australia and spat into
one of the most dangerous valleys in the world.
In doing so, this is what I learnt:
1. People are not their behaviour. Some Afghani’s and
Pakistani’s that I met in my journey would educate me, by explaining that some
of them were not fighting due to hate, ideology, or cultural difference but
instead were fighting due to economic pressure, an attempt to save their
family, or in order to protect what little resources they had left. I had
falsely assumed that they were all out to kill me, and if given the first
chance would undoubtedly enact a vicious plan against us. My preconceptions
were proven wrong one night when I was in desperate need of help removing
bodies from a drowned vehicle and a large number of Afghani ‘fighting age
males’ offered me help when I needed it the most, and I was at my most
vulnerable. Lesson learnt…
2. The most unsuspecting people are often the most impressive.
I had soldiers that were far more educated and intelligent than myself and it
took me a long time to find out how we could utilise it. In one such example, I
had made a decision that had resulted in the drowning of a Bushmaster Vehicle
because of a botched water crossing. This was acceptable tactically at the time
as we had risk mitigated against some of the implications but unfortunately had
resulted in my team being stuck on the wrong side of a very large water
obstacle. Luckily for the team, I had a low ranked private soldier who knew
about engines due to his background as country farm hand. I made the deliberate
choice of giving him hands on control of the operation to recover the vehicle,
and then subsequently coordinate the river crossing back to the safe side of
the vehicle. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say confidently that he
handled the situation better than I could have, and the trust I placed in him
to manage the issue was well invested.
Lesson 3 – Risk Management
matters, but so does finding opportunities
I left the college under the false belief that I was fit, fast and
unstoppable. My analysis of risk was always skewed towards the capture of
opportunity instead of risk mitigation. My approach to tactics was generally
aggressive, opportunistic and decisive in nature. I have subsequently learnt
that significant changes occur to people’s bodies in their early 20’s which
significantly affect their brain. In short, the chemicals that were pumping
throughout my body were the same ones that would subtly influence my decision
making throughout the tour. They encouraged me to to take chances where
otherwise I would not have.
In recent years, I have fathered two beautiful children with my
lovely wife and the thought of me accepting risks like the ones I undertook in
Afghanistan seem laughable. Simply put, I have more to lose now, and hold
responsibilities to others.
These days I think I have a reasonably well-balanced view of risk
vs opportunity. I understand the importance of identifying and acknowledging
risks and opportunities early and determining how palatable a risk appetite is
for an organisation. For example, some industries like Software as a Service
(SaaS) have incredibly high-risk profiles, as compared to aged care which is
quite low. Knowing this helps shape plans, approaches and strategies that suit
the context of that organisation.
Lesson 4 – Find the positives
Sometimes it can be really hard to find positive outcomes in the grind
of daily activities, but they are there. It is the leader’s job to find them
when no one else can see them.
On 02 February 2011 we lost a very close friend of ours called
Corporal Richard Atkinson. Richard was a Combat Engineer whose specialisation
was finding explosive traps that were regularly buried in the ground by the
Taliban. Unfortunately, on this particular day one of the explosives detonated
and killed Richard and injured another engineer. I had listened to the event
occur over the radio some 20km away and was with my team a short time after.
Not surprisingly the event had crushed the team’s morale, and my own. I knew
deep down that we were half the way through a long tour, and we had to get back
on to our A game very quickly, or else might lose another person.
My Sergeant and I developed a unified approach. We would focus on
the positives we could find. In this case, we hadn’t lost more members of the
team despite a strong chance of it occurring – we used this as a means of
motivation to undermine the effectiveness of the Taliban attack. Secondly, we
decided to refocus our team’s energy towards coming up with the plan for our
next attack on the Taliban, which we did. Our next patrol would be one of the
most effective of the tour as it was reinforced by an unwavering commitment to
deliver harm to the people that had cost us so much. This re focus ultimately
kept my team safe and alert for the remainder of the trip.
My afghan experience taught me a great deal about life and
leadership. I am hoping that by documenting some of these lessons, others might
not have to re learn them.