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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 you

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 short time.
  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 an 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 a country farmhand. 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 river. 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 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 in everything

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 refocus ultimately kept my team safe and alert for the remainder of the trip.

Summary

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.

I like to think that I have taken many of these lessons into my current role as an owner of The Eighth Mile Consulting. These lessons continue to be transferable to the business world.

For the last year Jonathan Clark and myself have been intimately involved with the implementation of a large scale Information Technology (IT) project which influenced almost all aspects of the broader organisation’s finance, sub-projects, customer data, product information, operations, manufacturing capabilities, retail centres etc. Prior to this project we were involved in numerous technology based projects within the Military, as both a deliverer of projects, and as key users. Our experiences have surfaced a number of significant recurring themes and lessons which we wanted to take the opportunity to share with those who had the time to listen.

Systems And Technology Alone Will Not Save You

We have observed an over reliance on technology, and a misconception that new digital systems will fix poor processes. They won’t! They never have, and they never will! Technology is not a silver bullet.

There is no doubt that technology can enhance an organisation’s productivity, capabilities and efficiencies; no one would argue otherwise as history has continuously proven this point. But technology without the right people to control it, guide it, quality check it, align it to strategic direction will almost always inevitably fail. By in large, people operate machines and computers, or at least as a minimum set them in the right direction. If people do not understand the strategic direction, the machines and technology will only seek to provide additional friction. Furthermore, changing a system for the sake of it costs money, time and resources. Too often organisations want to appear to be making changes in order to be seen moving, often very little time is spent on determining the actual reason for the change and the return on investment.

Change Management Is Not An Afterthought

Change Management is not a joke. It requires significant investment and analysis at all levels of an organisation. It is not the responsibility of a single agency or individual to promote change within an organisation. For large-scale change to be successful it requires leadership, champions, preparation and context. Too often, an organisation decides it wants a change but is not willing to give anything up to achieve it. Worse yet, no one is aware as to why the change is necessary or how it will occur. Change within organisations too often starts with the word ‘just’, and doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of a problem, e.g. ‘justreplacing capability A with B’, ‘just absorb/move another organisation’, ‘just re-train group A into role D, etc.

Money, time and resources will be wasted if this is not taken seriously. The worst case scenario sees an organisation having to undo or regress its efforts. This can be so significant that it can destroy an organisation.

Leadership Is Not A Scary Word

You can change software interfaces and technologies, but unless you have user buy-in and ownership, the user will fight it to the bitter end. Furthermore, if there is no leadership to explain the context, facilitate the time for acceptance, provide a buffer for mistakes, then users will never see the need to make it work.

Jonathan and myself have been blessed with the privilege of having worked for, and alongside some truly amazing leaders in a plethora of different organisations (Military, government, commercial and non for profit). Very often we hear blasé comments about the differences between Leadership and Management, but often when people are asked if they consider themselves to be a leader they balk at the last minute and describe themselves as a good manager. Do not do that. Aspire to be a leader (if that is what you want), do not shy from the responsibilities associated with it and enjoy the privilege of providing meaningfulness to others, and effecting good changes.

Change Is Inevitable, Make Sure It’s The Right Change

“Change is inevitable; Progress is a choice”

Dean Lindsay 

Organisations will experience change, either voluntarily or due to the environments they operate in. Simply put, a business that doesn’t change or evolve with its industry will eventually be left behind. As a result of this many businesses appear to make reactive and impulsive changes instead of forecasted or deliberate changes that will posture them for future eventualities. This often leads to overcompensation and therefore an increase in costs and resources. Secondly, they are often very hesitant to align with realistic and achievable timelines and instead attempt to rush the change and hope for the best. Our experiences have reinforced the following rules regarding change:

  • Determine the direction of the organisation (what does good look like?) – Do not just start making changes!
  • Determine multiple ways to achieve the outcome – Take the time to analyse the problem.
  • Analyse what is not required to change – This is very rarely done correctly.
  • Communicate early and accurately with staff once a decision is made
  • Champion the decision – Enforce leadership at all levels.
  • Plan and sequence the change
  • Enact the change
  • Provide ongoing support to ensure success

There is significant benefit to be realised by enacting appropriate change management. Conversely the risk of getting it wrong can be monumental. Large scale changes (particularly technology based) will not work without alignment from all levels within an organisation. Do not assume the problem will go away with wishful thinking, and do not think you, or your organisation will not fall victim if you choose to ignore it.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.

If you would like to see more of our articles please visit The Eighth Mile Blog.