Leadership in modern conflict - it's about building harmony

7 Aug 2015

The following is from a presentation prepared by Dr Alan Ryan for use during an informal panel discussion on the topic ‘Leadership – don’t limit your aspirations’ hosted by the Australian Public Service Commission at the Canberra Southern Cross Club, 29 July 2015.

We don’t talk enough about the challenges of leadership in a world where traditional departmental and agency stovepipes are breaking down.

My message is simple – whether you are military, civilian or police you need to learn to work together better. And you need to understand what leadership looks like, not only in your workplace, but in those other places where Australian government agencies are found.

We properly put a lot of effort into understanding the characteristics of military leadership at every level in war. We now need to put at least as much effort into understanding what civilian leadership requires in the landscape of contemporary violent conflict.

The primary role of the Australian Defence Force is to fight, and win, the nation’s wars. It does a lot of other things as well. It provides domestic and offshore disaster response capability. It provides the security component of peace and reconstruction operations.

But it does not do these things alone. We may rely on the military to do our fighting, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us from providing national leadership in peace, in war and in the grey area of modern international conflict.

Civilians play an essential part in mitigating the effects of wars, restraining combatants and establishing the essential pre-conditions for effective peace in the aftermath of conflict. By being ‘war-literate’ they can help deter or prevent war.

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan provided evidence of the requirement for civilians. Post-war administrations after the Second World War showed how lasting peace was built on civilian planning and participation. For offshore operations we need lawyers, accountants and civil engineers. We need effective public servants.

Yet we still hear senior civilians say that ‘War is not their business, it is the business of the military’. It is simply not true.

Civilian humanitarian relief organisations, the Red Cross and United Nations agencies have long known this. They work in armed conflict all the time and they prepare for it.

The military (and police) are deployed under civilian leadership for a range of overseas missions. The Department of Foreign Affairs will provide the leadership for humanitarian assistance/disaster response. That includes crises like the Bali Bombings or the evacuation of Australians from the Lebanon. The Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands was led by a civilian special coordinator.

We need to work to narrow the gap between civilians and the military.

To a broad-spectrum public service audience what does this mean? Previously, becoming a leader in the APS, the police, the military was largely achieved by knowing your agency and representing its interests well.

Future leaders will be more characterized by their grasp of national strategic requirements and by their ability to work across agency lines to achieve national objectives.

With ubiquitous media coverage, relatively junior civilian, police and military personnel can often find themselves thrust into roles where their actions have significant ‘strategic’ outcomes. Accordingly, leadership should not be confused with authority. Often leadership is more a matter of exerting influence, or exercising relevant expertise at a critical point.

Senior leaders need to know when they have to defer to the expertise of their staff. You need to know that leadership is expected of you. Without jostling for position, you need to know within your job when it is right for you to step forward, to advise or take control.

We need to become more comfortable with notions of adaptive leadership and servant leadership. The leaders in every walk of life are those who can harness the collective intelligence of their teams. Leadership is founded on clear simple messages that are understood by all members of the team.

If you want to lead – and it is by no means for everyone – you need to study leadership and leaders and work out what communication style works best for you.

You need to be prepared to step into the spotlight, at short notice and often with little preparation.

So we need to invest in developing interagency leadership skills. If you seek to lead you need to prepare yourself by seeking out broader career experiences and training and development opportunities. For its part the Public Service must reward initiative instead of promoting institutional drones.

Some leaders may be born, but in the complex operation of government no one can lead who has not been prepared to lead. That you are here is part of that preparation. I wish you luck on your leadership journey – it is the most critical professional skill you will ever acquire.

I would like to conclude by quoting one of the clearest-eyed leaders that I know, United States Marine Corps General James Mattis:

In this age, I don’t care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony—even vicious harmony—on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete. We have got to have officers who can create harmony across all those lines.

That comment applies to us all, civilian and military, government and non-government. Leadership is all about creating harmony.