The elusive goal of effective leadership

If you key in leadership for an Amazon book search you get 60,000 responses. If you key in military leadership you get 10,000.

The blog didn’t feel like checking any individual titles when it did this yesterday but it illustrates a fundamental truth about leadership –  much talked and written about, but rarely practised well or understood.

Nevertheless  there are two leadership books which the blog can recommend. The first is Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army by Nick Jans and the other is Leadership is Changing the Game by Brian Donovan. The blog should declare some conflicts of interest – both authors are blog friends: it served in Vietnam with Nick and had some input to the book; and, it worked with Brian and has been a keen follower of his research on leadership demands on technical experts and his regular blog.

Nick’s book not only demolishes the myths about military leadership being based on command and control but also shows how the lessons learnt in military training – at all levels, not only just officers and NCOs – imbue a particular leadership culture. The initial sections deal with Nick’s experiences in the 2009 Marysville Victoria bushfires and how the community was rebuilt emphasising the role of Major General John Cantwell although being rather modest about the vital ongoing role Nick and his wife Judy played in the community recovery.

The book then revolves around what Nick terms the 3Rs of leadership: “Representing the behaviours, attributes and values that a team expects to see in its leader; Relating to members in order to make them believe in themselves, both as individuals and as a team; and, Running the team so as to make working with that leader intrinsically rewarding as well as productive.”

This leadership approach is illustrated by examples not only of professional soldiers but the experiences of National Servicemen. Some of the latter include corporate successes such as Ernie Byron, Peter Graham, Terry Earle; academics such as John McCallum and Colin Chapman; and, politicians such as Jeff Kennett and Tim Fischer. The blog also has a cameo appearance which demonstrates how the Army approach even works by the unthinking osmosis of which his former CO loudly accused him before commanding him to act as orderly officer for a week – an onerous and publicly embarrassing, but highly amusing to the blog’s gunners – punishment.

The book is a rich mixture of anecdote, example and the rigorous academic research on which Nick built his very successful post-military teaching and consulting career. One important example, for instance, is Lieutenant General David Morrison’s strong stand against misogynistic behaviour in the Army – a stance that many other managers could productively emulate.

This week, of course, one can’t think of David Morrison without thinking of the appalling backlash against the standard he set for not only the Army but also all Australian organisations. The latest manifestation of the backlash also demonstrates that there are no depths of hypocrisy to which the News Corp hate campaigns cannot fall in pursuing ‘enemies’. A Daily Telegraph person (the blog can’t bear to repeat her name) recently tweeted “Lest We Forget” followed by a sneering reference to David Morrison. In contrast to the News harassment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied following her Lest We Forget Manus comment, News continues to employ the writer.

But, on the other hand, the News’ culture does have one enormous advantage – it provides a demonstrable polar opposite – to the sort of leadership culture promoted by Nick and Morrison.

Brian Donovan’s book comes from a different perspective – it stems from his work as a senior manager at Telstra, CEO roles in the IT field, a successful coaching and consulting career helping technical experts to make the transition from techies to managers with leadership skills, and his long-term research project, The Big Kahuna study, which looks at digital disruption from the perspective of what Chief Information Officers and Chief Technology Officers need to do to move up the influence curve and provide strategic guidance to CEOs and Boards while simultaneously empowering their own teams.

But the advice and lessons in the book are equally relevant to managers and aspiring managers in any field – public, private or not for profit. It is also striking how often the same terms and themes flow through both Nick and Brian’s books. Trust, integrity, respect, hope, direction, guidance, authenticity, concern, humility, the use of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ all feature.

Brian gives an example of the sort of leader he admires – someone who is not only a mutual friend – but also someone both Brian and the blog have worked with. Gerry Moriarty has moved seemingly seamlessly from technical roots to engineering into management in broadcasting, telecommunications, multi-media, investment banking and non-executive directorships. Why was he such an effective leader? “He took an interest in you, he believed in you and he said please and thank you,” Brian says. Sounds simplistic but in fact the three things are emblematic of a whole set of behaviours which distinguish effective leaders from others.

Most importantly, just like the military approach, they emphasise qualities of respect, empowerment and example-setting.

Hopefully none of the blog’s readers will be off to a war any time soon, even if we end up being victims of some Presidentially-induced apocalypse supported by his running dog Australian lackeys (which come to think of it is sort of how the blog ended up in the Army even if the apocalyptic impacts were focussed on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). But that shouldn’t stop you learning just how relevant the principles that constitute Australian Army leadership philosophy are to any aspiring leader in any field. And for techies – Brian’s book is an excellent guide to mounting the advance of the nerds.