Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:13 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:13 | SYDNEY

Leading from the front

10 July 2009 16:26

British Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe was killed last week in Helmand province – the first British officer of that rank to fall in action since ‘H’ Jones in the Falklands in 1982. This op-ed in the Telegraph from Tim Collins – himself a commander on operations early in the Iraq campaign — provides insight into the motivation, emotions and results of leading on operations that only personal experience can provide.

The compulsion for leaders to be at the forefront and their unwillingness to rely on technology for command can seem inexplicable. For those who might think technology can replace the intensely human interactions and shared experiences that guide a commander’s decisions and actions, Collins' poignant valedictory lifts the veil somewhat. 

As Collins says, 'even the most modern communications cannot relay the understanding gained when you can see and smell the battle'. A campaign’s success might well be lost at the strategic level, but it is won at the tactical, and understanding the fears, drivers and surroundings there is vital. We rely inestimably on our soldiers and other personnel to operate and win there. In turn, they need and deserve the best of leadership.

A valued American colleague gave me this insight:

Even from the cockpit of my H-60 Black Hawk helicopter, I always valued the ability to see the battlefield conditions. Having a sense of what my air crews were seeing, and using the ability to position myself forward to send a message to my aviators and crews. This was especially apparent on 7 December 2007 when I was the Air Mission Commander of the air assault to take down the Taliban held city of Musa Qala.

It is my assessment that no amount of technology can replace a commander’s presence on the battlefield. A leader, even a tactically poor commander, still has a chance of victory if he places himself in harm’s way and shows his Soldiers leadership from the front.

The dangers of such leadership extend beyond safety; there are also risks of micro-management and stifling of subordinates. So too, the balance between what might appear reckless and what is truly inspirational must be found. Yet leadership through deft and conscious personal example and placing faith in loyal subordinates through what the military terms 'mission command' are in no way mutually exclusive. Indeed, the mutual trust and confidence between leader and led that is vital in mission command is further inspired by personal example. ‘Like this, do that’ is so much more than an epithet.

Importantly, these lessons are pertinent well beyond combat, into everyday society, business and politics. Command on operations may appear a world away, but we can all inspire others by our own actions.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.