Prepare for Day One

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‘Do not confuse Command with Leadership; command is a responsibility to the organisation and leadership is looking after your people so you and your team can succeed.’

 – Admiral Tony Radakin, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Royal Navy

There is an enormity of personal transformation that is undertaken when you are appointed as a commander for the first time. For a young officer to march into an organisation that has stood for hundreds of years and take command of people that can often have more life experience, job experience and in some cases, be old enough to be their parents, is a daunting prospect. To make the task even more daunting, the organisation will have expectations commensurate with the rank you now hold.

Trying to uphold this expectation from the outset can be overwhelming. Simultaneously developing your leadership style and approach to command can be even more difficult. Thankfully, there are people who are there to guide you to success.

Day One

Not everyone in your organisation knows your story, and I would suggest that many will not care. What they will know is that you are wearing the rank and from day one, they will have an expectation that you know how to do your job. They will not necessarily know what your job is or how to do it but that will not change their perception of you. The expectation is that if you wear the rank, you know what to do.

You have now embarked on a training continuum that has prepared you for your core role. Once that basic training is complete though, you will be able to seek advice from the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) in your workplace to help continually develop your trade. In this situation it is the responsibility of the NCO to be proactive and provide guidance to new leaders in their organisation. For you, there are few greater assets to be able to draw on than your NCO.

Unfortunately, it is a role that is sometimes underplayed which undervalues the role of the NCO. It creates risk for the junior leader in their development and confuses the role of the NCO. A junior officer who finds themselves in this situation, with no guidance from an NCO, needs to be the proactive one and seek out that guidance. This is a critical time in your development and undertaking the task solo is often not a workable plan.

There is another expectation that is inherent with rank and unfortunately it is not part of the training continuum. We know the junior officer is trained how to do their core job but there is generally no training in how the organisation operates. This knowledge is as important as the core job training but the expectation to learn this is on you as the junior officer. The challenge is knowing when to seek out and learn the knowledge about your organisation.

Learning your core job after basic training will take up the majority of your bandwidth and the need for undivided attention is crucial. Concurrently learning about your new organisation will take some of that bandwidth away and can allow the ‘short cut’ mentality to creep in. The best time to seek out this knowledge is not always clear, but prior to posting-in to the organisation is always optimal.

Approach to Leadership

Throughout life’s journey, you will be exposed to many types of leaders and have had the opportunity to adopt or discard aspects of leadership, but more importantly start to establish a leadership style. The identification of a leadership style is both critical in timing as it is in execution. It would be foolish not to try and develop one prior to appointment; however, it would be just as foolish to rigidly implement one on your first day. The development of your leadership style is an ongoing task and leaders need to be flexible to get the most out of the experience.

The team will adapt to your new approach at different speeds and have differing thoughts on your way forward. Thankfully, your NCO will have been through this before and will provide you guidance on how to approach your organisation and continue to develop your leadership style. You will both need to demonstrate flexibility in your methods to maintain team focus, cohesion, and morale. I would argue that you will not really know what your leadership style is until you are doing the job.

Leadership is not a solo journey

It is often said that it is lonely at the top, thankfully it doesn’t have to be. Loneliness is not a principle of leadership and if you do find yourself in a position of loneliness, then something has gone wrong. The NCO comes into the equation again, and they are the other half of the leadership team. It is critical that when we think about leadership, we always think about it as a team. As with most new team formations you will go through the Tuckman’s stages of group development and in Defence this will occur routinely throughout your career. The NCO and the other people in your team are there with you on your leadership journey so you need to build trust in the relationship.

A critical aspect of having a successful leadership team is developing a shared understanding of what lies ahead and then demonstrating a united front to the rest of your organisation. In Defence, the NCO needs to be involved in the decision-making process for this to occur. Agreeing on everything is unlikely but, in the end, there can only be one main effort that the leadership team delivers, and this is where and when your team needs to support you.

If you embark on the leadership journey as an individual and discard the leadership team, you will not get the support you need. You can try and command the support from the start, but if the plan fails because it was not a shared understanding within the team, then the support will fall away right at the time you need it most; you don’t want to be lonely when things fail.

Another team that can be there for you is the network that you have built and will continue to build during your training. These people, some of which may end up being best friends, started the leadership journey with you, and although they may be in different services, operate different capabilities, and be in different cities or countries, they are on the same journey as you and will have the same questions you have. Life will get busy when you take up your first appointment so make the time now (while you still have it) to invest in this network and strengthen bonds that may have been taken for granted over time.

Having a strong network with you on the journey will provide you with options when in need, and just as important is you being there for them in their time of need. It would be fantastic if you could finish your journey just as you started – learning with others, not on your own.

One Chance

Your time as leader in the small team environment will be the best experience in your leadership journey. By best I do not necessarily mean nothing will go wrong, but you will learn lessons that will stay with you for life. You must own your failures and learn from them. Having that solid leadership team will help you to rebound quickly from those failures. Have humility, be keen to learn, have the confidence to ask why and encourage others in your organisation to do the same.

The disappointing aspect of your time in command will be the duration, it will go quickly and be over before you know it. Make the most of your time and invest in the ones that will stay after you leave. They will be your legacy and will go a long way into making sure your organisation is better for having had you there. To finish off, have a think about this quote from Admiral Tony Radakin – “Being a good leader is for others to judge, not for you to say”.

About the Author:Chris Sharp is a Squadron Sergeant Major at the Australian Defence Force Academy and co-founder of the Core Leadership Speaker Series. He has been an Associate Editor with Grounded Curiosity since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @SHARP_CR.