In-Conversation with RSM-A

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This article is part of the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

The Authentic Leader: Know yourself, build your team and ask for advice

I had the privilege of interviewing the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army, WO Grant McFarlane, OAM, on behalf of Propel Her, and am excited to share his thoughts and reflections with you all. 

During my career in the British Army, and now the Australian Army, I have had the opportunity to be led by, and lead, a diverse range of people in challenging environments. The key trait I value in leaders and focus on in my own leadership is the ability to know both yourself and your team. A good leader is culturally aware and acts ethically and morally, and is wise enough to recognise the power of diversity as a capability multiplier. As a leader you set, maintain and reinforce the ADF values at all times, and you develop the moral courage to call out and take action in the face of behaviour unbecoming a member of the ADF. 

As a leader, you need to continually and actively develop your own growth by taking time to reflect on your actions and decisions.  Some people are natural leaders and others need a little help. There is help out there at the Centre for Australian Army Leadership. Never stop learning, keep getting better every day, challenge yourself, read widely and learn from other parts of our community. 

It is a great privilege to lead our men and women of the Australian Army and ADF. When given the opportunity you should grasp it with both hands. We are all human beings with families, ambitions, and goals, and regardless of the uniform we wear and the rank we hold, we still have to show compassion and empathy when the situation arises. 

Further to my own reflections, I am proud to share my interview with RSM-A below:

There are various leadership styles. In your opinion, what qualities are the most important for a Junior Leader in the Army, and why?

There are a number of leadership styles that  Junior Leaders can adapt and tailor during careers. An they will likely have to use different styles for different situations and teams. To me the most important qualities a Junior Leader should exhibit are: be a good person, be trustworthy, be respectful, and work to build relationships. Being a good person knows and understands right from wrong, sets and maintains high standards is essential for your team to develop trust in you; and in turn, respect and followership. This will enable you to build highly effective teams, whenever, wherever and whomever in order to carry out the mission.

What advice do you wish that someone would have given you when you started your career?

This is a really great question and one that I have been asked many times. When I reflect on my career there are three pieces of advice that I keenly offer to all soldiers and junior officers. Firstly, you need to know yourself and understand your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Secondly, as a leader you will make mistakes. It’s a fact of life and it’s okay, but you need to learn from these mistakes. Put your ego aside, and use them to grow and develop. Thirdly ask for advice. My whole career I’ve seen good leaders seek advice and counsel as it’s an important part of learning and bringing a team together towards a common goal.

In your opinion, how can a Junior Leader develop their own authentic leadership style?

My advice for Junior Leaders when developing your own authentic style is: Know yourself – to be an effective leader you need to be comfortable with who you are, understand your triggers, your own core values and beliefs; and how you align to the ADF values. Ask yourself what is my motivation to be a leader in the Australian Army. Know your people – understand what motivates them, their needs and wants, their strengths and weaknesses. Create a safe work environment – ensure ALL your people feel safe at work, both physically and psychologically, and that they can come to you with their concerns/issues knowing you will listen, provide advice and take action. Mentor – having a mentor enables you to have discussions about what’s on your mind without judgement. A good mentor can assist you in developing your leadership style and help shape your career goals. My view is that your mentor needs to be outside your unit and reporting chain of command. Mine was Warrant Officer Arthur Francis (RSM-A from 1993-1996).

What has been your most difficult barrier in creating change during your time as RSM-A?

This is a really tough question. The most challenging barrier for creating change is giving our teams space to understand the change, message the narrative, and implement the necessary steps for change. There is a significant amount of work being undertaken at the moment, particularly in Training Transformation and Workforce Modernisation. This change ensures Our Army is Future Ready as we continuously adapt to our ever-changing operating environment. 

In my opinion, the centre of gravity for driving positive and sustainable change is our Junior Leaders, as they are the ones who own the future of the ADF and are key in shaping it now. The Chief of Army launched the Junior Leader Fellowship on 23rd September 2020, which is a platform that enables our Junior Leaders to be better connected and engaged with the Senior Leadership Group. I think this opportunity for them to be positive leaders, influential role models and active agents of change is an exciting step to making the Army Future Ready.

How do you recommend we create better ethical decision-making in our enlisted leaders when we have such a diverse Army with various backgrounds and cultures?

We are all volunteers who wear the Australian Army uniform and serve our nation with pride. Regardless of our backgrounds, culture or beliefs, this diversity is what builds strength, understanding and resilience in teams, as well as the cultural optimisation of the Good Soldiering framework. 

The Australian Army established the Centre for Australian Army Leadership (CAAL) in 2019 to ensure we were giving our leaders at all levels the best opportunities to develop, grow, understand and reach their potential. Central to this concept is ‘Ethical Leaders’ where there are three pillars to ethical competency, knowledge, awareness and conviction. The framework is theory, context, decision-making and ethics. While decision-making is central to actions that can be taken, understanding the pillars and framework is integral to understanding why people do what they do. Army Leadership and Ethics is a seamless, coherent and logic connection for our leaders to be effective in all environments. There are many opportunities to participate in these programs – from the All Corp Subject One Continuum, Unit-designed Professional Military Education (PME) and Leadership Seminars run by CAAL. I encourage all Junior Leaders to seek out these opportunities. 

Thank you for your time Sir, very much appreciated.

About the contributors: 

Corporal Edwina Taylor-Koff is a Section Commander in the Royal Australian Corps of Transport, mother of one and expecting another soon. She is a lateral transfer from the British Army after serving 11 years. Her passion is to help educate and guide soldiers and junior leaders to be better equipped for the challenges of leadership life in the defence force.

Warrant Officer Grant McFarlane, OAM, grew up in country Victoria and enlisted in February 1980 with his first posting being to the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. He completed all regimental appointments at the 3rd Battalion, with his other postings including the School of Infantry, Pilbara Regiment,10th/27th Battalion, and The Royal South Australia Regiment. He was awarded the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2007, and has proudly served on a number of operational deployments in Malaysia, East Timor with INTERFET (1999 – 2000), and again in 2006 Operation ASTUTE, followed by Combined Team Uruzgan Afghanistan (October 2011 – February 2012). Warrant Officer McFarlane is currently the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army. Twitter: @RSMAusArmy