Leadership on the frontlines

Australia's most decorated serving soldier shared the lessons he's learned about planning and leadership at the Queensland Property Conference

Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith at the presentation of his Victoria Cross. Credit: Defence Department.

The frontlines in Afghanistan may be thousands of kilometres from the Gold Coast and the experience of war a million miles away from the lives of property professionals, but Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith VC MG managed to distil some of the leadership lessons he has learned in a presentation at the API's Queensland Property Conference earlier this month.

Cpl Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated serving soldier, shared stories from the frontlines with conference delegates, giving life-or-death examples of where strategic planning and courageous leadership have proven indispensable.

“Don’t let fear of failure stop you. For the army, it’s all summed up in our motto – who dares wins,” said the Corporal.

“If you attempt it and you get it right, then you succeeded; if you get it wrong then you’ll learn, and if you don’t attempt it at all, you fail.”

A commander and key planner for Special Operations missions, Cpl Roberts-Smith was able to share insight into the processes and protocols that are critical in producing success in high-pressure environments. Having taken part in missions that led him to be awarded The Victoria Cross and the Medal for Gallantry, he believes that alongside from physical courage and strength, effective planning and teamwork are crucial for carrying out any mission, within the army or otherwise.

“The preparation and planning is critical. It’s paramount to consider every possible contingency, and have a solution ready beforehand… As a leader, you are responsible for the plan,” he explained.

“The most common mistake people make is planning in isolation – you have a team around you with different backgrounds, different expertise and different experiences and you need to use that. And the bonus for anybody who gets their team involved in the planning process is that now each team member feels a sense of responsibility for the outcome of the plan and working toward it.”

During a 2010 operation to hunt for a senior Taliban commander in the Kandahar province, Cpl Roberts-Smith took part in an SAS assault against an enemy fortification, exposing his own position in order to draw fire away from members of his patrol, resulting in a tactical victory.

“Have you ever been in a position where you’ve been given a task and you’re in a rush? There’s no time to plan, you’ve got to get it done,” he said.

“That day, we only had 40 minutes to prepare… Regardless of the time you have, whether it is five minutes or five days, one-third of our time will always be dedicated to effective planning and two-thirds for preparation.”

Cpl Roberts-Smith conceded that it’s expected that circumstances will deviate from the plan. In these instances, he emphasises the importance of trust, communication, understanding the common goal, and to be willing to provide and accept feedback.

“To aim for perfection is not to be confused with being a perfectionist. A perfectionist will never be happy with the result, or the amount of effort the team produces, and those team members are made to feel like they never succeed,” he said.

“The endless pursuit of excellence prefers to constantly evaluate performance and a result, as a means to improve upon them.”

Following his second operational tour of Afghanistan in 2006, Cpl Roberts-Smith was awarded the Medal for Gallantry, but his main focus during his presentation was the actions of his fellow sniper, who risked his life to aid the team when they were outnumbered by al-Qaida forces.

“I’m telling you about that, because Matt believed in his personal ethos and on that day he was ready to die for it. Matt believed that leadership was about making the right decision because they are right, not because they are easy,” said Cpl Roberts-Smith, who says his own personal ethos comprises integrity, empathy, humility, courage, and the endless pursuit of excellence.

“These are values I strive for every day, and some of the attributes I believe all leaders should strive to actually demonstrate, because although you have good intentions, those will go unnoticed. But what you will be judged by is your actions – you must lead by example.”