Ben Roberts-Smith is striding through his dining room – white, spotless, everything in its right place – when he suddenly stops. He’s just noticed his dog, Millie, an ebullient chocolate-and-white border collie peering up at him from beneath the dining table.
“Millie – out.”
The dog stands its ground, its paws planted squarely on the hardwood floor, its unblinking eyes locked on its owner’s. Roberts-Smith squares
his shoulders and draws himself up to his full 202-centimetre height.
His voice raises a decibel and drops an octave: “Millie – outside!”
This time the dog turns and bounds through the open glass doors out into the mid-morning sun. Roberts-Smith turns to me and mutters, “She knows she’s not allowed inside . .
I smile and silently wonder: is this his much-vaunted leadership style? A drill-sergeant technique of rank and file, command and obey?
t’s the easy assumption – Roberts-Smith has khaki in his DNA. Born in Perth to a family with a storied history of service to country, he joined the army at 17. His plan was to serve for four years, then go to university and get on with the rest of his life. But the teenager found he loved soldiering, the sense of purpose, of being part of something larger than himself.
And as he loved soldiering, so he proved a remarkably fine soldier. It was a happy confluence that provided his first real lesson in leadership. “When you find something that you enjoy and something you’re good at,” he says, “leadership starts to develop around those two aspects. In any form of leadership, you have to lead by example. So if you’re good at something, if you have a passion for it, then you are doing that job in a way that’s befitting of a leader.”
His career – both in the army and beyond – has embodied this truth. In 2003, seven years after joining the army, he completed the notorious SAS selection course and entered the crack regiment. In 2006, in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province, he employed his sniper rifle to deadly effect, repelling a group of 16 Taliban insurgents who were overrunning his observation post. He was awarded the Medal for Gallantry, the third-highest decoration in the Australian Defence Force.
Four years later, during an assault on a fortified Taliban compound in Kandahar Province, his patrol came under machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade fire that pinned the Australians to ground in a fig orchard. Roberts-Smith broke from his men and charged three separate gun emplacements, silencing them all. For this, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award in the Australian Honours System.
Roberts-Smith would serve a further three years in the SAS before retiring in 2013 as the ADF’s most decorated soldier. Little surprise that the leadership skills that had lit up the SAS soon shone equally bright in the civilian world. He embarked on an MBA at the University of Queensland and started presenting seminars on leadership to major companies. One such talk was delivered to Channel 7 Queensland. So impressed was general manager Neil Mooney, he offered Roberts-Smith the position of deputy GM. Within three months, Mooney had retired and Roberts-Smith had assumed the corner office.
It’s a résumé that reads like a boys-own adventure tale. The towering soldier turned corporate warrior; courage on the battlefield transformed to gravitas in the boardroom. So what sets Roberts-Smith apart as a leader? A triple threat of physical presence, menacing stares and barked orders? As we sit opposite each other in his lounge room – again, the furniture squared to perfection – and he begins to muse on the subject of leadership, it becomes clear nothing could be further from the truth.
Collaborate and Listen
It is, says Roberts-Smith, one of the great misconceptions of the military that it’s a rigidly hierarchical society where commanders issue orders and grunts blindly obey. Instead, he insists, leadership is structured so that every person in the chain of command can call on the knowledge and experience of the soldiers below before formulating a plan of attack. It’s a system where every voice is heard, every opinion taken into account.
“And that’s crucial to leadership – in the military or the civilian world,” says Roberts-Smith. “Because even though an individual may disagree with their leader, they’ll understand why a certain decision has been made. It’s crucial for a leader to be able to say, ‘I’ve heard what you’ve got to say. But we’re still going to do things my way, and this is why . . . ’”
This mode of leadership is particularly evident in the rarefied atmosphere of the SAS, where even the lowliest members of each patrol are highly trained professionals. Yes, the patrol commander makes the ultimate decision. But if he has a question about sniping – he asks the sniper. If he has a question about communication – he asks the signaller.
It’s a process lubricated by the oil of respect. “It’s all about understanding that every person has their place,” says Roberts-Smith, “and you respect the position they’re in. The process is collaborative – just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you’re any better than anyone else. That’s one of the key things I’ve taken from the military to the civilian world.”
Exhibit A: when Roberts-Smith took charge at Channel 7 Queensland, his first order of duty was to sit down and have a face-to-face conversation with every single one of the company’s 200-odd employees. He wanted to know where they’d come from, where they were headed, how they planned to get there. And he listened – really listened – as they told him.
It took a fortnight to work through every person in the office. But for Roberts-Smith, it was a crucial investment. “I wanted them to understand that we’re all exactly the same. We’ve all got a job to do, we’re all entitled to respect. If you can’t show that respect then you lose the ability for empathy, the ability to understand why people think the way they do. And when you lose that, you’ll never be able to bring them along on the journey.”
Make the Call
Roberts-Smith doesn’t like talking about the Victoria Cross he won in 2010. (He never refers to it by name, instead calling it “that award”.) But push him on the subject, probe that decision to leave the relative cover of the fig orchard – to sprint across 40 metres of exposed ground into a hail of bullets – and he shrugs: “Look, I had five seconds to make that decision. And it was made based on my assessment that I could reach them before they could get on to me. To make that decision, I called on all my experiences in the military. I calculated the lay of the land, the distance I had to run, the position of the enemy – and I calculated that I could probably get there.”
Yes, collaboration is crucial. But ultimately, a decision has to be made. And when that time comes, argues Roberts-Smith, the key is to act – and act fast. Make a decisive decision quickly and you’ll seize the advantage. His rule of thumb: as soon as you have 80 per cent of the information, make the call. “Because you’ll never get 100 per cent security in a decision.”
Of course, fast decisions can prove false. So what’s your move when you’ve made the call and the strategy’s unravelling? According to Roberts-Smith, this is when you need to adapt. “You have to be able to look at things from outside your normal frame of thinking. Everyone has one particular way of thinking; when you look at a problem, you’ll have a natural instinct to go for one solution. You need to know what that frame is, then be able to step outside that and look at the problem from different angles.”
For Roberts-Smith, the keys to building a flexible mindset are to broaden your learning and hoard your life experiences. This is why he went to university as a 35-year-old after spending 17 years in fatigues. He wanted exposure to different ways of thinking, to broaden the array of experiences that underpinned his reasoning.
Your move? Travel widely, read constantly, talk less, listen more. Never stop expanding. These are the keys to honing a flexible mind. Above all, act – and act fast. “You have to learn from doing,” says Roberts-Smith. “Don’t be frightened of making a decision, because you’re going to learn from it. If it’s not working, learn from the failure, make it succeed in the long run. But you have to make the decision first.”
Fail to Fire
When Roberts-Smith talks about fear, it’s not the fear of death he muses on – it’s the fear of failure. This, for him, is the more damaging trait, stymying action and killing innovation. “What’s the end result of a fear of failure?” he asks. “Never trying anything. And how can you possibly innovate if you’re not prepared to try anything new?”
Roberts-Smith admits that he’s not immune to this poisonous fear. He recalls the anxiety that gripped him in the months leading up to the SAS selection course. This brutal 21-day examination of a soldier’s physical, mental and emotional fortitude was the defining point in his military career. In the four months leading up to the course he trained harder than he thought possible.
But, yes, despite the thoroughness of his preparation, he still felt the claws of fear. A trick he employed to quell this mounting anxiety: before every training session he would stand in front of a mirror and say to himself: “I am not giving up on selection.” It would become a mantra that echoed through his mind as the horror three-week course began to play out.
Like every soldier who undergoes “selection”, Roberts-Smith eventually reached a point where he teetered on the brink of giving up. It occurred midway through the course. The men had just returned from a 60-kilometre navigation exercise in the bush and had barely dropped their packs when they were arranged in ranks and handed 15-kilogram “torsion bars”. Thus began a non-stop circuit of full-body moves. Half an hour passed. Then an hour. Then an hour and a half . . .
After two hours, Roberts-Smith felt the walls closing in: “I was literally about to black out. My vision was getting fuzzy; I could feel it coming on. I had nothing left – but I remembered saying those words in the mirror and I thought, Well, if I’m going to pass out, then I pass out. But I’m not giving up.”
He didn’t pass out that day – the trainers called time on the exercise just as darkness began to fall – but from that moment on, Roberts-Smith knew he was going to pass selection. “I’d hit the lowest point and I’d come through it,” he says simply.
For Roberts-Smith, the triumph of that day – indeed, the triumph of his entire career – has been a willingness to push himself to, and beyond, the point of failure. “If you try something,” he says with emphasis, “even if it doesn’t work, nine times out of 10 it gives you an insight into what you should be doing.”
He’s cooking on a pet theme now. He leans forward in his armchair, the stitching of his white shirt straining against the bulk of his shoulders. This is no longer a soldier recalling his years in fatigues – this is a businessman enunciating his strategy for success in the modern workplace. “You have to fail and fail and fail – to learn. Yes, this is easy to say and hard to do. People don’t want to be the one who fails. But look at all the people who’ve made fortunes – there aren’t many billionaires who haven’t lost it all at least once before they’ve found success.”